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There's a new 'Climate Reality Check' test — these 3 Oscar-nominated features passed

<strong>Does climate change exist? And does a character know it?</strong> The Oscar-nominated films <em>Nyad, </em>left, <em>Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One</em><em> </em>and <em>Barbie </em>met the criteria for a new challenge inspired by the famous Bechdel Test.
Liz Parkinson/Netflix; Christian Black/Paramount Pictures and Skydance; Warner Bros. Pictures
Does climate change exist? And does a character know it? The Oscar-nominated films Nyad, left, Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One and Barbie met the criteria for a new challenge inspired by the famous Bechdel Test.

Though it undoubtedly sends a strong feminist message, no one would describe Barbie as a movie about the impacts of human-caused climate change.

Yet the topic sneaks in.

"You are killing the planet with your glorification of rampant consumerism!" says Sasha, the teenage character played by Ariana Greenblatt, in her rant about the many ways in which Barbie is bad.

It's because of this line that the pinkest and perkiest of summer blockbusters passed the new Climate Reality Check. It's a new test, directed at writers, producers and other entertainment industry creatives, that aims to measure the presence of climate change on screen by evaluating all 31 feature filmsnominated for any Academy Award this year. Documentaries and shorts weren't considered.

This simple new test was inspired by the famous Bechdel Test invented by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in the mid-1980s to measure the presence of women in movies and other forms of fiction. It was created by climate change storytelling consultancy Good Energy in collaboration with the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment at Colby College in Maine.

"The test is, does climate change exist in the world of your story? And if so, does a character know it?" said Good Energy CEO and founder Anna Jane Joyner.

A movie must also meet two additional criteria to be eligible for the Climate Reality Check:

"That it's set on this Earth," Joyner said. "And that it takes place now or in the future."

Many Oscar-nominated features disqualified

The Climate Reality Check's rules actually disqualify many of this year's nominated feature films, including stories set in the past like Killers of the Flower Moon — even though one of that film's major themes is the dangers of fossil fuels.

Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, associate professor of English and environmental studies at Colby College and Good Energy's main collaborator on the Climate Reality Check, admitted the new test has some blind spots, such as excluding films that might not mention climate change directly, but instead point to it through allegory — as is sometimes the case with sci-fi, fantasy and historical films — or by modeling sustainable behaviors.

"It's possible for some films to include positive climate actions, for example, people installing renewable energy in their homes or deciding to go vegetarian," Schneider-Mayerson said. "This test doesn't necessarily catch those actions unless they're sort of more or less explicitly related to climate change."

Schneider-Mayerson said the new test isn't meant to be comprehensive, though his team has been at work on a much larger study, due out in April, applying the Climate Reality Check to 250 of the most popular feature films of the past decade.

"It's not going to be able to catch all of the different nuances of representing an issue as complicated as climate change," Schneider-Mayerson said. "But we're hoping that it's a good start and that it's something that people can apply."

The films that passed

Of the 13 Oscar-nominated movies that were set on Earth in the present or the future, only two besides Barbie passed the Climate Reality Check: the latest Tom Cruise action epic Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One("It's going to be a ballistic war over a rapidly shrinking ecosystem. It's going to be a war for the last of our dwindling energy, drinkable water, breathable air," warns CIA director Eugene Kittridge, played by Henry Czerny); and the biopicNyad, about extreme athlete Diane Nyad's attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida in dangerous conditions caused by rising sea temperatures ("So the UMiami folks think that the box jellyfish came up off the shallow reef when we left Cuba. Global warming," says Nyad's coach Bonnie Stoll, played by Jodi Foster.)

Three feature films nominated for Oscars in 2024 passed the Climate Reality Check.
/ Good Energy
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Good Energy
Three feature films nominated for Oscars in 2024 passed the Climate Reality Check.

Nyad, Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One and Barbie aced the test because of lines of dialogue. But the Climate Reality Check also considers visual representations of the topic; for example a character can be seen silently reacting to an article in the media with a climate change-related headline.

The fact that only three movies passed the test doesn't seem like many. Yet Good Energy's Joyner noted this amounts to almost a quarter of the 13 films eligible to be tested, and said she is pleased with the Climate Reality Check's baseline results.

"It just gives us another example of how these stories can be very commercially successful," Joyner said, adding she hopes to see 50% of contemporary movies and TV shows acknowledging climate change by 2027.

The full Climate Check Reality report can be downloaded here.

This story was produced for air by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento, and edited by Jennifer Vanasco for digital and air.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.