Behind the green screen: critiquing the narratives of climate change documentaries




McKellar Strapp Bennett, Paige

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As the climate crisis continues unabated, documentary films have become an increasingly popular medium through which to communicate its causes and impacts. Such films are an easily accessible form of mass media that has the potential to reach wide-ranging and large audiences, and often star popular celebrities. However, few academic studies have examined climate change documentaries and considered the ‘story’ of climate change that such films create. The lack of critical engagement with climate change documentaries is significant as it suggests the narratives of such films have been left largely unexamined despite their importance as a form of popular environmental communication. In this thesis, I use content analysis and narrative analysis to examine how 10 popular climate change documentaries tell the ‘story’ of climate change and produce specific ‘imaginative geographies’ about regions that are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Though I note throughout my analysis that there are several moments of rupture in which counter-narratives emerge, the dominant discourse throughout these 10 films is one that generally reinforces Western science and technocratic modernity as the solution to climate change, and racialized ‘Others’ as its passive victims. Understanding how climate change documentaries construct their narratives and select their specific topics of focus provides important insight into how popular ‘imaginaries’ regarding the climate crisis have been produced.



climate change, critical geography, environmental communication, documentary film, imaginative geographies