Warm temperatures baked Earth in the first half of 2020, and 19 of the last 20 years are the warmest on record. Extreme weather events are getting worse, and the Arctic is not looking good, even though nations around the globe have committed to keeping average global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Still, it can be hard to get your head around exactly how human-induced climate change is affecting our globe when each day we just go about our daily lives, scrolling through TikTok and making carefree weekend plans (well, before pandemic, anyway). If you actually hear from those at the forefront of this emergency, along with scientists and researchers, you might be moved to realise it’s everyone’s problem — and to act in ways that might help fix it.
Being informed about climate change and its very real consequences is crucial for all human beings. The truth is no easy pill to swallow, and anxiety about climate change is real, but our lives and the continued existence of our planet depends on people knowing what’s up. Maybe you don’t have the time or inclination to sit down with the studies, like Mashable’s Mark Kaufman does for you. No problem. You can turn to a handy documentary and get educated on what’s happening to the only Earth we’ve got.
We’ve rounded up the best climate change documentaries and where to watch them. Plus, we’ve added a tip on how to help in real life, after these films leave you wondering what the hell to do next.
What would the world look like in 20 years if we implemented existing technological solutions to tackle climate change right now? Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau wanted to find out in order to write a visual letter to his 4-year-old daughter, Velvet. Rather than sitting in the grim reality of the present, Gameau travelled the globe to chat with people who are developing ways to reduce our emissions, sequester excess carbon from the system, and disrupt the economic system — in renewable energy, regenerative farming, marine permaculture, and electric, shared transportation. With knowledge of these projects in hand and a kickass animation team, Gameau presents optimistic, hypothetical landscapes of what our world could look like if we used them. He calls it “an exercise in fact-based dreaming,” and it is truly wondrous and hopeful to behold.
Where to watch: Rent/buy from Amazon, Google Play, Microsoft, iTunes, and others
After the film: Create your own personalised action plan for 2040 on the website, which lets you select preferences and generate manageable options. We don’t all have $50K to donate, but there are things each of us can do!
2. Our Planet
Sir David Attenborough’s absolutely stunning 2019 Netflix series, Our Planet, explores Earth’s important habitats and the life they support, and shows how they’re being affected by rising temperatures and sea levels, ocean acidification, and subsequent wildlife population decline. Over eight episodes, you’ll wander through frozen landscapes, jungles, forests, coastal areas and reefs, deserts, grasslands, and down into the dark depths of the ocean to see the devastatingly real impact climate change is having on the animals and plants who live in these places.
Directed by Adam Chapman, Our Planet channels classic Attenborough, artfully and thoughtfully communicating a spectacular sense of how everything is connected, from food chains to weather patterns — and how climate change is affecting it all. “All across our planet, crucial connections are being disrupted,” Attenborough narrates. “The stability that we and all life relies upon is being lost. What we do in the next 20 years will determine the future for all life on Earth.”
Every single image in this series will make you gasp out loud. You won’t unsee the walruses.
Where to watch: Netflix
After the film: Check out the series website for five ways you can help.
3. An Inconvenient Truth + An Inconvenient Sequel
In 2006, former Vice President Al Gore dropped An Inconvenient Truth on the world, with a data-driven presentation on the urgency of climate change that branded the need to tackle its human-made causes as a moral and ethical issue. Ten years later, he followed it up with a sequel, and both are worth your time. Though it delivers data (like the hottest years on record and ocean temperatures) only up until 2005, An Inconvenient Truth gives a sense of just how long we’ve been having this conversation, the trivial steps policymakers have made or not, and the frustration over a lack of concern from our leaders. The film outlines the basic science behind global warming, makes plain the connection between CO2 levels and global temperature rise, and hammers home the fact that today’s levels and those predicted by scientists are way beyond Earth’s natural cycle. The film also makes the link between rising global and ocean temperatures and extreme weather events like Hurricane Katrina, something that unfortunately finds a brutal update in the second film.
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, released in 2017, picks up 10 years later in the same presentation format with new, sobering data, and with Gore hitting the ground and travelling to key locations like Florida, where extreme weather events have gotten worse.
Where to watch:
An Inconvenient Truth — U.S. stream from Kanopy and Hoopla, UK from Prime Video
An Inconvenient Sequel — U.S. stream from Kanopy, UK rent/buy from Amazon, Microsoft, iTunes
After the film: Check out Gore’s nonprofit The Climate Reality Project and see what they’re up to near you.
