How has pop culture responded to the climate emergency in 2019?

From Coldplay cancelling their tour until they can find a carbon-neutral option, to James Bond producers debuting the spy's first fully electric car, all the signs point to sustainability shaping pop culture. But how deep does this impact run, and what's in store for 2020?

It may feel like sustainability has dominated pop culture in 2019, but does progress exist beyond pockets of discussions? Image: BAFTA

It may feel like sustainability has dominated pop culture in 2019, but does progress exist beyond pockets of discussions? Image: BAFTA

If you’ve consumed any form of pop culture this year – be that a magazine, a newspaper, a soap or a new song – chances are, you’ll have noticed a focus on the environment at some point. If not, one would be forgiven for assuming you’ve been living under a rock.

In the print space, TIME has dedicated editions to sinking Island Nations, global warming and teenage activist Greta Thunberg. GQ has named the Swedish teen its ‘game-changer of the year’. Conde Nast – the publishing house behind Vogue – is recruiting its first sustainability manager as it strives to change the way it covers fashion’s societal and environmental impacts.

Those who don’t regularly read will have been hard-pressed to have missed hearing about Glastonbury’s plastics ban; Coldplay’s refusal to tour on climate grounds; James Bond’s electric Aston Martin; The 1975’s collaboration with Thunberg; or ‘Earth’ – the hit pop song from Lil’ Dicky, featuring additional vocals from the likes of Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber.

And, on TV, climate discussions seem to have finally broken free from the constraints of nature documentaries. The BBC dedicated its first full-length programme to the topic in more than a decade when David Attenborough’s ‘Climate Change: The Facts’ aired in April. Chris O’Dowd and Joanna Lumley used their time on The Last Leg to discuss the fate of the planet. Frankie Boyle sparked a national discussion on sustainability and capitalism by inviting George Monbiot onto the New World Order sofa.

But for all the noise, Boris Johnson was met with silence when, in his speech outside Number 10 after the general election, he mentioned the UK’s net-zero target. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn was booed by a live studio audience for bringing up the intersections between climate change and poverty.

In other words, a handful of positive examples from broadcasters, music moguls and other businesses in the creative industries have not yet amounted to wider change.

Culture change

One organisation which is working to address this disconnect is Albert. Hosted by BAFTA, it provides businesses and individuals across the broadcasting sector with resources to help them not only minimise the environmental impacts of their operations, but change the narrative around sustainability issues.

“We’re not really asking for more programmes that are specifically about climate change,” BAFTA’s head of industry sustainability Aaron Matthews says.  

“Factual entertainment programmes about topics like food, fashion and homes are how people understand the world around them and that’s where we see the greatest opportunity.

“The story of climate change is now being told very loudly and I think that all of the people who will be engaged through facts and figures probably are already. More programmes about the problem aren’t going to create a broad cultural reality.”

To that end, Albert provides digital resources explaining how broadcasters can “raise the issues” – incorporate environmental trends into their productions seamlessly – and "show the actions" – demonstrate to viewers that changes in mindsets, behaviours and policies can yield successful solutions.

It also regularly hosts events to encourage more joined-up progress on these agendas – the most recent of which was a soap summit. At this event, those developing shows like Eastenders and Emmerdale learned about the ways in which issues such as fuel poverty, community energy and food waste could be incorporated into plotlines.

“I think, broadly, the breadth of sustainability isn’t obvious to most people – creatives included,” Matthews explains. “We need to show that this isn’t all about CO2 – that it is part of the everyday narrative.”

Seamless delivery

Outside of our screens, certain parts of the everyday narrative have undeniably already shifted. Reusable water bottles and coffee cups, once seen as uncool items used by hikers and geographers, and, latterly, as luxuries, are now ubiquitous. Flight shaming is on the rise. Plant-based diets are booming on a global scale.

But despite the role which media businesses have undeniably had to play in bringing about these trends, research from Deloitte recently concluded that the UK’s biggest 40 channels collectively mentioned topics such as Shakespeare or gravy more than environmental issues over a 12-month period.

For Matthews, solving this disconnect between urgency and coverage is not as simple as adding more mentions, however.

“We’re not saying ‘you need to talk about climate change in your programmes in this particular way’, because that would be really clunky and inauthentic,” he says.

“When you create a space for people to think about how to achieve culture change, the answers come flooding through. Our approach is, therefore, to support programme-makers and other creatives to find that space.”

Scenario analysis

Creating space and finding context-specific solutions sounds all well and good, until you remember that humanity, according to the IPCC, has just 11 years left to deliver “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” if we are to limit global temperature increases to 1.5C.

Indeed, governments committed to the world’s best-known voluntary agreement on the environment, the Paris Agreement, are currently set to create a 3.4C world.

According to Matthews, creatives are underprepared for not only this trajectory, but the “best-case scenarios of 1.5C and 2C – both in terms of their operations and the narratives they’re planning to tell.

He tells edie: “Will it still be ok to fly contestants to judges’ houses? Will it still be acceptable to serve up certain foods on air? Will film crews have to stop travelling to areas affected by severe drought? The answer is probably no, but I don’t think the industry is there yet in terms of its scenario planning.”

In summary, he believes media companies are “just starting to turn the corner and viewing an opportunity to start talking” rather than taking a “broad look at where we’re going and how media will have to adapt”.

Perhaps the answer here lies in an unlikely place – with the Task-Force on Climate-Related Disclosures (TCFD). The body has a media and technology arm and is asking companies across these sectors to disclose in line with its recommendations, headlined by scenario analysis.

In an era of climate activism and an oversaturation of reporting standards and benchmarks, experts have repeatedly concluded that scenario analysis could help companies from all sectors cut through the noise and tell their sustainability story in an accessible and transparent way.

But few businesses – or even sectors – have seized this opportunity. Despite sizeable year-on-year increases in expressed support for the TCFD, these sentiments usually don’t amount to full disclosure. Moreover, the pace of uptake and the extent of disclosures continues to vary considerably between sectors.

In 2020, companies in the creative industries have a huge chance to change this. After all, they should be the master storytellers.

The feeling that culture has reached a climate tipping point and that actions will soon be joined up - be that through the TCFD or otherwise - is palpable. Given that the news media and the PR sectors were able to deliver on this in 2019, hopes are high for 2020. Time to crack out the popcorn. 

Sarah George



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