Some of the feature length disaster films about climate change (“cli-fi” films) in the last twenty years had the right idea, but in the wrong direction. Although the films pictured an environmental disaster as an “Ice-Age” problem, they did, on the other hand, raise awareness of how critical and scary the notion is of what might happen if the world’s climate was disrupted. One the best known films in this group is The Day After Tomorrow, a 2004 American science-fiction disaster film that tells the story of people trapped in a sudden Ice Age Storm. Successful at the box office, it is thought to have spawned other similar themed movies such as: Absolute Zero (2006), Artic Blast (2010), Ice Quake (2010), Ice 2020 (2010), The Colony (2013), and 100 Degrees Below Zero (2013) and Snowpiercer (2014). Other notable cli-fi feature films are: Waterworld (1995), Wall-E (2008), Avatar (2009), Sizzle (2009), The Age of Stupidity (2009) The Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), and Interstellar (2014).
But perhaps most compelling of all cinema about climate change and the environment are documentaries, especially when stories personalize them. Subjects in a documentary become characters in a narrative that audiences can identify with and are effective in representing real experiences that are easily understood. Further, powerful visual images in documentaries elicit emotional responses by putting the viewer in the position of eye-witness. Feelings and intuitive responses are the primary way we respond to risk information such as Climate Change and have greater impact on belief and decision making than just the straight presentation of scientific facts. The ideal films about climate change are stories that show the struggles of people defending humanity’s shared values with a resolution that shows the world stable, or secure or in some way better.
Some of the finest Documentaries about Climate Change are listed below. But any such list must begin with An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s 2006 film that holds the highest record earnings for a documentary, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary and garnered the Nobel Peace Prize for Former Vice-President Gore. His An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power was released in 2017.
Disruption (2014) takes the viewer behind the scenes of the effort to organize the largest climate rally in history during the UN’s 2014 world climate summit with the People’s Climate Change March in New York City. It features Denis Hayes, Founder of Earth Day.
Chasing Coral (2017) is a documentary film about a team of divers, scientists and photographers around the world who document the disappearance of coral reefs.
Chasing Ice (2012)Environmental photographer James Balog heads to Greenland, Iceland and Alaska in order to capture images that will help to convey the effects of global warming. He initiates The Extreme Ice Survey – an expedition to collect data on the seasonal changes of glaciers. Deploying cameras utilizing time-lapse photography across various places in the Arctic he captured a multi-year record that depicted the drastic erosion and disappearance of enormous, ancient glaciers.
Before the Flood (2016) was co-created by Fisher Stevens and Leonardo DiCaprio. The product of a 3-year journey, crews covered every corner of the globe to document the devastating impacts of climate change as well as mankind’s ability to reverse the problem.
The 11th Hour (2007) was created, produced and narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio with contributions from over 50 politicians, scientists and environmental activists. It documents the problems facing Earth’s life systems. The film proposes potential solutions through technology, social responsibility and conservation.
Years of Living Dangerously (2014) is a documentary television series focused on global warming. The episodes featured celebrity hosts and well-known journalists as they traveled throughout the world to interview experts and ordinary people affected by, and seeking solutions to global warming.
Ice and the Sky (2015) is a French film directed by Luc Jacquet about the work of Claude Lorius who began studying Antarctic ice in 1957 and was one of the first scientists to be concerned about global warming. The film was selected to close the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.
Mission Blue (2014) tells the story of world-renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle as she travels the globe on an urgent mission to shed light on the dire condition of Earth’s oceans. It follows Earle’s campaign to save the world’s oceans from overfishing and toxic waste.
Carbon Nation (2011) presents a series of ways in which the energy the world consumes can be met while reducing or eliminating carbon-based sources. It contains optimistic interviews with experts in to present a compelling case for change. Denis Hayes, Founder of Earth Day, is interviewed.
The Island President (2012) is the story of President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, a man confronting a problem greater than any other world leader has ever faced – the literal survival of his country and everyone in it. After bringing democracy to the Maldives, Nasheed faces an even greater challenge: as one of the most low-lying countries in the world, a rise of three feet in sea level would submerge the 1200 islands of the Maldives enough to make them uninhabitable.
Climate Refugees (2010) With contributions from politicians, scientists, and environmental activists, the film documents the human plight of climate change with a focus on the intersection of overpopulation and lack of resources as a result of climatic shifts.
Thin Ice (2013) follows geologist Simon Lamb on a search to understand the science behind climate change. He travels the world to meet a range of scientists, from biologists to physicists, who are investigating the climate. The film’s conclusion emphasizes the scientific consensus on human-induced climate change.
Do the Math (2013) chronicles one of America’s leading environmentalists, Bill McKibben, in a David-vs.-Goliath battle to fight the fossil fuel industry to change the terrifying math of the climate crisis. McKibben goes after Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Gas.
Surviving Progress (2011) is a Canadian documentary film loosely based on A Short History of Progress, a book by Ronald Wright about societal collapse. It focuses on the present-day impact of civilization, and the lack of an ethical underpinning in global economic practices that is responsible for the exploitation of natural resources causing a more probable future population collapse that takes modern society along with it.
Paris to Pittsburgh (2018) Shot during the 100 days prior to the September 21, 2014 People’s Climate March. The audience is taken inside the People’s Climate Mobilization Hub in New York where organizers and activists set in motion the largest climate rally in history to draw attention to the threats of changing weather patterns.
To the Ends of the Earth (2016) Emma Thompson narrates this documentary about the rise of extreme energy, the end of economic growth and the people caught in the middle.
Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014) follows filmmaker Kip Andersen as he uncovers the most destructive industry facing the planet today – animal agriculture – and investigates why the world’s leading environmental organizations are too afraid to talk about it.
The Age of Consequences (2016) investigates the impact of climate change on declining resources, migration, and conflict through the lens of US national security. Through case-study analysis experts lay bare how climate change interacts with other socio-political factors to exacerbate societal tensions and spark conflict.
Kokata the Islet of Hope (2015) This film tells the story of one man’s quest to help Kokota, an East African island. Meet resilient people living on the front lines of climate change and learn how these unlikely heroes have managed to innovatively adapt to a warming climate and reforest their island.
Racing Extinction (2015) is about the ongoing Anthropogenic mass extinction and the efforts of scientists, activists and journalists to document it.
Antartic Edge: 70° South (2015) is a journey to the bottom of the Earth alongside a team of dedicated scientists. Oceanographer Oscar Schofield teams up with a group of researchers in a race to understand climate change in the fastest winter-warming place on earth: the West Antarctic Peninsula. For more than 20 years, these scientists have dedicated their lives to studying the Peninsula’s rapid change as part of the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research Project.
Climate of Change (2010) narrated by Tilda Swinton is a documentary focused on the efforts of everyday people all over the world who are making a difference in the fight to halt global warming.
ThuleTuvalu is a documentary by the Swiss film director Matthias von Gunten. He follows the inhabitants of Thule in the Arctic where the ice is melting and threatening their way of life – and the inhabitants in Tuvalu in the South Pacific where the nation island is becoming submerged by the rising sea. The fates of both nations are linked though they live 20,000 km apart.