Fact or fiction? New sci-fi series 'Extrapolations' explores a climate-changed future
A new show streaming on Apple TV+ creatively envisions how artificial intelligence, other advanced technologies and climate change might impact people's lives this century. In Extrapolations, Scott Burns—who produced Al Gore's 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth—tells the fictional and interconnected stories of several people living through climate collapse.
Eight episodes, set over a span of 33 years (2037 to 2070), paint a picture of a society that makes great technological strides but fails to limit its carbon emissions: By midcentury, humanity has eradicated cancer and set foot on Mars, but the Earth has also warmed 3.3°F (1.83°C) and is drowning beneath 15 inches of sea level rise.
Throughout the series, characters don oxygen masks to safely breathe despite toxic air outside, sit through services in synagogues flooded by rising seas, and stay indoors to avoid soaring temperatures that make daytime travel potentially deadly. Miami residents debate whether to take "ReLo deals," or relocation deals, to move to Northern cities, while those who remain plead with the Department of Sea Level Mitigation to save beloved buildings threatened by rising water levels.
The film's creator reportedly consulted with Gore, climate activist and writer Bill McKibben and former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, among others, to develop the series. But could any of this really happen in our lifetimes? And is it useful to imagine the future this way? CU Boulder Today spoke with several CU experts to learn more.
Is the science accurate?
There are moments when the creators nail the science, and a few times they get it wrong, according to Maxwell Boykoff, chair of the Department of Environmental Studies and fellow in the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES).
First, temperature: The show posits that by 2037, the average global temperature could be 2.8°F (1.55°C) higher than pre-industrial levels. As a result, in fictional 2059, 93 million people are displaced and 1 million die due to extreme heat each year. By 2069, carbon dioxide levels soar to 564 parts per million (ppm), and Earth's average global temperature reaches 4.7°F (2.59°C) above pre-industrial levels—144 ppm and 2.8°F (1.49°C) more than today. (In 2023, the world is already at 420 ppm of carbon dioxide and 1.9°F, or 1.1°C, above pre-industrial levels.)
Those numbers are most likely based off one of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) four Representative Concentration Pathways, or RCPs—which are greenhouse gas concentration trajectories—Boykoff said.
One RCP, considered an "intermediate scenario," projects that carbon dioxide concentrations will rise above 500 ppm by 2070 and that average global temperature will rise between 3.6°F (2°C) and 5.4°F (3°C) by 2100. It's considered one of the possible scenarios if the world doesn't do enough to address climate change.
So unfortunately, all of this "is totally in the realm of possibility," Boykoff said. "That level of displacement is certainly possible in our future, which is tragic."
Extreme events, such as hurricanes, extensive droughts and rising sea levels are already causing people to move within and between countries, Boykoff said. And when it comes to extreme heat, it's often a matter of infrastructure.
"Places aren't set up for that kind of heat," Boykoff said, "and if they're not set up for it, people die."
What about the oceans?
In an episode set in 2046, a biologist works to document vanishing species. She says the ocean temperature exceeds 90°F most days and it's too acidic to support krill, a keystone species in the world's oceans. She uses advanced technology to communicate with the last humpback whale, which is hanging on somewhere off the coast of Columbia.
Although global sea surface hit a record high temperature in April, Cassandra Brooks doubts that ocean temperatures would exceed 90°F before 2050, based on the IPCC's recent Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC).
Brooks, assistant professor of environmental studies, studies the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, where large numbers of krill live and humpback whales migrate to and from each year. Humpback whale populations are steadily increasing right now, with a full recovery from 20th century harvesting predicted by 2050, and she doesn't see them suddenly dying out two decades from now.
She said that while acidification is an alarming threat to the global oceans, it is unlikely the chemistry would change so much as to kill off all krill by mid-century. These small creatures are vulnerable to the array of impacts from climate change—not only acidification, but also warming waters and reductions in sea ice—but even under these cumulative impacts, krill populations are expected to decline and contract poleward, but not to disappear altogether by 2050.
"But there is still a lot of uncertainty about what will happen in the oceans as a result of climate change this century," said Brooks.
What about the politics?
In the first episode, a Tel Aviv-based COP (Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) set in 2037 grapples with increasing the global temperature limit from the 1.5°C set (in real life) in the historic 2015 Paris COP to a ceiling of 2.0°C or even 2.3°C degrees. Palestine compromises on this temperature increase for access to fresh water, and a corporate technology CEO gives a major press conference that has a huge influence on the decision.
While it may not have been the most accurate representation of a COP, Boykoff—who has attended six of these climate conferences since 2008—says that based on our current trajectory, this scenario is possible.
"We're going to blow through that 1.5° [Celsius] target, and so 2 versus 2.3°s could very well be the conversation that is being had 14 years from now," Boykoff said. "As in: What is that next threshold that we don't want to cross?"
Climate policy and trade policy are not intertwined today in the way the show depicts, but as water becomes scarce, people will likely come up with ways to try to secure access to it, either by force or through trade, Boykoff said.
As there is also already a heavy business presence at these conferences, a corporate CEO having that much influence at a future climate change conference is again within the realm of possibility, he said.
How is this helpful?
Boykoff, author of Creative (Climate) Communications and lead project investigator for the Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO), points out that there is no silver bullet strategy for effectively communicating climate change and its impacts to the public.
Different audiences respond differently to certain approaches. While his work with Inside the Greenhouse at CU Boulder focuses on using comedy to address the issue, he said that "some of these darker approaches can reach different audiences in a really effective way."
This show is valuable in that "it meets people where they are," he said. "It brings that future into the messiness of the here and now."
For example, some people might think: "I don't want that future!" and take action, he said.
Will we see climate change more often in popular media?
Rick Stevens, associate professor of media studies in the College of Media, Information and Communication, previously noted that this uptick in science fiction content may be due to the smaller budgets and economic flexibility that come with streaming services.
"Because of the rise of the number of quality streaming shows and movies about important social issues, there are more people willing to use these platforms to say important things," Stevens said.
Boykoff agrees. He previously helped with the online action platform that accompanied Don't Look Up, has since been invited to speak at the Hollywood Climate Summit in June and is now on Netflix's advisory team for sustainability.
Personally, he would love to see comedy used more to raise awareness of climate change and examine climate actions. If given a green light and a budget, he would create a Portlandia-esque TV show about the climate hub that is Boulder.
His working title: "Boulder Than Thou."
Provided by University of Colorado at Boulder