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Culture

The Most Cinematic Climate Stories of 2023

Don’t forget to thank me (and these great journalists) in your Oscar speech.

A movie theater.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

People love to complain about how there aren’t enough good movies that deal with climate change, and that the ones that do all focus on disasters without giving us any reason for hope.

They aren’t wrong. The two most famous climate-themed movies ever made are probably The Day After Tomorrow, a movie about climate change triggering an ice age, and Don’t Look Up, an allegory about a world-ending asteroid that doesn’t even mention the warming planet directly.

Researchers at the University of Southern California recently analyzed nearly 40,000 scripts from 2016 through 2020, scouring the text for 36 climate keywords, and found that only 2.8%, or 1,046 scripts, mentioned any of them. For context, the word “dog” was mentioned 13 times more than all 36 climate words combined.

Well, I’m here to help. I read approximately 40,000 climate-related news articles this year, and let me tell you, there was plenty of cinematic material that didn’t involve devastating storms or wildfires. Here are three that stuck with me.

1. Kitchen Oil Thieves

In one of my favorite climate stories this year, Canary Media reporter Maria Gallucci rode around New Jersey in a truck with a guy who collects used cooking oil from the dumpsters of fast food restaurants. He works for Mahoney Environmental, a subsidiary of a company that would later transform the oil into “sustainable” diesel for heavy duty vehicles and jet fuel for airplanes. “So when airlines talk about burning cleaner fuel,” Gallucci wrote, “they’re effectively talking about the contents of a padlocked dumpster kept behind a Buffalo Wild Wings sports bar.”

Apparently this recycled french fry grease has become such a hot commodity that the company has to fend off thieves attempting to steal it from unguarded dumpsters to sell overseas. Mahoney’s CEO told Gallucci he had hired a private detective to catch the thieves, and they had facilitated 11 arrests in the New York area in just three weeks’ time.

There’s an obvious plot here about bumbling grease burglars, but also, perhaps, an opportunity to explore a larger theme about the lengths being taken to “green” up luxuries like air travel with solutions that, at the end of the day, still put carbon into the atmosphere.

2. The Yacht Show

Speaking of greening luxury vessels, TheGuardian published a darkly hilarious account of the Monaco yacht show, where superyacht owners and prospective buyers arrived via private jet and helicopter to tour the decks of “the most polluting single object a person can own.”

Guests defended their gas-guzzling vessels by telling reporter Ajit Niranjan that they weren’t nearly as bad as cargo ships or factories. At one point, a sustainability student whose family owned a yacht, gestured at the boats with a flute of champagne in his hand as he told Niranjan, “It’s one of the most unsustainable industries in the world, there’s no doubt about it.” Another yacht owner said, “There are so many problems that we cannot fix,” to which her friend added, “If Bill Gates doesn’t stress about it, or Leonardo DiCaprio, then we won’t stress about it.” Niranjan also wrote that during one interview, a yacht owner “verbally abused and physically threatened” him and that two potential buyers denied that human-caused climate change was real.

Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund already made a great black comedy about oblivious rich people on a superyacht who ultimately get their due, called Triangle of Sadness. However, if someone like Sacha Baron Cohen wanted to tackle the yacht show with more of a journalistic lens, I think there’s a lot more there to draw on.

3. Geoengineering Cowboys

Late last year, MIT Technology Review’s James Temple broke the news that a startup called Make Sunsets was conducting controversial geoengineering experiments in Mexico, releasing small amounts of reflective sulfur particles into the air to bounce sunlight back into space. The Mexican government quickly outlawed the practice. But the company continued to make waves in 2023, when Time’s Alejandro de la Garza joined its two roguish founders for a truly harebrained field trial in Nevada.

The story begins with the two dudes lighting fungicide on fire in a motel room and trying to capture the resulting fumes, which contain the sulfur particles, with a tube. (One assures De la Garza that the gas isn’t toxic and that breathing it would be less painful than “a massive bong hit.”) When the attempt fails, they hop in a Winnebago, pick up a charcoal grill at the nearby Walmart, and move the operation to the parking lot of a local recreation area. There, they dump the chemicals in the grill and try to capture the gas with a garbage bag.

Apparently it works, because later, they transfer the smoke into research balloons, and launch a few into the sky. Oh, and meanwhile, the FBI is on their case, checking that they have no affiliation to the Chinese spy balloon that was just spotted floating over Montana. Also, halfway through the experiment, the company gets word that a pro-geoengineering advocacy group started publicly attacking them and calling on the government to shut them down.

Much of the scientific community — even those who support researching geoengineering — have condemned the company for its unaccountable, slapdash approach. The criticism only seems to fuel the founders, who see the work as “part protest” of the culture of caution around the idea. De la Garza paints one of them, Luke Iseman, as a misguided idealist who once tried to set up an “off-grid homestead” in Mexico, and spends some of his time living on a houseboat and burying his poop in public parks, even though he also periodically makes millions when past startups he has worked with get acquired.

Anyway, the parable will write itself, preferably with the Safdie brothers directing.

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Emily Pontecorvo profile image

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

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