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Climate Change Skips the Oscars

Climate change once dominated the Oscars. Not so much this year.

Oscar statuettes.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Corsets and mommies: in.

Talking about climate change: out.

Hollywood loves a good trend, but while rose appliqués and feel-good comeback stories made the cut for the 2023 Oscars, the most important story of our time was hard to spot. During Sunday night’s three-hour-and-thirty-seven-minute-long telecast, there was virtually no mention of climate change.

That marks a notable departure from years past. Going back to 2007, when An Inconvenient Truth became the first documentary to win two Oscars, celebrities like Al Gore, Leonardo Dicaprio, and Joaquin Phoenix have used their acceptance speeches to urge attention and action for the cause. There has also been an uptick in climate-related nominees, from Beasts of the Southern Wild (2013) to water scarcity apocalypse films like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and Dune (2021). In 2020, the red carpet was all about sustainable fashion. Last year, after inspiring a Just Stop Oil protest at the BAFTAs earlier in awards season, Don't Look Now made the Oscars' opening monologue with host Amy Schumer joking its star, Dicaprio, is fighting climate change so he can “leave behind a cleaner planet for his girlfriends.”

But while climate may have vanished into the backdrop like a white dress into a champagne carpet on Sunday, it wasn’t actually gone. A number of this year's nominees grappled either directly or indirectly with related themes, including Best Picture competitor Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron’s upwards-of-two-hundred-and-fifty-million-dollar environmental exploitation metaphor; All that Breathes, a heartbreaking documentary about a Delhi bird hospital that lost so the Academy could poke Russia in the eye with Navalny; EO, a Polish foreign-language nominee that follows the trials of a donkey, and which turned half the crew working on it into vegetarians during production; and Haulout, a short doc about how rising temperatures are decimating the Siberian walrus population. The Elephant Whisperers, which examines how climate change and humans are destroying Asian elephant habitats, ultimately took the statuette in the short documentary competition and was the only climate-related winner of the night.

Researchers and storytelling consultants have pushed in recent years for there to be more projects focused on climate change, especially in fiction. As one study found, of the thousands of new scripted shows and movies made between 2016 and 2020, “only 2.8 percent included any climate-related keyword.” There is an obvious disjointedness there: If you’re “telling a story that takes place on this Earth in modern times or in the future that doesn’t acknowledge climate change, it’s going to feel divorced from the audience’s lives,” Anna Jane Joyner, the founder of Good Energy, a firm that pushes for better climate stories in Hollywood, told Time earlier this month. “You know, kind of like showing flip phones instead of iPhones.”

But just because you can tell a story about the climate doesn’t necessarily mean you should, as Apple TV+’s dreadful Extrapolations, out later this week, proves. Though storytelling will undoubtedly have a central role in how we speak, understand, and act on climate in the coming years, climate change is still a new, gangly, awkward, and developing genre — and one that too often beats you over the head with obvious metaphors or vague gestures of urgency. Avatar: The Way of Water, for example, was a visually stunning project, but it was hardly the best film of 2022, hamstrung by a shallow metaphor that veers into tropism. More promise might be found in a film like First Reformed, which struggles to reconcile faith with our destruction of the world, and which got a nod from the Academy for Screenwriting in 2019. We're still finding our way forward, with hits and misses; as the years go on, our stories will get better.

Still, it’s perhaps surprising celebrities were so tight-lipped on Sunday night. There were no social-media-friendly mentions of #StopWillow during the evening, for example, nor acknowledgments of California’s recent extreme (albeit, not always directly climate-change-related) weather. Even actress Zoe Saldaña — the ambassador for RCGD Global, which partnered with the Academy this year to distribute a responsible fashion style guide — didn’t get into the reasons why we need to focus on “sustainability” when she talked about her vintage Fendi dress.

The cynical view would be that the silence on Sunday represents passive complacency. With the growing scrutiny of individual celebrities, and social media quick to call out perceived hypocrites, no one wants to risk throwing themselves into the crosshairs by claiming to be a model climate citizen. And to be fair, Oscar viewers might not want to hear about personal responsibility from those winding about L.A. in their limousines.

More optimistically, though, it might be that climate-related storytelling just had an off year. If Avatar, All that Breathes, or EO had won, perhaps their creators would have highlighted the urgency of climate change from the stage. Next year there will also be ample opportunities, with DiCaprio back on the red carpet for Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon, about the murders of Osage Native Americans on their oil-producing lands in Oklahoma; Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer, a Manhattan Project biographical film with obvious preoccupations about the end of the world; and, of course, Dune: Part Two.

As Hollywood always shows, trends come and trends go. The climate wasn’t the cause du jour of this particular Oscars. But like Juliet cardigans, low-rise jeans, and other inescapable abominations, it isn’t going anywhere.

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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