Quick question: Can you name two documentaries about climate change? And if you got stuck after An Inconvenient Truth, that’s OK — we’re here to help.
The first documentary to ever mention climate change was The Unchained Goddess in 1958, part of an educational film series overseen by Frank Capra. Yes, that Frank Capra. (You can view a clip from the film here.) And PBS’s NOVA — the most-watched primetime science series in the US — first addressed climate change in 1983, nearly a decade after its launch.
Still, it remained relatively obscure in public awareness for several years. But all that changed with the 2006 premiere of An Inconvenient Truth, 90 minutes of surprisingly moving home movies and news clips about US politician Al Gore’s uphill battle against climate change inaction. Gore may not have gotten the policy response he wanted, but the film jump-started a national conversation about our role in global warming.
Since then, dozens of new films — and some TV series — followed in its wake, and while none matched its box office returns, they’ve tackled the topic with a variety of perspectives and styles. Here are 12 standouts from the past 15 years. They’ll give you a visceral look at climate change impacts and solutions through the eyes and voices of filmmakers, scientists and communities around the world.
Overviews: An introduction to climate change and the challenges it poses to humanity
Over the course of two eight-episode seasons, this popular Showtime series addresses more than 30 topics. With the help of expert climate scientists and celebrities — like Jessica Alba, Don Cheadle, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver and more — each segment covers a range of climate factors and impacts, including biodiversity, coral bleaching, deforestation, drought, extreme weather, gender and racial inequalities, ocean acidification and sea-level rise.
Earth is a great documentary to recommend to skeptical friends and family members. Aware of the growing political divide in the US, Richard Alley — a Penn State professor of geology who has worked on ice sheets around the world — introduces himself to viewers as “a registered Republican who plays [sports] on Saturday and attends church on Sundays.” Alley counters common objections to climate change by explaining how years of rigorous research have convinced scientists that humans are changing Earth’s climate by burning fossil fuels. Alley is equally persuasive in explaining how humanity can meet legitimately increasing energy demands. For example, he visits Texas to demonstrate how wind energy won over conservative farmers and ranchers. (Yes, there were claims that renewables were responsible for the failure of the electrical grid during the 2021 Texas freeze, but it was the fossil-fuel machinery that froze!)
Davis Guggenheim’s movie about Al Gore’s “slide show” is a complex mix of genres and messages. Using photos, digital composites of satellite images, video clips. animations and stagecraft, Gore crafts a compelling case for the reality, ubiquity and danger of climate change — but he also argues that we can meet the challenge. Guggenheim’s style is cinéma-vérité — he uses photo albums, home movies and news clips to present Gore’s life as a heroic journey. The result is a solid primer on climate change and a moving portrait of a political protagonist.
Deep dives: Specific problems or specialized topics related to climate change
Fans of Chasing Ice, the 2012 documentary about the world’s shrinking ice sheets, will enjoy this tribute to the work of Arctic photographer Lynn Davis. Anthony Leiserowitz, founder and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and host of radio show Climate Connections, encountered Davis’s work when the show produced a 90-second spot about the artist. Impressed, he arranged to meet her when he took his first trip to Greenland the following year. Meltdown offers viewers a sense of the sublime: awe-inspiring beauty tinged with sadness and a bit of terror as the full consequences of humanity’s impact on the planet — including Greenland’s icescapes — sink in.
Long-standing inequalities often distort environmental politics and policies in the US. At the center of Cooked is a detailed account of the heatwave that crippled Chicago in the summer of 1995, killing nearly 800 people, mostly in poorer Black and brown neighborhoods in the southeast sector. Elderly residents — living in buildings without air conditioning and with windows nailed shut for security — were the most vulnerable. Climate change will make heat waves more frequent and more severe. To prepare for this threat, authorities and community leaders must acknowledge and address the systemic inequalities embedded in the nation’s zip codes.