4. Fire in Paradise
Extreme weather events like California’s raging wildfires are hard to comprehend unless you’re on the ground, like the residents of the small town of Paradise. Directed by Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari, Netflix’s Fire in Paradise details the experiences of residents who survived the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, California, which killed 85 people and caused $16.5 billion in damage.
The 40-minute documentary recreates this disaster through interviews with unfathomably courageous Cal Fire and volunteer firefighters, 911 fire dispatch operators, and residents who found themselves trapped by walls of flame on all sides. Combining these with news coverage and harrowing phone footage, Fire in Paradise takes you minute-by-minute through the disaster to show just how quickly these fires spread, engulfing houses, businesses, and roads. It also puts them in the context of the increasingly frequent and intensified wildfires California is experiencing due to climate change.
Where to watch: Netflix
After the film: Read up on these charities detailed in a feature Mashable ran in 2018 after the fires. Check their websites to see what they need right now, and consider donating or volunteering. If you’re looking for further onscreen investigation into those affected by California’s fires, watch Derek Knowles and Spencer Seibert’s After the Fire, which follows residents of Sonoma Valley after the devastating wildfires there in 2017.
5. Lowland Kids
Isle de Jean Charles, a sinking island on the coast of Louisiana, is set to completely disappear one day in the near future thanks to rising sea levels. Lowland Kids, a 20-minute short documentary that premiered at SXSW in 2019, introduces you to Howard and Juliette, teen siblings who have grown up on the island and are soon to become America’s first climate refugees. With poignant direction from Sandra Winther, stunning cinematography, and frank, incredibly sad interviews, the film presents an intimate portrait of a family at the precipice of involuntary upheaval, exploring the idea of home and displacement due to climate change.
Where to watch: Vimeo
After the film: For more stories from this part of the world, watch the Smithsonian Channel’s five-part series, Last Call for the Bayou: Five Stories from Louisiana’s Disappearing Coastline.
6. Chasing Coral
If you don’t know what coral bleaching actually means, what it looks like, and why it’s an undeniable indicator of climate change, Netflix’s Chasing Coral will leave you in no doubt. (It’s when corals, stressed by temperatures changes, expel algae that live within their tissues, causing them to turn white.) Directed by Chasing Ice’s Jeff Orlowski, the documentary follows a team of dedicated divers, photographers, and marine and coral reef biologists studying the loss of the world’s reefs.
Human-induced climate change is the biggest threat to coral reefs — more so, even, than pollution and unsustainable fishing. Global warming, rising sea temperatures, and ocean acidification have devastated reefs in the Florida Keys, American Samoa, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Hawaii, New Caledonia, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The film shows not only how these ecosystems are inherently connected to ours, but also how devastating it is for the team who sees the reef close up, diving every day to manually track its ecological collapse. There are plenty of archival comparisons throughout the film illustrating reef demise, but nothing will prepare you for the time lapse revealed at the end.
Where to watch: Netflix
After the film: Check out the Chasing Coral website for ways to take action.
7. The Condor and the Eagle
Directed by Sophie and Clément Guerra, The Condor and the Eagle examines a key contributor to climate change — the fossil fuel industry — and its disproportionate impact on Indigenous communities. In interviews with Indigenous leaders, activists, and organisers, the film makes plain the serious impact the coal and oil industry is having on First Nations communities, while heralding the need for inclusive solutions to the global crisis.
The documentary focuses on the work of activists Bryan Parras and Yudith Nieto in Manchester, Houston; Lubicon Cree activist Melina Laboucan-Massimo from Alberta, Canada, where the destructive oil extraction development known as the Tar Sands is; Ponca Nation activist Casey Camp-Horinek; and human rights defender Patricia Gualinga of the Ecuadorian Amazon Indigenous community Pueblo Kichwa de Sarayaku. The Condor and the Eagle details the lack of consultation with local communities from exploitive, unchecked fossil fuel companies, and how local groups are speaking to one another to figure out ways to resist development.
Where to watch: Rent from Films for Action
After the film: Check out the filmmakers’ Impact campaign for events, discussions, and workshops online or near you.
