Extrapolations: Visualizing climate realities through fiction

Scott Z. Burns and Dorothy Fortenberry are piloting the future of climate storytelling within Hollywood by telling the climate stories of people.

Creator Scott Z. Burns and Executive Producer and Writer Dorothy Fortenberry talk about their new show during a panel with Joe Arvai, director of USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. (Nick Neumann/USC Wrigley Institute)

After coming home from a day at school, work, or just running errands, we turn on our televisions to see characters doing the same daily tasks, even as the biggest crisis of our lives rages outside our windows.

Even as television shows and movies are supposed to be manifestations of the human experience, there exist so few stories about breathing polluted air, experiencing life-changing hurricanes and droughts, or several other disasters that are increasingly becoming normal.

That makes one wonder: is Hollywood the greatest climate denier of all major institutions?

Scott Z. Burns and Dorothy Fortenberry are trying to change that narrative with their new show Extrapolations, piloting the future of climate storytelling within Hollywood. An Apple TV+ special, Extrapolations consists of eight episodes that tell several international, intergenerational, and interconnected climate stories set between 2037 to 2070.

The audience starts their journey in the middle of a dystopian future, where world leaders at COP42 (a futuristic version of the annual U.N. climate conference) are saddled with making difficult decisions as the consequences of the climate crisis ramp up. In this world, not a single species on the planet is safe, especially not humans.

Along the way we meet the last blue whale on earth (who is voiced by actress Meryl Streep), a stepmother and stepson duo that take drastic taboo measures to combat rising temperatures, a powerful billionaire who believes capitalism will save the planet, and many more characters with equally compelling narratives. Each episode highlights a specific and unique climate story that gives us a peek into what our future may look like if meaningful action is not taken today.

While I have always had concern for the future inhabitants of our planet, Extrapolations has managed to emotionally connect me with them, even if they may not exist yet. I can finally visualize the faces of the future generations our planet will be passed down to.

During a conversation with Burns (who is the creator of the show) and Fortenberry (executive producer and writer), it was clear that their aim was to shift the focus from facts to concern about humanity, about real people.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

AG: What sort of climate story were you trying to tell with Extrapolations? What did you want people to get out of it?

Burns: “Extrapolations is storytelling to help people reconsider the world around them. And I guess my belief is that stories do shape people if you get them to metabolize them. And that’s why I did this.”

Fortenberry: “I think for people who have been paying attention to the climate crisis there’s a sense of reality. Even though the show is actually making things up, we’re extrapolating a future. Extrapolations feels like it’s connected to all of the real world problems that we are actually facing. And then I think for people who are less aware of climate change, I think the show has a chance to open up that process.”

AG: I read that your goal for the Extrapolations team was to make sure that people sit down for an hour to watch your show, that you aim to entertain them. Where is that line between entertainment and science?

Burns: “If you’re going to imagine the future, you need it to be informed by science. And so that’s where we’d start. What are the things that are likely to happen in the next 50 years? We actually laid them out after talking to experts.

And then, my really strong belief was, okay, put that in your mind but now think about stories that you love. Think about love stories, think about arguments with parents, think about what it’s like to grow up in the world and pick a point on that timeline, and put that story there. Go write the climate change version of Midnight Run, Fail Safe, or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

Fortenberry: “We always wanted to focus on having characters who had emotional things going on in their lives… and to really focus always on the question of intimate human relationships.

We tried really hard to understand all the science, but it’s not a PowerPoint. You know, if someone wants to see a PowerPoint about climate change, you should see a PowerPoint.This is a bad substitute for watching a PowerPoint. This isn’t a description of what will necessarily happen. These are extrapolations.”

AG: How did you come to the decisions about what environmental stances would be taken?”

Burns: “My answer to your question is going to be really simple, which is, I don’t think it’s my job to answer a question. I think my job is to ask questions. And if they’re artfully asked, I think they land inside of the audience. And they follow you around for a little while, keep tapping on the shoulder going, ‘What’s the right thing?’”

Fortenberry: “I think the first thing we’re trying to communicate is: wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to make these very difficult decisions? Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to wrestle between either losing whales forever or having them live in a DNA vault somewhere, you know, to end up in a zoo, or AI or something else?

That’s a question I wish we didn’t have to answer. Wouldn’t it be great if the various institutions that we have entrusted to solve this problem –– whether it’s the UN or the United States government, or corporations –– were able to fix this?”

AG: So, what is the future for climate stories and what advice do you have for their storytellers?

Fortenberry: “There are infinite ways of tackling the climate story. Extrapolations is eight versions… and look how different they are from each other! If someone else wants to go out and make another climate show that is in a totally different genre, or they love the thriller parts and they hate the romance parts, great. Then they should make a climate thriller!

If someone looks at all of this and goes, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe you didn’t do a teen comedy genre! Why isn’t this climate Clueless?’, that’s amazing. They should go write that movie. Extrapolations being able to have so many different tones and stories is partly an invitation to anybody who’s interested in making climate storytelling to say there are no genre limits. A climate story does not have to have a natural disaster to be a climate story.”

Burns: “It’s no longer the storyteller’s job to convince the audience that climate change is happening… Now, we move into a different space, which is convincing the audience that every day before this kills you, you live with it, and you live with it with the agency of making decisions that will keep it from killing you if you choose.”

Stream the limited eight-episode series on Apple TV+.