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Column: This ‘Fortnite’ island is the latest climate change battleground

A screenshot of a video game avatar wielding a bow and arrow.
A screenshot from the climate-themed “Fortnite” island developed by Earthshot and Tradewater.
(Mark Bernstein)
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Let’s start with a climate allegory. I’ll call it the Parable of the Three Environmentalists.

The first runs a sustainability nonprofit led by Hollywood power players, some of whom care deeply about the climate crisis and some of whom probably care more about good publicity. She’s principled but willing to collaborate for the greater good.

The second works for an automaker that was once a hybrid vehicle pioneer but more recently has lagged behind on electric cars. The automaker has a longtime relationship with the sustainability nonprofit, sponsoring its star-studded summit this week.

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And the third? He’s employed by a wildly successful video game company that has worked with educators on sustainability lesson plans for teachers — and that’s now touting a climate change-themed game in which players can plug oil and gas wells.

Which of the environmentalists do you trust? Any of them? All of them?

We’ll start with Steve Isaacs, who works for “Fortnite” maker Epic Games.

I met Isaacs this week at the Environmental Media Assn.’s annual summit, a fancy event at West Hollywood’s Pendry hotel with a speaker list that included actors Rainn Wilson (Dwight K. Schrute on “The Office”) and Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley in the “Harry Potter” films), former NSYNC singer Lance Bass and, to close things out, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

I’ve been writing a lot about the unique power of movies, TV shows and other entertainment to motivate climate action. So when I learned that a nonprofit and a climate-focused company had teamed up to create a “Fortnite” island where teenagers and other online gamers can fight climate change by using bows and arrows to plug oil and gas wells, I had to write about it.

That’s how I ended up at the Pendry, moderating a panel that included representatives from Earthshot, the nonprofit that came up with the concept; Tradewater, a company that actually plugs abandoned gas wells, stopping them from leaking heat-trapping methane into the atmosphere; and Epic, which is such a strong business — 1.4 million people were playing “Fortnite” as I wrote this sentence Wednesday morning — that Walt Disney Co. recently invested $1.5 billion in the company.

“We’re trying to inspire climate action, presenting more positive cleantech visions of the future, and putting cleantech into spaces where young people are — and if you ask where they are, they’re on games,” Earthshot co-founder Mark Bernstein said.

Even for a nongamer like me, the idea is audaciously simple.

Players race around a “Fortnite” island trying to avoid breathing toxic fumes from oil and gas wells, while scoring as many points as possible by shooting arrows at the offending wells. They can boost their scores by scooping up nasty refrigerant canisters that spew planet-warming chlorofluorocarbons
— another serious climate problem, and another component of Tradewater’s business model.

Tradewater is the game’s sponsor. The Chicago-based company sells “carbon offsets” to corporations and individuals looking to make up for climate emissions caused by their actions. Unlike carbon offset schemes that have drawn scrutiny — such as offsets tied to forests that subsequently burn down in fires — Tradewater’s oil-well plugging provides relatively ironclad benefits. And as a certified “B Corp,” it isn’t trying to grow returns for investors. The more money it makes, the more it can spend plugging wells.

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A screenshot of a video game avatar with a bow and arrow near a building.
A screenshot from the climate-themed “Fortnite” island developed by Earthshot and Tradewater.
(Mark Bernstein)

By sponsoring the game, Tradewater hopes to attract clients — and possibly generate additional revenue if the game goes viral.

“It’s not all doom and gloom. There are solutions out there,” said Sean Kinghorn, Tradewater’s partner strategy leader.

Kinghorn’s teenage boys were the game’s first testers. He glowed with pride as he described their reaction.

“My kids always knew what I did. But we never had a deeper conversation about specifics,” he said. “Now, if you ask them about it, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, there are refrigerants. They’re harming the environment.’ It was such a cool way to open up that door.”

“They asked if we use bows and arrows in the real world,” he added. “I said, ‘No, but it’s fun in the game.’”