8. Kiss the Ground
Woody Harrelson narrates this 2020 documentary that takes a look at a solution to climate change that the actor says “is right under our feet, and it’s as old as dirt.” It’s soil, and “due to its vast scale and its ability to sequester immense quantities of greenhouse gases, it could just be the one thing that can balance our climate, replenish our fresh water supplies, and feed the world.” The documentary initially plays to our more self-motivated tendencies, getting our attention by championing the health benefits of eating nutrient-rich food grown in healthy soil (with a fleeting cameo from Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen, why not), but for the most part, it hammers home soil’s critical ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and stabilise Earth’s climate.
It’s unsettling to watch as the film unpacks the pressing threat of soil desertification (land that is turning to desert), the damage caused by industrial agriculture (the quick history of chemical pesticide use in America is alarming), and the fact that within 60 years, the U.N. predicts the world’s remaining topsoil will be gone. But instead of resting on this doomscape, the film optimistically showcases those championing regenerative agriculture, running composting and sustainable waste management facilities, and fighting to restore balance to the planet through the dirt under your feet.
Where to watch: Netflix
After the film: Check out Kiss the Ground’s stewardship and farmland programs that support farmers and their adoption of regenerative agriculture, and check out the website’s map where you can find regenerative local farms.
9. How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change
If you’re looking for a straightforward, textbook look at the causes and impact of climate change, this is not it. Directed by Oscar-nominated Gasland director Josh Fox, How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change is as unpindownable and strange as its title. Summarising the globe’s situation with overwhelmingly personal bluntness, Fox brings a colloquially relatable level of alarm to the film, saying after one particularly doomed montage, “I don’t know about you, but I’m about ready to watch a few cat videos right now.” Nonetheless, he interviews climate scientists and environmental analysts and scholars, and joins those on the frontline in order to ask the question: What happens to human beings when our industrial development puts incredible stress on civilization, from coastal areas affected by rising sea levels to places plagued by extreme weather events like drought, hurricanes, tornados, and wildfires?
Where to watch: iTunes
After the film: Check out the film’s website for ideas on how to take daily action.
10. Before the Flood
If you’re not into climate change documentaries helmed by celebrities, this one might not be for you. However, even if you’re not a fan of Hollywood actor, Before the Flood presenter, and U.N. Messenger of Peace Leonardo DiCaprio, his use of star power and sizable budget to draw attention to the climate crisis in this documentary is undeniably impactful, encouraging people to admit what they don’t know and make the decision to get educated. “The truth is, the more I’ve learned about this issue and everything that contributes to the problem, the more I realise how much I don’t know,” he says.
Released in 2016, Before the Flood covers many of the same areas as Al Gore’s films, functioning as a strong primer on climate change, the damage we’ve done, and what’s likely to happen if we fail to act. DiCaprio spent two years traveling to key locations: the melting ice sheets in Kangerlussuaq in Greenland and Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic; flooding Florida with its electric flood pumps and raised roads; and the Sumatran rainforest, where deforestation is causing wildlife habitat destruction and increased industrial carbon emissions. DiCaprio also interviews a heck of a lot of people, everyone from world leaders, including then-President Barack Obama and Pope Francis (seriously, the Pope), to Arctic explorers and guides, climatologists, astronauts, scholars, economists, marine ecologists, and Elon Musk inside Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada.
Though it’s four years old now, the arguments are frustratingly the same today. The documentary was filmed in conjunction with the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, and since then, things have happened. “You just have to take it on faith that these countries are going to follow through with what they say. How likely is that?” DiCaprio narrates. If you can get past the fact that DiCaprio learned his first lessons about the repercussions of thoughtless decadence from a painting that sat over his crib as a child (Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Seriously.) then you can get into this.
Where to watch: Stream on Disney+, rent on Amazon
After the film: Check out the Before the Flood website for ideas on how to help.
11. Chasing Ice
Directed by Chasing Coral’s Jeff Orlowski, Chasing Ice focuses its efforts on visionary environmental photographer James Balog and the documentation known as the Extreme Ice Survey, which saw him and a group of adventurers hauling time-lapse cameras across the Arctic (“not the nicest environment for technology”) to show the effects of global warming on glaciers. It’s this type of difficult, taxing, and dangerous time-lapse filming that has made communicating the effects of climate change to the public incredibly effective, and it’s the same strategy Orlowski’s team uses in Chasing Coral, to devastating effect.
