Forum: Climate Change and Big Ideas for the Small Screen

Chinstrap penguins. Image NOAA. Speakers at the forum included John Collee, screenwriter of the movie about penguins called Happy Feet
Thursday, 17 August, 2017

A unique Cli-Fi one day forum has brought together UNSW climate scientists and some of Australia’s leading screen creatives, to explore climate-fiction, an emerging small screen genre.

The forum was held under the auspices of the UNSW Climate Change Grand Challenge via a partnership between UNSW, ABC TV, Jungle Film and TV, Screen Australia, Create NSW and venue partner AFTRS.

The purpose of the event, held on Wednesday 16 August at the Australian Film Television & Radio School (AFTRS) during Science Week 2017, was to present independent TV writers and creatives with hard facts and forecasts from leading scientists and thinkers working in the climate change space, in order to encourage the creation of TV drama series and telemovie proposals.

Speakers included John Collee, the screenwriter of Happy Feet, Walking with Dinosaurs and Master and Commander, and American climate scientist Professor Michael E. Mann. Currently director of the Earth System Science Centre at Pennsylvania State University, Professor Mann has contributed to the scientific understanding of historic climate change, developing in 1998 the so-called hockey stick graph.

The event was the brainchild of UNSW Science marine ecologist Dr Adriana Vergés who recognises the importance of popular culture in raising awareness about an issue.

The idea behind this event is to use high quality fiction to communicate the very latest climate science. This is because while factual documentaries such as Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ have had a major impact, factual programs now often largely preach to the converted, whereas fiction has the potential to reach a much greater audience, and help us adapt to our rapidly changing world," says Dr Vergés, of the Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at UNSW Sydney.

Australian scientists speaking included Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a senior research associate at the Climate Change Research Centre at UNSW, a 2013 NSW Young Tall Poppy and an expert in heatwaves, and Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol in the UK, an expert in the psychology of climate denial.

A morning of presentations from specialists in climate science, geoengineering, psychology, human health, renewable energy, politics and history was followed by a discussion led by John Collee seeking input and ideas from all quarters of the room.The goal was to bring science and story together to stimulate ideas for powerful screen content.

The increase in strength, length, and number  of heatwaves over the past few decades has been the canary in the coal mine, telling us climate change is happening now. If it continues, unabated parts of the world such as northern Australia will become unliveablesays UNSW climate scientist Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick.  

These heatwave statistics mean something to scientists but it will be through the stories and imaginations of screenwriters and filmmakers portraying the impact of future climate change that they will come to mean something for the general publicshe says.