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That’s key: A climate-themed game has to be fun, in the same way that climate comedy has to be hilarious and a climate-tinged film or TV show has to be entertaining. If it isn’t, not many people will consume it — and the message will be lost.

So will Earthshot’s “Fortnite” foray — island code 7398-2226-8805 — be a hit or a flop?

Like I said, I’m not a gamer. So I asked my 15-year-old cousin Ben to weigh in.

He offered a mixed review, describing the game as “easy to use” but “repetitive.” Overall, he gave the island a 6 out of 10.

Asked via text whether the environmental message made sense, Ben said, “Somewhat.”

“I think it’s hard to incorporate the idea of climate change into a game but for a first rendition I’d say it’s pretty solid,” he said.

Fingers crossed that the island is a hit — not only because it would get millions of people thinking about climate solutions, but also because it would be awesome to show the entertainment industry that there’s an audience for climate content.

All of which brings us back to the Parable of the Three Environmentalists.

Epic Games wasn’t involved with the development of the climate island — it’s one of many “Fortnite” games created by users. But the North Carolina-based company did send Isaacs, its education program manager, to participate in Tuesday’s panel.

“They’re creating a very worthwhile game that also supports climate education,” Isaacs told me ahead of the panel.

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A man in a blue long-sleeved shirt points with one hand as a woman standing next to him smiles, with hands clasped.
Environmental Media Assn. summit attendees try out the new climate-themed “Fortnite” island on Tuesday as Epic Games’ education program manager, Steve Isaacs, left, watches with delight.
(Chessa Mehlman / LezzChaseLight)

If you’re surprised to learn that Epic Games has an education program, I was right there with you before meeting Isaacs.

He explained that he went to work for Epic after 28 years as a public school teacher. It’s in the company’s best interest, he said, to help middle school, high school and community college students develop the skills they’ll need to work with Unreal Engine, Epic’s 3-D computer graphics software — a tool used not only to create Fortnite, but also licensed out by Epic to film and TV studios.

Disney, for instance, used Unreal Engine to create digital backgrounds for its “Star Wars” streaming show “The Mandalorian.”

The more young people enter the workforce knowing how to use Unreal Engine, the more business for Epic.

“My role is around really supporting education through wanting students to learn through games, but also to become creators using our tools, because they are the ones playing, and they’re the ones that will be creating content,” Isaacs said.

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Epic has also worked with educators on lesson plans for teachers based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals — lessons meant to be learned by letting students build their own “Fortnite” islands to experiment with problem-solving.

Topics include safeguarding city dwellers from extreme heat and bulwarking coastal towns against rising seas. The lessons offer guidelines for how students might establish more climate-resilient societies — real-world practice powered by Unreal Engine.

Is Epic Games trying to lock in a dedicated audience? Absolutely.

Could the results be good for the planet? Definitely.

“It’s more fun to learn about some of the environmental stuff if you can actually build something in a game,” Bernstein said.

Now, returning to the Parable, and to the Hollywood stars at this week’s summit.

I went in prepared to be underwhelmed, considering that the confab was sponsored by Toyota. The company helped launch the movement away from gasoline-only cars with the Prius, America’s first widely successful hybrid. But Toyota has been slower than some of its peers to pivot to all-electric vehicles. It was also one of several car companies to side with then-President Trump in his effort to block California from setting strict tailpipe pollution standards, before backing off after President Biden took office.

Sure enough, the Toyota representatives at the summit defended the automaker’s strategy. They made the case that although some people are thrilled about electric cars, many more are willing to make the leap from gas-only to hybrids.

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“They don’t have to change their behavior to do something that makes sense for them [cost-wise] and for the environment,” said Doug Coleman, a product strategy official at Toyota Motor North America and the second environmentalist in my Parable.

Heather Willis, a Toyota marketing manager, flagged the company’s decision to make its 2025 Camry model hybrid-only.

“We anticipate we’re going to sell at least 290,000 Camrys in the next year,” Willis said. “We want to give our customers options, and we also really strongly feel that hybrid is kind of the stepping stone to help people make a difference, quite frankly.”