Balog first captured images in the Arctic in 2005 on assignment for National Geographic, an experience that would change him from climate change skeptic to campaigner and evidence provider. As well as stunning cinematography from Orlowski, Chasing Ice includes footage from Balog’s history-making, 75-minute, time-lapse capture of the calving (when big ice chunks break off a glacier) of the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland. It’s hard to forget, and impossible to dispute.
Where to watch: Rent/buy on YouTube or iTunes in the UK, or rent/buy from Amazon or iTunes in the U.S.
After the film: Watch Chasing Coral (see above).
A bold film made in 2014 by filmmaker Kip Andersen, Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret investigates the relatively unchallenged livestock industry and its destructive effect on the planet, its catastrophic natural resource usage, and the major role animal agriculture plays in global warming. But hey, nobody wants to talk about it, right?
The film argues the main focus for many environmental groups combatting climate change is fossil fuels, while Andersen finds a lack of cooperation with leaders within the movement to discuss animal agriculture — although many tell him how dangerous it could be to speak truth to power within this realm. It will make you rethink what you eat, at the very least.
Where to watch: Netflix
After the film: Check out the film’s website for ideas on how to take action, primarily including ways to pick plants over meat.
13. Climate Change: The Facts
It doesn’t get much more straightforward than the BBC’s Climate Change: The Facts, but it’s just one hour and it’s presented by Sir David Attenborough, so dig the hell in. If you’re after a comprehensive and wildly concerning rundown of the current situation, this 2019 documentary wields relatively recent data alongside interviews with leading climate scientists like James Hansen and activists like Greta Thunberg.
According to the documentary, eight percent of species are at risk of extinction purely due to climate change. Attenborough considers the real impact of global temperature increase on animals struggling to adapt to rapidly changing conditions — like the 11,000 fruit bats killed in Australia due to a heat wave. The documentary also examines extreme weather events, including wildfires in Australia, Greece, the U.S., even the Arctic, along with superstorms and flooding events, and the displacement of communities in the South Pacific and Louisiana with land being lost to rising sea levels. It’s a lot in one hour.
Where to watch: BBC iPlayer
After the film: Watch Our Planet on Netflix (see above).
14. Anthropocene: The Human Epoch
In 2016, an international group of scientists, the Anthropocene Working Group, declared the end of Earth’s Holocene epoch, arguing that we’ve entered what’s known as the Anthropocene epoch, in which human activity has irreversibly changed and now determines the planet’s natural systems. It’s this term that inspires this documentary, created by Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky, and narrated by Alicia Vikander. Self-described as “a cinematic meditation on humanity’s massive reengineering of the planet,” Anthropocene: The Human Epoch takes a look at how much human activity has permanently impacted the natural world on a colossal scale.
Where to watch: Stream on Kanopy, buy/rent on Amazon
After the film: Check out the filmmakers’ favoured organisations to support on the website.
15. Racing Extinction
The rate of species going extinct is accelerating. (Here are all we lost in 2019.) The U.N. attributes this to changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species, in that order, some of which The Discovery Channel’s Racing Extinction digs into. Created by the Ocean’s 11-style team behind The Cove, the film uses plenty of clever filming techniques to dig into some serious truths about the human impact on wildlife. Using lab experiments and photo comparison, the team examines the effects of ocean acidification and rising temperatures on marine ecosystems, and employs high-definition infra-red cameras to reveal CO2 emissions from transportation and factories. As this is indeed the Cove team, the documentary also deploys undercover cameras and covert techniques to examine the other threat to species across the globe: the illegal wildlife trade.
Where to watch: Buy/rent on iTunes or Amazon
After the film: Learn more about protecting the Endangered Species Act. It’s important.
16. Paris to Pittsburgh
If you’re not sure what you can do on a local level to contribute to the goals of the Paris Agreement and aren’t happy to wait around for the federal government to act on climate change, check out this empowering documentary. Directed by National Geographic filmmaker Sidney Beaumont and documentarian Michael Bonfiglio, Paris to Pittsburgh follows Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017 and the Mayor of Pittsburgh’s decision for the city to stay in. Citizens hit the streets, which drove a national movement in cities around America that pledged to uphold the Paris goals and commit to using 100 percent renewable energy.
