Why ‘Sharknado 4’ matters: Do climate disaster movies hurt the climate cause?

By Lauren Griffin and Ann Christiano

Given that 2016 is expected to be the hottest year on record, with several months that not only surpassed old heat records but did so by increasingly large margins, it stands to reason climate change should be an issue we as a nation are rushing to address. But we’re not, exactly. Instead, climate scientists are subject to political attacks and lawsuits, and debate over whether climate change even exists roils the United States Senate. A reasonable person could be left wondering how the hell we got here.

Social scientists have made great strides in determining what factors influence climate denier attitudes and what kinds of messages have the potential to combat denial. Indeed, a burgeoning movement of academics and communicators are taking on the problem of climate denial with gusto, working nonstop to produce empirically based strategies for getting the message out to the public.

Despite these efforts, researchers have paid less attention to how we’re talking about climate change in a larger cultural sense.

Enter “Sharknado.” On July 31, the fourth installment of the “Sharknado” film series airs on SyFy. The low-budget films are a surprise smash hit, breaking records in 2013 with the original “Sharknado.” It’s led to a series of movies and a variety of media spin-offs, including a video game and companion book.

If you’ve missed this cultural phenomenon, worry not: The film’s title tells you most of what you need to know. Major American cities are suddenly beset with waterspouts flinging man-eating sharks — sharknados — through the air at 300 miles per hour, while characters attempt to survive. The plots are predictably ridiculous and the special effects — particularly in the first “Sharknado” — are about what you would expect from a B-movie.

At their heart, however, the “Sharknado” films are stories about climate change, albeit in a way that is scientifically flawed to a comical degree. It’s a genre — climate disaster films — we decided to explore as an emerging mode of communication in society.

Fiction helps us understand reality

It’s explained in the original “Sharknado” that climate change has created an unusually strong tropical cyclone approaching Southern California. The sequels backed away from that explanation, whether out of a desire to avoid courting political controversy or simply because the creators felt that sharknados needed no explanation, we can’t be sure. But casting climate change as a catalyst for extreme, globally threatening natural disasters is a move characteristic of a small but growing genre of climate disaster films.

With a few notable exceptions (“The Day After Tomorrow” and “Snowpiercer” come to mind), climate disaster films tend to be low-budget, made-for-television creatures. Silly as they may seem, they represent the first drops in what is sure to be a storm of fictional depictions of climate change as the issue gains more traction in the public consciousness. In a very real sense, these films are the product of a society attempting to grapple with a massive social threat unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Climate fiction films are important for their potential impact on the public. Climate change itself is difficult to observe for those not trained in environmental sciences; typically people don’t notice small changes that happen over time, and carbon dioxide emissions are invisible to the naked eye. Meteorological and climatological records are regularly questioned by climate deniers, some of whom hold political office. Even personal experience may not sway opinions: Research suggests that a person’s political leanings can even affect whether he or she perceives unusual weather patterns to be out of the ordinary.

Some scholars hypothesize that this is where fiction comes in. As researcher David Kirby puts it, fiction can serve as a “virtual witnessing tool” that lets us see the scientific process. Literary scholars tout science fiction’s ability to show us futures that have not yet come to pass without having to live through them. Indeed, one of fiction’s power is this ability to let us explore scenarios and situations in a safe way, without real risk to life or property.

Consider, for instance, the prevalence of fiction about nuclear war during the Cold War. These stories were widely credited with helping society envision the future after a nuclear exchange even as political leaders worked to prevent such an event. Books (and later film adaptations) like “Fail-Safe” and “On the Beach” shaped society’s understanding of the consequences of nuclear war. Television shows like the “Twilight Zone” featured stories — and warnings — about nuclear weapons prominently in their plots. President Ronald Reagan even noted in his journal the television movie “The Day After Tomorrow” had a profound effect on him.

Medium for misinformation?

What does this mean for climate change? Like nuclear war, a future in which humanity has undertaken no effort to combat climate change is one we hope to never see. Can fiction play a role in shaping our attitudes and beliefs about climate change and encourage the public to take the threat seriously before it’s too late?

A handful of studies were conducted around the release of “The Day After Tomorrow.” Similar studies were also conducted on the docudrama “The Age of Stupid” and the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” But these studies typically examine only blockbuster films and do not address disaster films as a whole.

The studies generally suggest that fictional depictions of climate change can have an effect on audiences — at least in the short term. Seeing clips of these films tends to raise levels of environmental concern and, in some cases, cause people to be more supportive of action to meet the climate threat.

‘The Day After Tomorrow’ depicts an out-of-control and damaging natural world.

To get a better sense of how fictional disaster films shape environmental attitudes, I (Lauren) conducted an in-depth analysis of 18 disaster films featuring climate change. The results of my research show that most of these films make only tenuous connections between climate change and natural disasters, which affects how people react to them.

Terminology related to climate change and extreme weather is often misused, and it’s not uncommon to see films that use the term “climate change” or “global warming” to refer to completely different phenomena — some of which are physically impossible and could happen in no world. For example, one film uses climate change to discuss a buildup of methane gas in the atmosphere that is predicted to ignite, incinerating all life on Earth.

The results from focus groups I held with participants who watched one of three representative disaster films confirm that these scientifically dubious depictions of climate change dilute any perceived environmental message in climate disaster films. Most participants were unconvinced — often with good reason — that anything shown in the films could happen in the real world and did not see much of an environmental message.

More worrisome is the possibility for climate fiction films to distribute misinformation. Because many films draw on real terminology used by climatologists and atmospheric scientists to add a sense of realism to their films, audiences may find themselves confused where fiction ends and facts begin.

Here to stay

There is some precedence for these concerns. Research on historical fiction films suggests that people often remember misinformation presented in fictional narratives and then attribute these “facts” to authoritative sources like textbooks. This has been observed even when participants are warned ahead of time that they will be seeing a dramatization of a historical event that contains inaccuracies.

As society struggles to envision a future shaped by climate change, we will continue to produce works of fiction that depict these futures. Climate disaster films are only one facet of this phenomenon, and more are sure to come.

Follow-up studies examining the effects of “The Day After Tomorrow” on public attitudes toward climate change hint at possible changes.

In the short term, audiences were more concerned about climate change after viewing the film and were more willing to take some political action to combat the threat. Long term, the film seemed to clue audiences in to the problems of climate change, and provided something of a cultural script with which to discuss it.

It’s worth noting, however, that “The Day After Tomorrow” was an exception within the larger climate disaster film genre, both in terms of its production value and its (relatively) detailed discussion of climate change. Low-budget films like “Sharknado,” which stray very far afield from climate science, likely pose different possibilities for both misinformation and engagement with climate change. The question, then, is how to best tap into this potential while avoiding the pitfalls.

This post originally appeared on The Conversation.