Filmmaker Helps Students Tell Stories About Climate Change

Justin Allison

Peter Byck
September 16, 2013

Peter Byck, 49, directed the 2010 documentary Carbon Nation, which uses the stories of everyday people to teach solutions to climate change. Mr. Byck's filmmaking led him to a new position as a professor of practice in Arizona State University's School of Sustainability and Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Here's his story, as told to Sydni Dunn.

It started at the world premiere of Al Gore's climate-change documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

At the time, I was a reporter covering the Sundance Film Festival for the Louisville Courier-Journal, and I didn't know much about climate change. After watching the film, I was the first reporter to ask the former vice president a question.


"You were vice president for eight years," I said, wondering why Mr. Gore never spoke out. "How come I didn't know about this?"

That's when it clicked.

I wasn't worried about climate change, but I was motivated. I wanted to know if there was a solution.

Flash forward to the present. I've found many solutions and ways to tell people about them without scaring or depressing them.

In my documentary Carbon Nation, which has the tag line "a climate change solutions movie that doesn't even care if you believe in climate change," I use real-world examples and characters to teach people about these solutions.

My crew and I didn't set out to make a doom-and-gloom film about global warming, nor did we try to prove it exists. The bottom line: Everyone wants clean air and water, and the film shows people that we have the technology and the brain power to achieve that one day.

Now, at Arizona State University, I'm teaching others how to convey messages about climate change through a new course, "Sustainability Storytelling." The class, which began this fall, enrolled students from the university's sustainability and journalism programs.

The sustainability students know the subject but don't know how to tell the stories, and the journalism students know how to share the message but don't have a firm grasp on the details.

That's why we brought them together.

Students from each concentration will pair up and dig into the solar issues in Arizona, focusing on Sun City, near Phoenix. They will learn the whole process of making a documentary, from finding the characters and conducting interviews, to making the film and screening it to a live audience.

Storytelling is key to getting your way, and there are many ways to do it. Just like a good writer can evoke emotion in a narrative, seeing a human being talk about what they're going through in a film can make you feel their emotions.

Documentaries happen to be my expertise, and I plan to teach the students everything I know.