Climate Change Documentaries: Some Thoughts and a Request

I’m watching lots of movies this week – some for research and writing purposes, some for teaching, some just for fun. One film category that covers all three of these purposes to some degree is documentaries related to climate change. Most immediately, I am looking for something I could use in my composition course to get students thinking about climate change and climate change-related issues. I want them to end the fall semester by researching and writing about solutions to some element of climate change. What can they do – in their private lives, in their future jobs as scientists and engineers, or through political action – to create change? Ideally, the film I assign will help them see a) the reality and seriousness of the problem and b) some possible avenues for research. Ideally, I’d like to find a film that can help illustrate the interconnectedness of climate change and give students ideas about actions and policies that contribute to climate change that they could investigate. I want to help them break the problem down into more manageable pieces.


Yesterday I watched Chasing Ice (dir. Jeff Orlowski; 2012), Food, Inc. (dir. Robert Kenner; 2008), and Mission Blue (dir. Robert Nixon and Fisher Stevens; 2014). Of the three, Chasing Ice is the most promising – and I hear from multiple sources that it teaches well. It is a lovely film and illustrates the reality and seriousness of the problem clearly. I’m not sure it gets at the second set of goals I’ve described, however.

Food Inc poster

mission blue poster

I hoped that Food, Inc., might get at those interconnections a bit more (there are lots of possible proposals to be written about agricultural practices), but it spends less time on environmental issues related to food production than I hoped it would. Finally, I liked Mission Blue a lot, but I don’t think it’s my best choice. Through its focus on protecting the world’s oceans, the film illustrates the problem of human-caused environmental changes and it proposes a solution (hope spots), but I think it might be too focused on Sylvia Earle for my purposes in this class. She is seriously awesome, but this is at least as much biography of Earle as anything else, so maybe this isn’t the perfect film for the goals of the course.

Ultimately, it’s okay if the film I choose can’t achieve both of these goals at the same time. If I teach Chasing Ice, for instance, I can find other ways to illustrate the broad range of things that contribute to climate change and that they could then research and write about. One film doesn’t have to do everything. But the more it can do along those lines, the happier I’ll be with it.

So far, then, Chasing Ice is a distinct possibility, but I am still watching more films before the semester begins and I am open to suggestions. What documentaries about climate change might work in this context? What films teach well and are accessible to first-year college students, many of whom will likely be skeptical of environmentalism?

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