Exquisite beauty and terrible loss are threaded throughout Chasing Coral, the 2017 film that captured long stretches of coral bleaching in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in 2016. The documentary follows a highly skilled team of filmmakers on a mission to document the mostly hidden impact of climate change. Watching the crew overcome huge obstacles, like figuring out how to equip cameras that can remain underwater for months at a time, provides much of the drama in Chasing Coral. The results are mesmerizing time-lapse sequences of healthy coral reefs — and heartbreaking footage of their subsequent degradation.
Thank You for the Rain, 2017, directed by Julia Dahr
(Not currently available in the US)
Thank You for the Rain is a film about Kisilu Musya, a Kenyan farmer whose efforts to deal with the local impacts of climate change ultimately lead him to the 2015 UN climate conference in Paris. Fans of this film may also be interested in Taking Root, a 2008 documentary that follows the life and work of Wangari Maathai, an environmental activist and political organizer who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to empower Kenyan women and to restore forest ecosystems on which they depended. According to the website, the film is not currently available in the US; let’s try to get them to post the entire film on Vimeo — watch the trailer; then leave a comment here. We need more films that show how colonial legacies still infect environmental politics, both locally and globally.
Claude Lorius made his first trip to Antarctica as a field techie in 1956 at the age of 23. So began a lifelong love affair with the frozen continent — and climate science. It was Lorius who discovered how scientists could derive data about Earth’s ancient atmospheres from the cores they drilled out of Antarctica’s ice sheet. His account about how a celebratory glass of whiskey led to that discovery is one of the most charming anecdotes in the history of climate science. In Ice and Sky, narrated throughout by Lorius, viewers meet a compelling French scientist and see through his “home movies” how dangerous, exhausting and thrilling work in Antarctica could be.
Documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and Years of Living Dangerously unveil the organized efforts — by politicians, corporations and others — to deny or minimize the reality of climate change. These efforts are the focus of Merchants of Doubt, which dramatizes an investigative report published by Naomi Oreskes and Tim Conway. It shows how powerful companies resort to the same tactics — diversion, distortion and denial — whenever health or environmental concerns threaten their revenue streams. That means fossil fuel companies are following the same playbook created by industries like Big Tobacco.
Looking ahead: Films, series and talks that envision what a realistically effective response to climate change might look like
Generation Green New Deal chronicles the collective efforts of The Sunrise Movement, the climate activist organization founded by college students Sara Blazevik and Varshini Prakash. When the Democratic Party became the majority in the US House of Representatives in 2018, Sunrise sensed an opportunity and quickly mobilized demonstrations in several cities, including Washington DC. Their efforts helped put the ambitious Green New Deal, proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Edward Markey (D-MA), on the national agenda. The Sunrise Movement continued its efforts through the 2020 US presidential election and continues to play an important role in our collective climate story; members of the Sunrise Movement also make a cameo in the second episode of the three-part documentary, Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World.
Another way to deliver a message about climate change is to imagine how our daily lives in the future might be affected by our actions — or inactions — today. More often employed in climate fiction (or cli-fi), this strategy has been used by a few documentarians, including Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau. Set in 2040, he challenges viewers to imagine that climate change has been “solved” using only technologies already known today. Working with experts in five different areas — electrical power, transportation, agriculture, aquaculture and education — Gameau pieces together a plausible 2040 world in which his now-grown-up 24-year-old daughter might thrive. Part nuts-and-bolts documentary (which relies on Project Drawdown) and part family sitcom, 2040 succeeds and entertains.
After the premiere of An Inconvenient Truth, more researchers and filmmakers started to take a closer look at the economics that underlie both climate change and systemic inequality. One of them, Kate Raworth, is a self-described “renegade economist” and author of Doughnut Economics. In this TED Talk — where she states that “a healthy economy should be designed to thrive, not grow” — she lays out the principles of a circular economy. The challenge, she explains, is to ensure that all people have what they need to lead healthy, safe and fulfilling lives without taking more from Earth than its ecosystems can sustainably provide. Reminiscent of Annie Leonard’s satirically whiteboarded Story of Stuff (2009), Raworth’s recorded talk presents an inspiring, and entirely plausible, solution.
What would a sustainable, universally beneficial economy look like? “Like a doughnut,” says Oxford economist Kate Raworth. Watch her full Talk here: