Climate Change Fiction on American TV: “Madam Secretary” and…That’s About It

As Hurricane Dorian slams into the Bahamas as a category 5 storm with sustained winds of 185 mph and gusts of 220 mph, I remember the opening scenes of an episode of Madam Secretary.

When I tuned in, I was initially confused. We’re in the cockpit of a NASA plane flying into the violent eye of a storm, Typhoon Blessing in the South Pacific. A woman in a flight suit is saying something along the lines of “That reading’s impossible, check the instruments.” They are measuring the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded, and 250 mph winds.

The reason this is confusing is because when the show is being aired in March, 2019, a “bomb cyclone” is making its way across the continental US with record-breaking low barometric pressure. Did I accidentally tune in to the Weather Channel or a news station?

The writers of Madam Secretary have again and again proven prescient and timely in their themes. Given that the shows were written and shot months before broadcast, it’s been shocking to see everything from the white nationalist terrorist threat to catastrophic climate change being incorporated into crucial plot lines.

Especially climate change, which is all but ignored in American fiction TV, and has only begun to be mentioned in most mainstream news outlets since the Paradise Fire of November, 2018. Episode 16 of season 5 of Madam Secretary, titled The New Normal, is to my knowledge the only example of American TV tackling the issue of the climate crisis head-on as a plot thread through multiple episodes. Honorable mention goes to the HBO series Big Little Lies, in which one episode features a child character freaking out with fear about the climate emergency and a contentious parent-teacher assembly at the local elementary school debating the appropriateness of teaching second graders about the gravity and facts of climate change.

And those two are the ONLY instances of fictional treatment of the defining existential issue of our time.

cli fi on TV

For the record, I hate the term “The New Normal,” and refuse to use it myself. I don’t ever want to forget—and I don’t want younger people to forget, even if they’ve never known the same normal as older people—that this is not freaking normal. It never had to be this way, it never had to get this bad. Exxon knew in 1982 that atmospheric concentrations of carbon would reach 415 ppm around 2019. They just didn’t tell us, and certainly didn’t do anything about it. The Koch brothers and other corporate interests cynically went out of their way to fund climate science denial by casting doubt where no reasonable doubt existed.

I cry through nearly the whole episode. Initially the US territory of the Marshall Islands is threatened. In the parallel universe of the show—where we still have an older white man as president, but he is actually intelligent, and capable of both empathy and of listening to advisors—everyone in the US government is deeply concerned. Since these fictional characters of the president and the Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord, actually attempt to make decision based on ethics—to all appearances a word and concept unheard of by the current occupant of the White House—they remain concerned even when the typhoon veers away from US territories towards the independent South Pacific island nation of Nauru.

It soon becomes clear that the catastrophic storm is going to put the whole island in danger. Before any rescue can be implemented, the storm wipes out Nauru’s president and entire parliament, leaving the Consul General in the US, a 20-something graduate student, suddenly in charge of his nation at a distance. It’s up to Elizabeth to convince him to authorize evacuation of all Nauruans at short notice, and to figure out how to do it and where they can go. David, the new president, categorically refuses. His Polynesian people have a 3000 year history on the island, and their sacred temple would need to be relocated along with the people. Understandably, the Nauruans don’t want to be split up even if other nations would accept some of them as climate change refugees.

Elizabeth’s trusty and creative staff come up with a brilliant idea: leverage an IRS case against a washed-up former movie star who has bought an island. Trade forgiveness of the IRS debt in return for the people of Nauru taking over his private island.

David, who has returned to Nauru to find extensive damage, is still reluctant, but the decision is made urgent by the news that a second typhoon, potentially even more destructive, is heading straight for the island.

Interwoven with this plot is Elizabeth’s efforts to broker an international climate change treaty and to get the US Congress to pass an appropriations bill to finance a “resiliency fund” for nations already being impacted by climate change. The show does a good job connecting the dots between climate change and extreme weather, and the outsize contribution that the US and other wealthy nations have made to the global disaster whose first victims are people in the global south, indigenous people from the Arctic to the Equator to the Southern Hemisphere, and the poor in all nations.

Meanwhile, as Elizabeth considers running for president, her advisor for her yet to be announced campaign arranges for Elizabeth’s husband Henry, a comparative religion and ethics professor, to speak to an evangelical group. The pastor is a well-known climate science denier, and Henry bristles, but they agree that he will talk about Jesus’ compassion for the poor. But as the typhoon is about to destroy Nauru, Henry can’t help but speak about climate change as a man of faith himself: denying what is happening is “ignoring the profound harm being done to His creation.”

This costs Elizabeth the support of the Evangelical group, but leads Henry to have a conversation with the pastor’s daughter Ruby. She’s a woman of faith, but from a different generation, one that will suffer if nothing is done to at least mitigate the oncoming climate disaster. Ruby is reluctant to publicly oppose her famous father, but
goes on national TV to talk about the Christian duty to take action on climate change. When the interviewer asks her, “Isn’t it God’s will?” she answers, “The Lord calls us to be stewards of this Earth. Now, if He really want these things to happen, why would He give us the power to change it?”

In the final scenes (spoiler alert, in case you want to catch up with the show at some point), Elizabeth’s State Department crew watches a live satellite feed as it zeroes in on where Nauru should be. But it’s not there. An 8-mile long island has been completely submerged, the first fictional casualty of climate change. But the entire population of Nauru has been successfully evacuated on US transport ships in the nick of time. One stone of their temple is laid on the island “given” to them by the movie star as their flag replaces the actor’s flag on the flagpole.

The next few episodes of the season continue with these plot elements, as Elizabeth tries to decide whether she should announce her run for president. With facts and events on her side, she still struggles to convince Congress to approve the climate change treaty and resiliency fund, and support a UN resolution recognizing the role of carbon emissions by industrialized nations in creating the climate crisis.

This is the kind of drama we should be seeing in TV and movies everywhere. Fiction has the power to dramatize very real events with an emotional punch that watching the Weather Channel or CNN just isn’t going to give you. You care about the characters, and the emotions are raw and real as you put yourself in their places. I am crying not just because of the plight of the Nauruans, but because FINALLY somebody is actually addressing the climate crisis on TV.

It also gets me thinking about the role of Evangelicals in propagating climate science denial. I don’t actually know any professed Evangelicals. They don’t tend to gravitate towards someone who is an energy healer/interdenominational minister/animal communicator and writer on the climate crisis. It’s kind of self-selecting. So I start researching, beginning with the positive “Evangelicals who believe in climate change.”

Along with lots and lots of stories explaining why most Evangelicals are climate science deniers—mostly having to do with believing that we have no responsibility to the environment because their God is going to just come and Rapture them up when he wants to and leave the rest of us to climate tribulation—there are a few hopeful stories. There is actually an Earth Stewardship movement among some Evangelicals who believe that God gave humans a responsibility towards the Earth rather than the old literal “multiply and subdue the Earth” from Genesis. There is even a group called Young Evangelicals for the Environment.

I come across a video by atmospheric scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, an avowed Evangelical who is also director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech. I find research that indicates that Evangelicals are more likely to listen and even change their opinions if someone they view as one of their own is pointing out the climate science facts to them. People who would never read Weather Menders or listen to me, an eclectic mystic New Age Buddhist healer, speaking about the climate crisis or leading a climate meditation, have actually changed their opinions after listening to Dr. Hayhoe. Which makes me really glad that she’s going on a tour to Alaska in a couple of weeks, where despite record heat, wildfires, and drought this summer, there are still a lot of climate science deniers. Perhaps the governor will go to hear her.

Oddly, when I Googled “Madam Secretary and Climate Change” to get some background for this blog, the entire first page of results are weird rightwing sites you’ve probably never heard of unless you follow that sort of thing, and the notorious Breitbart. It’s only on page 2 that you find the official CBS site and one episode recap on TVmoviefix, and on page 3 a review from Rotten Tomatoes. Isn’t it interesting that the hysterical rightwing climate science denying sites are the first to come up?

I look forward to the last half-season of Madam Secretary. It somehow doesn’t surprise me that the show wasn’t renewed. The writers and producers—including star Téa Leoni—have courageously taken on some risky issues. So my parallel world of a sane government in Washington DC is about to come to an end, reportedly tying up some loose ends in ten episodes. I can only hope they will continue to enlighten and move viewers about the climate emergency, and inspire other dramas to do the same.

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