Climate Feedback

How to tell a climate story

Stop the presses! The rising profile of global warming and “unprecedented media emphasis on weather” are inspiring too many bright-eyed young meteorologists-to-be.

Score one backhanded hit for climate writers against “”">the tyranny of the news peg" (in Andy Revkin’s much-quoted phrase) and other obstacles to effective coverage.

Or sheer brute-force coverage, as some say. The Guardian today spends a special supplement worrying that the oversaturated public has “climate fatigue” (self-fulfillingly, I’m sure – their harping on this story is making me wonder if it’s time to adapt The Economist’s recession index to environmental journalism).

So how to tell a climate story that does manage to cut through the haze? That seems, a bit surprisingly, to be the central concern of a new indie docu-comedy.

The movie is Sizzle, by marine biologist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson. Olson also stars as a climate documentarian struggling with a contrarian crew played by improv actors, and with bone-dry climate scientists and colourful sceptics played by themselves.

A pre-arranged deluge of blog coverage yesterday included a fair amount of head-scratching about Sizzle’s genre. In a review for Nature today, Emma Marris says the mix of styles confuses the message. “Ultimately, one is left wondering what the film aims to do,” she says.

But others got a clearer signal: it’s part documentary, part mockumentary, and all media criticism. The take-home message according to Chris Mooney:

If you want to communicate science, you can’t just rely on facts; you have to make the story matter to people. That’s a critical punch-line, because for the media, for documentarians, for filmmakers, global warming is probably the hardest story there is to tell.

James Hrynyshyn at The Island of Doubt agrees about the film’s bottom line, which irritates him:

I found it a bit condescending and more than a bit unfair. In addition to An Inconvenient Truth, which is as much about Al Gore as it is climate change, there’s a long list of good books about climate change by authors who have already grasped the need for more than just the facts. There’s Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers, David King and Gabrielle Walker’s The Hot Topic, and James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia, to name three… [Telling better stories] is already being done in spades. To imply otherwise, through a muddled comedic mock-doc, is to distract our attention away from whatever the real reasons are for our failure to make climate change the top priority of every politician, executive and pundit on the planet.

Is Hrynyshyn right? Or has the killer climate story yet to appear?

Anna Barnett


  1. Report this comment

    ArndB said:

    “How to cut through the haze?” The haze is man-made, because no one actually knows what term climate means. Back in 1992 I complained in a letter to NATURE: . “For too long, climate has been defined as the average weather and Rio was not able to define it at all. Instead, the Climate Change Convention uses the term ‘climate system’, defining it as “the totality of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and geosphere and their interactions”. All that this boils down to is ‘the interactions of the natural system’. What is the point of a legal term if it explains nothing?” (Volume 360, 26 November 1992, page 292). Meanwhile there are reams of ‘explanations’ with many flaws, as discussed at: Recently a group of about 30 scientists, headed by S. Fred Singer, claimed that „Nature, Not Human Activity, Rules the Climate“ (more at, which explains nothing either. Without reasonable definitions the haze is fertile ground for great stories on climate change in the news press and elsewhere.

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