How National Geographic’s Shows Tackle Climate Change Without Seeming Like ‘Homework’

Animals help, along with compelling imagery and storytelling

Recent miniseries Hostile Planet focused on animals to educate viewers on climate change and preservation. National Geographic/Tom Hugh Jones
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This story is part of a weeklong series on climate change and sustainability. It’s in partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative to cover climate change in the week leading up to the U.N. summit on climate change in New York on Sept. 23. Click here to learn more about the initiative and read all of Adweek’s coverage on how sustainability and marketing intersect.

The National Geographic brand has been covering climate change for more than five decades, but it’s only been three years since the National Geographic network, which debuted in 2001, has embraced the topic as a central component of its TV strategy.

“I think the belief at the time was that no one was going to watch that,” said National Geographic Global Networks president Courteney Monroe, who began to change that after she took over the U.S. network in 2014 and added global oversight a year later.

Since then, National Geographic has regularly tackled climate change through a variety of programs, including the 2016 documentary film Before the Flood (executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio), 2018 documentary Paris to Pittsburgh (about the actions individuals and local communities are taking to combat climate change) and most recently, the Emmy-nominated miniseries Hostile Planet (which aired last spring).

Monroe spoke with Adweek about the network’s shift in strategy when it comes to climate change, how she educates audiences about the topic without making the content feel like “spinach” and the companywide initiative on tap for next year.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: This is a subject that has been part of your company’s DNA for quite a long time; this is more than just a network initiative for you, right?
Courteney Monroe: National Geographic has been in existence for 131 years, and I think for every single one of those years, that brand has been dedicated to inspiring people to care about the planet and its preservation. Climate change is core to that notion. We, as a brand—not on television, but through the magazine—first reported on actual climate change in February of 1967. This whole brand—the publishing organization, digital, magazine, television—holds true to the belief that storytelling has the power to change the world, and we focus on using our reach and storytelling to increase awareness of pressing issues that relate to the planet and covey the urgency of the problem. So it’s not new for us, and it’s not a political issue for us at all. We pride ourselves on being completely apolitical. We’re on the side of science and we’re on the side of the planet.

On the television side, we tackle it in a variety of ways. We’ve done very hard-hitting, on-the-nose climate change programming like Before the Flood, which was an account of the changes going on around the world due to climate change. And we distributed that film very differently. We didn’t just air it on the network; we gave it away for free—unauthenticated, commercial-free, on every single platform— because we care about the issue.

With Bloomberg Philanthropies, we did a documentary film called Paris to Pittsburgh, which focused on the action that individuals and communities and local governments in the U.S. can take to combat the threat of climate change. That was in the wake of the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. So we’ve done some very focused climate-change programming.

But I would actually argue that our broader dedication to natural history programming, which is celebrating the planet and the species that live on it, are all really designed to get back to that core goal of inspiring people to care about the issues that are facing the planet and care about preserving the planet and species.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV/Media Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.