There are plenty of doomsday climate stories — 'Extrapolations' is about the everyday
In some ways, Extrapolations is typical eco-thriller fare. The Apple TV+ series depicts a planet on the brink of environmental crisis, where ordinary human beings battle increasingly hostile elements, and a villainous tech tycoon seeks to take over the world.
Yet in contrast to apocalyptic climate change dramas, like The Day After Tomorrow and Snowpiercer, Extrapolations doesn't dwell on the End of Days.
"We wanted to focus on what we call the 'messy middle,' " series creator Scott Burns told NPR in an interview. "Because before we get to the end, there's a lot of life that we're all gonna have to go through."
Despite the barrage of daily news headlines devoted to climate change, there still aren't many fictional TV shows and movies that deal with the topic. And those that do tend towards disaster, picturing the end of life on Earth as we know it. But Extrapolations attempts to walk the line between fiction and scientific fact to tell the story of what's at stake for our planet over the next few decades.
Dramatizing the 'messy middle'
The messy middle dramatized in Extrapolations unfolds over roughly three decades starting about 15 years from now. Burns said he wanted to make climate change feel immediate, especially to young people.
If you are 15 or 16 right now and you watch our show, you're gonna be alive in 2070 when our show ends.
"If you are 15 or 16 right now and you watch our show, you're gonna be alive in 2070 when our show ends," Burns said.
Burns said much of the show's sense of immediacy about the near future stems from digging into — and making predictions based on — science. His team drew on the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and consulted with climate scientists to come up with storylines.
In the episode set in the year 2046, for instance, global temperatures have risen to an alarming 1.8 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Sienna Miller plays a conservationist struggling to save species from going extinct.
"Ocean temp is over 90 most days. Krill is gone. Almost. Food column is collapsing," Miller's character, Rebecca Shearer, laments.
Putting data on screen
Burns is no stranger to putting climate data on screen. An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-winning 2006 documentary he co-produced, is essentially a giant PowerPoint presentation packed with a bunch of statistics about global warming.
Studies demonstrate how An Inconvenient Truth helped bring climate change into the cultural conversation. But after it came out, Burns found himself asking if there were ways he could harness fiction rooted in science to highlight the problem's urgency in a more visceral way.
"I think that climate change is different when it's portrayed on a graph than when it is portrayed in a story with characters who look and feel like the audience," the producer said.
When deciding what story to tell about the climate change future we could face, Burns said he wasn't interested in depicting worst-case scenarios.
"We felt that if we did that the show would be very vulnerable to criticism, that we were just sensationalizing," he said.
A series grounded in scientific facts
To experts like University of Colorado Boulder environmental studies professor Max Boykoff, the predictions in Extrapolations seem, for the most part, well-grounded in science.
"The way in which they talked about forest fires and water scarcity and poor air quality and public health challenges are all the kinds of things that we are writing about," Boykoff told NPR in an interview.
There are some aspects of Extrapolations that do seem a little far-fetched to the scholar, such as the notion that by 2046, humans would be able to talk to animals in English — among them, a humpback whale voiced by Meryl Streep.
Nevertheless, Boykoff said he's excited to see a mainstream TV show tackle climate change so credibly.
"Few people pick up and read peer-reviewed literature on a daily basis," Boykoff said. "And so when it comes to climate change, the way in which entertainment media is engaging with it is critically important to helping a global population understand what we're facing."
That's why, Boykoff said, in our era of misinformation, it's crucial for creators to get the science right.
Any climate story is better than no climate story
But other experts say having a firm foundation in science isn't the most important thing when it comes to telling compelling climate change stories.
I'm less concerned with writers getting it wrong and that being damaging, than I am with us continuing to ignore climate change in the worlds of our stories.
"I'm less concerned with writers getting it wrong and that being damaging, than I am with us continuing to ignore [climate change] in the worlds of our stories," said Anna Jane Joyner, the founder and CEO of Good Energy, a nonprofit that supports movie and TV production in the climate change space with research and connections to experts. The company did consulting work on Extrapolations. "Even just talking about climate change in your story is more beneficial than not," Joyner said.
A recent Good Energy study revealed that between 2016 and 2020, fewer than three percent of scripted television shows and films even mentioned climate change, let alone had storylines related to the topic.
Joyner said she wants this to shift, because she understands how persuasive the types of entertainments can be.
Even over-the-top offerings like The Day After Tomorrow show how impactful pop culture can be on raising public awareness around climate change, as a 2004 study in Environment journal focusing on audience responses to that movie showed. The study concluded that, "some commentators had predicted that the film would bring more public attention to the issue of global warming than the publication of most scientific articles, reports, or congressional testimonies, and this prediction appears to have been correct."
Joyner said Good Energy is helping to conduct a similar study around audiences responses to Extrapolations.
Audio and digital stories edited by Ciera Crawford and Ravenna Koenig. Web copy edited by Beth Novey.
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