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Crash course in climate change: 7 documentaries to stream right now

Has the heat or the latest COVID-19 surge — or the general state of the world — left you comatose on your couch? The good news is that you only need to reach for your remote, or laptop or smartphone, to do something good for the planet.

Knowledge, of course, is power. And there’s growing research to show how documentaries have a unique ability to not only inform, but also to spur social movements than can help spark change. So we’ve rounded up seven of the best documentaries about climate change that are streaming across various platforms right now.

A word of caution: After watching these films, you just might feel inspired to get off that couch and visit a farmer’s market, write to your Congress member or finally start that composting bin.


If you like your information without a side of depression, this is the documentary for you. There’s zero apocalyptic music or footage of dying animals; just solutions, and even some moments that might make you chuckle.

Calling the 2019 film “an exercise in fact-based dreaming,” Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau structures “2040” as a love letter to his then-four-year-old daughter. He first uses a simple analogy and clever graphics to explain how our planet got to the state it’s in. Then he spends the rest of the film imagining a future in the year 2040 where climate change has been reversed.

Gameau’s predictions follow one hard rule: They’re all based on existing technology. So he goes around the world to document these planet-friendly practices already in action, from villages in Bangladesh powered by off-the-grid solar networks to farms in Australia that have transformed agriculture into a practice that helps rather than harms the planet.

You can rent or buy “2040” — which is one of two films on this list with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 100% — on YouTube. You can also visit the film’s website for ways to put what you’ve learned into action, from downloading school lessons plans to launching a climate action plan at work.

“Ice on Fire”

There’s a lot more Hollywood oomph in this more conventional documentary, from the narration by Leonardo DiCaprio to the dramatic scenes that give “Ice on Fire” its name. But the 2019 film also offers perhaps the clearest overview of the science behind climate change, blending footage and graphics to illustrate how methane emissions, other triggers and impacts are being measured in real time.

Even those well versed in the basics of climate change will likely learn something new from this film, which introduces concepts such as “marine snow” and “bionic leaves.” And while the film paints a dire picture of where we stand, it finishes with a look at viable solutions.

“Ice on Fire” is streaming for subscribers on HBO Max, or you can rent or buy it on Amazon Prime.

“Kiss the Ground”

Most films on this list try to tackle a wide range of climate-related topics, from energy to oceans to transportation. But “Kiss the Ground” focuses on one problem and one potential solution, with a fix that doesn’t even require much in the way of sacrifice to make it a reality.

As he opens his narration to this 2020 film, actor Woody Harrelson explains he was tired of feeling overwhelmed when the topic of climate change came up. So when he heard about how repairing our soils through regenerative farming has the power to actually reverse climate change, he said he finally felt some optimism again.

That tone shines throughout the film, despite occasional gut checks on where things stand. And while some films that cover similar ground — such as the Kate Winslet-narrated documentary “Eating Our Way to Extinction” — pitch vegetarianism as the only fix, “Kiss the Ground” presents cows as part of the solution, likely making it easier for many audiences to swallow.

“Kiss the Ground,” which is linked with a Los Angeles-based nonprofit of the same name, is streaming free for subscribers on Netflix and is available for rent for $1 on Vimeo. Educators can also get a free link to screen a 45-minute version on the film’s website.

“David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet”

It’s hard to pick just one film from David Attenborough, godfather of the nature documentary, to highlight here. But “A Life on Our Planet” frames the impacts of climate change in a way that’s particularly powerful and palatable.

Calling this 2020 film his “witness statement,” Attenborough, now 96, uses his own remarkable life to show how much climate change has altered the world’s biodiversity since he was born. And he poses a question with a potentially frightening answer: If the world has changed this much in the past century, what might happen in another 100 years if we continue down this path?

While the film is light on the suffering wildlife scenes that can make some climate documentaries tough to stomach, a scene where the camera lingers on Attenborough’s lined face as he ponders the changes he has seen will likely stick with you long after credits roll.

“David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet” is streaming free for subscribers on Netflix.

“Climate Refugees”

While this is the oldest film on this list, with a 2010 release date, “Climate Refugees” also does the best job at showing how climate change is already affecting humans across the globe.

Filmmaker Michael Nash traveled to 48 countries to document how competition over resources such as water and food, along with natural disasters such as drought and storms, are increasingly displacing entire groups of people. In this way, he frames climate change as a national security risk that should worry everyone, no matter their feelings on saving polar bears or otherwise preserving nature.

The film has its flaws, at times veering into “poverty porn” or feeding on fear of “others.” Nash also avoids acknowledging how human behavior drives climate change. But he strives to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, quoting from political figures such as Newt Gingrich in hopes of painting climate change as a bipartisan issue that doesn’t end at the border.

“Climate Refugees” is streaming free with commercials on a variety of platforms, such as PlutoTV, or it’s available for rent or purchase on apps such as Amazon Prime.

“Youth v Gov”

With this one, think less National Geographic and more John Grisham.

The 2020 film “Youth v Gov” follows the case of Juliana et al vs. the United States of America, in which Kelsey Juliana and 20 other kids — with help from environmental attorneys and organizations — sued the federal government over climate change.

Their 2015 lawsuit asks the question: “Do people have constitutional rights to a climate that sustains life?” The suit argues that the federal government is knowingly contributing to the crisis by subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, and it demands a forced end to that practice.

You likely don’t need a spoiler alert to know that hasn’t happened. But this film offers an insightful look at the U.S. policies at play while sparking discussion about accountability and offering some inspiring footage of the next generation at work.

“Youth v Gov” is streaming free for Netflix subscribers.

“Chasing Coral”

You can’t have a serious discussion about climate change without examining how it affects the ocean — and how those changes will affect us all. And while several films listed above touch on impacts to the seas, “Chasing Coral” is the best deep dive (pun intended) on the topic.

In this 2017 film, scientists and photographers team up to document how the world’s coral reefs are bleaching and then dying. The film answers basic questions along the way, from what coral is to why it matters if reefs go away. And while it spends time on the technicalities of capturing time-lapse footage underwater, the startling before-and-after images are worth the journey.

“Chasing Coral,” which is the second film on this list with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 100%, is streaming free for subscribers on Netflix or for anyone on the platform’s YouTube channel.

Source: Orange County Register

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