On the one hand, that’s 290,000 cars that will burn less oil than they would have otherwise — for many years. (I’m a Camry driver myself, getting as much mileage as I can out of the 2008 model I’ve had since I got my license.) On the other hand, that’s 290,000 cars that will spew heat-trapping carbon for many years — when scientists say we should be racing to cut climate pollution nearly in half globally over the next six years, and when transportation is the United States’ largest source of climate pollution.

Incremental progress is better than no progress. In a world of deadly heat waves, fires and storms, it’s also totally insufficient.

And so we arrive at the third environmentalist.

Debbie Levin has served as chief executive of the Environmental Media Assn. since 2000, running a nonprofit whose leadership includes major studios, high-profile actors and deep-pocketed philanthropists. She and her collaborators are known for the EMA Green Seal, a widely used checklist that encourages Hollywood production companies to adopt sustainable practices on set, such as installing solar panels, providing reusable water containers and encouraging employees to take public transit.

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The group has started suggesting that Hollywood storytellers show characters taking those actions on screen too.

“Our organization has always tried to look for solutions, as opposed to telling people the world is ending,” Levin said.

That’s the tricky thing about global warming — the world’s not ending, but it’s certainly in bad shape.

Marginally better cars and more sustainable movie sets are nice — necessary, even — but we need to expect more of ourselves.

Or really, we need to expect more of the world’s more influential storytellers: film and TV studios.

Benjamin Kay, a marine biology teacher at Santa Monica High School, holds an "I love electric vehicles" sign.
Benjamin Kay, a marine biology teacher at Santa Monica High School, holds an “I love electric vehicles” sign at an April 2024 rally at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, celebrating the company’s decision to replace gas-guzzling vehicles with EVs at Disneyland’s Autopia ride.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
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Recent Colby College research found that of 250 of the most popular movies of the last decade, not even 10% passed the Climate Reality Check, which measures whether a story or its characters acknowledge global warming. An earlier USC analysis found that just 2.8% of scripted films and TV episodes from 2016 through 2020 mentioned climate change or related keywords.

Those are inexcusably small numbers, especially for a business populated by so many avowed climate champions.

So although I enjoyed listening to Rainn Wilson, Bonnie Wright and Ted Danson talk about their environmental advocacy, this industry has a long way to go. I kept thinking, for instance, about all the actors still taking money to appear in commercials for pure-gasoline vehicles — including the star of one of my favorite TV shows, “Loki,” as I noted in a story a few years ago.

Is it time for actors to stop doing those ads, and attach their images only to electric cars?

I posed that question to Bill Gerber, a former Warner Bros. executive who helped produce the “Harry Potter” films.

“I think they should try to stop doing it, when it could be either way,” Gerber said. “Why not go on the good side?”

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Gerber is a longtime Environmental Media Assn. board member, and I got the distinct sense that he really does care. He walked to the summit on Tuesday. He was surprisingly well-versed in energy policy and the sorry state of America’s electric grid.

When I pressed him on Toyota’s sponsorship — and whether the automaker’s questionable track record on clean vehicles should make me skeptical of the Environmental Media Assn.’s climate credentials — he didn’t reject the premise of the question.

“I don’t think we’re greenwashing ever, to tell you the truth. Because I think those criticisms of Toyota are acknowledged, and also well-founded,” he told me. “Consumers should have a choice of not benefiting companies whose products they don’t believe in. If you don’t want a hybrid, then go get a Volt or something that’s all-electric. But there’s no right answer, unfortunately.”

I agree with everything but the last part — there is a right answer. We need to cut planet-wrecking pollution as fast as possible.

“Don’t let perfect get in the way of good,” Gerber said.

Agreed. But also don’t let the good distract us from striving for something even better.

Hopefully “Fortnite” helps guide us there. Hopefully Hollywood can too.

This column is the latest edition of Boiling Point, an email newsletter about climate change and the environment in California and the American West. You can sign up for Boiling Point here. And for more climate and environment news, follow @Sammy_Roth on X.

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