Action! How movies are helping young people fight climate change and other global challenges

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sean Fleming, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Melati Wijsen helped bring about bans on certain types of plastic in Bali and now she’s travelled the world meeting other young activists.
  • A documentary of her work and travels was shown at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
  • It’s the latest in a long tradition of filmmakers helping to raise awareness of important, scientific issues like the climate crisis.

At the 74th Festival de Cannes, the leading lights of the global movie industry tentatively gathered together to award prizes for outstanding work and to view new releases.

Among the special screenings was the documentary Bigger Than Us, which examines the role young people are playing in the desperate fight against climate change.

The film’s executive producer is the Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard, but the real star is climate activist Melati Wijsen, who addressed the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting at Davos in 2020.

Global youth movements

Bigger Than Us follows Wijsen around the world as she meets with other young people who are working to bring about a positive change in the world. It covers activists championing freedom of speech in Brazil; help for refugees in Greece; education for refugees in Lebanon; women’s rights in Malawi; food security in Uganda, and those tackling the climate crisis in the US.

Along with her younger sister Isabel, Wijsen founded Bye Bye Plastic Bags on their home island of Bali in 2013. With the clear objective of reducing one particular form of plastic pollution, the organization has since grown into a global movement, and in 2018 a plastic bag ban was announced by the governor of Bali.

Like other young people who are seizing the initiative to bring about change, Wijsen is critical of how long traditional government institutions take to tackle the environmental crisis.

In an interview with CNBC, she said: “Our generation, what is unique to us, is that we cannot wait any longer, we don’t have the luxury of time.

“So we’re not waiting for permission, we’re not waiting for regulation, but we’re going ahead with the actions and solutions right at our fingertips and we’re implementing them.”

Movies that motivate

Movies and documentaries can play a powerful role in helping raise awareness of the need to tackle global problems, including the climate crisis.

Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth won two Oscars and saw the former US Vice-President awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to “build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change”.

Climate communication specialist John Cook assessed the documentary’s impact for The Conversation in 2006, concluding that it raised awareness, changed behaviour and inspired others to communicate the issue of climate change.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.Global warming can be beaten thanks to this simple plan

The World Economic Forum’s Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.

Contact us to get involved.Mission Possible Platform: Delivering industry pathways t…

Another documentary shown at Cannes this year was Animal, featuring the young British activist Bella Lack and renowned primatologist Jane Goodall.

Earlier this year, Goodall was awarded the Templeton Prize for her “groundbreaking discoveries [that have] changed humanity’s understanding of its role in the natural world”.

Much like Bigger Than Us, the premise of Animal is to explore humankind’s place in the world, and try to understand how we can live more harmoniously with the natural environment.

Lack has also been at the forefront of a movement that has helped bring about legislative change. In August 2018, she organized a petition calling for a ban on the use of wild animals in UK circuses, which gathered almost 200,000 signatures. Within a year, the UK government passed the Wild Animals in Circuses Act.

Fact or fiction?

Fictional movies can also play a part in drawing attention to important issues, although they’re primarily designed to entertain. In 1973, a movie called Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston, predicted a dystopian future set in 2022, where environmental losses and food shortages were causing havoc. https://www.youtube.com/embed/N_jGOKYHxaQ?enablejsapi=1&wmode=transparent

In 2004, The Day After Tomorrow picked up the idea that a change in ocean currents could usher in a new ice age, and ran with it.

Jim Fleming – a professor of science and technology with expertise in climate change (no relation to the author of this article) – told CNN the movie was “based on a short-term variation in ocean circulation that was in the news at the time. Some of my apocalyptically oriented colleagues loved it.”

The Day after Tomorrow was an influential film, according to this 2004 research.
The Day after Tomorrow was an influential film, according to this 2004 research. Image: Yale

Although not intended to be an accurate representation of scientific predictions, The Day After Tomorrow, triggered debate and discussion in the public arena about the dangers of climate change, according to Anthony Leiserowitz, a senior research scientist at the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Research conducted by Leiserowitz indicated that: “Across the board, the movie appears to have had a strong influence on watchers’ risk perceptions of global warming.”

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