Filmmaker and writer Scott Z Burns isn’t known for science fiction, but he has an uncanny track record of foretelling the future.
Burns wrote the 2011 movie Contagion, which anticipated the Covid-19 pandemic. Before that, he was a producer of Al Gore’s prescient 2006 climate change documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. This theme is further explored in Extrapolations, Burns’ star-studded Apple TV+ series that dramatises a near-future in which the climate crisis intensifies. It’s the first time a scripted television show has attempted to depict the all-too-probable realities of daily life in a world where carbon levels continue their inexorable rise.
Set between 2037 and 2070, Extrapolations eight interconnected episodes — the first three of which dropped on March 17 — weave in big themes that include species extinction, geo-engineering and corporate ecocide.
As glaciers collapse, cities are submerged and forests burn, characters played by Meryl Streep, Kit Harington, Sienna Miller, Daveed Diggs, Edward Norton and other A-list actors try to navigate the fallout.
But Extrapolations is pointedly not a dystopian tale of the climate apocalypse; it’s more like the present dialed up to 11. Burns says he choose to open the series in 2037 because it’s “close enough to where you’re sitting right now, you can’t look at it and dismiss it.” At the same time, he wanted Extrapolations to extend far enough into the future so “that we could show people the upshot of many of the things that are already in process and where they’re likely to lead.
“For most of us, climate change isn’t just experienced when you walk out on a very hot day or a day where there’s a hurricane,” Burns says. “It’s actually seeping into every aspect of your life. And I wanted to connect those dots.”
The show’s first episode opens on July 16, 2037: As wildfires rage around the world, demonstrators rally in Tel Aviv outside the annual United Nations climate conference, now in its 42nd year. A skyscraper-sized hologram of a protest leader (Yara Shahidi) addresses the crowd.
“I was born in 2015 when the world went to Paris and was issued a warning. Scientists told us way back then, that if the average temperature on Earth increased beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, there will be devastating consequences. And they were right. Just look around,” she shouts. “What happens when the corporations that are destroying our world say that our economies will fail if we don’t allow the temperatures to rise by 2.1 or 2.2 degrees?”
Extrapolations eschews some of the trappings of shows set in the future: Autonomous helicopters exist, as do holographic computers and wearable smartphones, but in early episodes there are no flying cars or other far-flung technology that might make the show’s verisimilitude easier to dismiss. Mid-century fashion and cars — all electric — are as recognisable as the smoky, Blade Runner-orange skies seen during the 2020 wildfires. (Twenty years from now, they’ve become inescapable.)
To finesse that realism, Burns, executive producer Dorothy Fortenberry and the show’s other writers plotted their timelines not unlike UN scientists modeling temperature-rise scenarios. “Some of the things going into the future were as big as when it might be anticipated that an ice shelf would break up,” Burns says. “Some of them were as small as predictions about when the last pinot noir grape would go extinct in Napa Valley.”
The writers also looked to journalist and activist Bill McKibben, who wrote the first book on climate change for a general audience, The End of Nature, in 1989, and served as a technical consultant on Extrapolations. McKibben says a scripted series on climate is long overdue. “Where is all the art about climate change?” he asks, pointing to Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up as one of few examples. “Why has climate change not yet done what the AIDS epidemic [did] and produced a wave of remarkable art, operas and screenplays that really helped change people’s perceptions?”
Michael Ellenberg, founder of Media Res, the independent studio that produced Extrapolations, says he received multiple offers for the show, noting that the advent of the limited-series format has made streamers more receptive to hard-to-categorise dramas. This decade’s endless fires, floods and heat waves also had an impact. “Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, you understood intellectually what was happening,” he says, “but maybe not viscerally as you do now.”
Entertaining an audience and moving them to action tend to be different endeavours - but Burns argues that accomplishing the latter requires attention to the former, and Extrapolations is full of compelling moments. In the show’s first episode, a nihilistic Miami developer (Matthew Rhys) schemes to build a casino in the now-melted Arctic, despite warnings that the imminent collapse of Greenland’s ice sheet will trigger massive flooding. “We’ll build there next,” he declares. “They also said the same thing about Miami. All we did was make a fortune retrofitting the buildings and guess what? When it goes up another couple of inches we’ll retro-(expletive)-fit again and make even more money.”
In the second episode, wildlife scientist Rebecca Shearer (Sienna Miller) travels the world for a company that plans to revive soon-to-be extinct species for a future zoo. In the third, the mother of a Miami rabbi played by Daveed Diggs accepts a government relocation to Chicago, as her son’s congregants don rain boots to attend services at their inundated synagogue. There is also, of course, a megalomaniacal tech billionaire bent on profiting from climate chaos. Harington, best known for playing Jon Snow on Game of Thrones, here takes on the role of Nicholas Bilton, the planet’s wealthiest person and CEO of Alpha Industries, a global conglomerate that’s a rollup of Amazon and Google with interests in pharmaceuticals, lab-grown food and seabed mining in an ice-free Arctic. “The man whose house is on fire is incredibly easy to negotiate with,” Bilton opines as he prepares to offer the UN a devil’s bargain. (If he reminds you of certain rocket-launching billionaires from the present, that’s not a coincidence.)
The global sweep of Extrapolations and its interweaved, decades-spanning stories also echoes The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson’s sprawling 2020 climate novel. “It’s crazy; by the time I had read The Ministry for the Future we had already broken out so much of the season and worked on so many scripts, and it felt eerie,” Fortenberry says. “At first, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what kind of crazy mind meld is happening?’ “ She soon realized Robinson was likely reading the same scientific reports and journalism. “When you consider that information seriously, and think about how people are,” she says, “you come to conclusions about what life might and could look like.”
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'Extrapolations' is streaming on Apple TV+.