5 Essential Climate Change Documentaries

Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, and some wannabe pirates show us the irreparable damage to the planet in these five films.

climate change documentaries
Argot Pictures

Climate change — the ruination of a habitable Earth — is the great equalizer and unstoppable force that should be on the forefront of all of our minds, especially those that belong to people in positions of political, economic, and commercial power. Yet, the collective human conscious chooses to ignore the warning signs. It has yet to affect our day-to-day life, so why bother?

Such a mindset is what has allowed climate change to move into the realm of inevitability rather than a problem that can be fixed. It’s become like a rotten tooth we continue to ignore even though we know it needs to be pulled. The infection has spread, and the only place to lay the burden of blame on is on us — all of us, but mainly those in positions of power (freedom gas, really?).

Much like any other social and natural disaster, climate change has rightfully gotten under the skin of many artists and activists, especially filmmakers. And in a morbid sense, the death of Earth has created some of the most emotionally gnawing documentaries in recent memory. From expeditions to the end of the world itself to warning signs that refuse to be heeded, here are the five best films to address the issue:

Before the Flood (2016)

climate change documentaries before the flood

Sometimes, all you need is a familiar face to sell a point, and in Fisher StevensBefore the Flood, that familiar face belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio. The actor has long been a champion of climate change relief and protecting what is left of the natural world, and in Stevens’ documentary, we see DiCaprio in his element, where his true passions lie. He brushes shoulders with activists and scientists all over the globe to see what is really at stake when it comes to climate change, and the answer is quite literally everything.

Stevens directs the film with an economy and bluntness that helps to make its point easy enough for anyone to understand. Climate change is happening all around us, and these films are no longer warning calls but rather statements of the damning inevitability of ecological ruin.

Cool It (2010)

climate change documentaries cool it

Ondi Timoner is a deeply talented documentarian, and she throws everything and the kitchen sink into Cool It. But Cool It is not a perfect film. Yet, it is important. It is a time capsule of beliefs from nearly a decade ago, mainly that with innovation and optimism (and less daunting fearmongering), climate change can be reversed. That is no longer a reality, but that doesn’t make the raison d’être of Cool It any less meaningful.

In fact, the optimism shown by the film’s core vocalist, Swedish environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg, is invigorating. It is important to reconcile with the gloom and doom that will inevitably face the human experience, but Lomborg’s beliefs should still inspire. His ideas of ways to create and use alternative energies should still be taken into account, and better yet, his words should be heeded and turned into necessary action.

The Expedition to the End of the World (2013)

expedition to the end of the world

Daniel Dencik knows how to eke out the adventure and absurd comedy of the human desire for expedition in such a riveting way. The Expedition to the End of the World is his magnum opus, a documentary of amusing scattershot moments depicting the ridiculous experiences of Danish artists and scientists boarding a three-masted schooner and sailing to Greenland.

What makes this film so relevant to climate change is how it could not exist without global warming. Melted glacial ice has opened up new passageways for the ship, and the humble humility of the film itself belies the fact that Expedition to the End of the World is a distressingly alarming experience.

The fact that a film would not be able to exist without climate change and that its subjects are aware of this is almost too much to handle. But Dencik presents the existential crisis with humility and humor that never allows the film to slip into nihilism. Rather, it almost becomes a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-like opus for a post-climate change world.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

climate change documentaries

Davis Guggenheim‘s Oscar winner turns an essay into confrontational cinema. Based on a slideshow presentation on global warming that Al Gore was touring the world with at the time, the film grounds the viewer with a profile on the former US vice president and then fleshes out the doom-like ramifications of which he speaks. Gore’s life has not been easy, and his reasoning for why we should care and do something about climate change stems from his hardships.

To rise above strife, we must view the world through a moral lens, and thus we have, according to Gore, a moral imperative to attempt to right the wrongs done to this planet. Through the filmed slideshow, some of which becomes more incorporated into the documentary itself, he makes scientific data easily digestible and, when delivered with such clear-cut simplicity, the ramifications become all the more terrifying.

An Inconvenient Truth may sometimes delve into the realm of hagiography, but it more or less becomes the tale of two men delivering a PowerPoint presentation where the contents within are more important than both men, or anyone, combined. The fate of the world is bigger than all of us, and this documentary is an intimate look at colossal possibilities.

Into the Cold: A Journey of the Soul (2010)

into the cold

The beauty of nature is a rapidly fleeting concept, and Sebastian Copeland‘s Into the Cold: A Journey of the Soul falls into the category of documentaries that seek to capture the fleeting beauty of this planet. Into the Cold chronicles the harrowing journey of Copeland and Keith Heger as they make an overland trek to the North Pole in a centennial commemoration of Admiral Robert Peary’s historic effort in 1909.

In the last century, only 150 people have endeavored to recreate Peary’s quest, and that is for a good reason: it is damn hard. The last four-hundred miles have to be hiked on foot across ice and snowdrift. Yet, this journey is only being made harder and harder by climate change because the literal layout of the land is rapidly melting away, and irreparably changing.

As an indictment and cautious celebration of the tenacity of the human condition — the same human condition that harnessed the fossil fuels and committed other harmful acts against the Earth — Into the Cold is a complex documentary that bluntly shows the current effects of climate change. And its subjects are all too aware of the fact that they may be the last people to ever embark on such a journey due to the survival of this “land” on which they hike ticking away like a doomsday clock.

(Student/Freelance Writer)

Cole Henry is a media theory and philosophy student at Georgia State University, as well as a freelance writer and editor. He is quite interested in every aspect of documentary cinema, and can usually be found reading, writing, running, adding items to his Criterion Collection shopping cart, and eating tacos.