Narrated by The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Rachel Brosnahan, the documentary consults climate scientists, geologists, politicians, and local pioneers to understand what those cities are actually doing to achieve this. This includes renewable energy efforts in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, hammered by extreme weather events like Hurricane Maria, which caused widespread power outages, and Miami, Florida, affected by flooding from rising sea levels. Plus, it names and shames climate deniers within the American government, and points out shameful budget cuts to the EPA by the Trump administration.
Where to watch: Disney+
After the film: Check out the We Are Still In campaign and read about how individuals can get involved.
17. Ice on Fire
Yes, this one has Leonardo DiCaprio’s fingerprints on it too, but it’s a strong enough film to make this list. Executive-produced and narrated by the actor, HBO’s Ice on Fire takes a look at the devastating potential impact the melting Arctic ice caps will have on the Earth. Through interviews with scientists and experts, the Cannes-selected documentary investigates the fact that methane gases released into the atmosphere from the melting caps will have catastrophic repercussions on the planet. Making plain the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions, the film consults innovative scientists focused on strategies to pull CO2 from the atmosphere, as well as other renewable and sustainable projects, offering up a much-needed but time-sensitive glimmer of hope. Technology got us into this mess, maybe it can get us out of it.
Where to watch: HBO Max, HBO Now, HBO Go, Kanopy
After the film: Get readin’ — there are a bunch of resources on HBO’s site worthy of your time.
18. This Changes Everything
Directed by Avi Lewis and inspired by Naomi Klein’s nonfiction book This Changes Everything, this documentary visits communities on the front lines of climate change. Filmed over 211 shoot days in nine countries and five continents over four years, and narrated by Klein herself, the film visits those demanding change from power: from First Nations communities around the Alberta Tar Sands to post-Hurricane Sandy New York; farmers in Montana’s Powder River Basin to anti-gold mine protesters in Halkidiki, Greece; and communities protesting coal plants in wetlands in Sompeta, Andhra Pradesh, as well as those living through air pollution in China’s cities.
This Changes Everything illustrates the effects of government inaction on climate change, examining the false benefits promised to local communities surrounding fossil fuel plants and the growth of only those exploiting natural resources at the top of the economic system. Klein offers some hope, suggesting that we could seize this current climate crisis to tackle our failed economic systems and create something better, and that change happens only through pressure from below.
Where to watch: Rent/buy on Amazon
After the film: You could read the book or check out the team’s directory of those creating solutions to the climate crisis.
19. Climate Refugees
Directed and produced by Michael P. Nash in 2010, Climate Refugees is a documentary about the human face of climate change: how people, towns, and even whole countries are moving around the globe due to rising sea levels and following extreme weather events, and how increasing global temperatures affect food supply for populations. It’s 10 years old now, and situations have sadly gotten worse for some in the areas Nash visits, but it’s still an important film to consult.
About 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the coast, and these communities are at the forefront of the impact of climate change, including Pacific Island nations like the Maldives and Tuvalu, impacted by rising seas and severe storms. Nash travelled around the world for 18 months talking to people in those communities, as well as aid workers and activists, scientists, and politicians including Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, and Newt Gingrich.
Where to watch: Stream through Hoopla, Kanopy (U.S.) or Amazon Prime (UK)
After the film: Watch Lowland Kids (see above) and read Mashable’s three-part multimedia project that spotlights the daily lives of Marshall Islands residents.
If you’re feeling hopeless in the face of climate change and aren’t sure whether there’s anything you can do, check out Disobedience. Directed by Kelly Nyks, the film is a convincing presentation of what happens when people get sick of waiting for governments to act and unite to take things into their own hands, like the 50,000-strong human chain formed in Aliağa, Turkey in 1990, to protest the planned coal power plant. Featuring interviews with This Changes Everything author Naomi Klein, activist Lidy Nacpil, co-founder of 350.org Bill McKibben, online activist network Avaaz.org founder Ricken Patel, and other leaders in this realm, the film examines the power of climate activism and using your own resources to change things.
Where to watch: The film’s official website
After the film: Read Mashable’s article on how to become an activist, no matter your age, and check out Mashable’s Social Good Series for more inspiration on how to get involved in the fight to tackle climate change.
Importantly, if all of this has triggered some severe climate change anxiety, here’s how to cope.