To Get Dystopia Just Right, Syfy Called the United Nations
Climate change advisor Cassie Flynn helped envision "Incorporated."
The Syfy series Incorporated takes place in the year 2074 in a world ravaged politically, socially, and geographically by climate change. Because governments failed to protect their people from rising seas, giant corporations have seized control of most resources and now control peoples’ lives through economic and cultural coercion. Within this corpocracy, people live in two zones: Red and Green. The green zone is bountiful while the red zone is a nightmare. What divides the two is opportunity and cash (also, air conditioning).
Produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, the show goes out of its way to illustrate the potential consequences of unchecked global warming. But showrunner Ted Humphrey and co-creators David and Alex Pastor, veterans of a few science fiction productions, didn’t want to do this by simply assuming the worst, so they went looking for an expert. They found United Nations Climate Change Advisor Cassie Flynn, a UN Development Program expert on negotiations, adaptation, and technology. Flynn was invited into the writers’ room to make sense of the scenarios the show engages.
Inverse spoke with Flynn, who also hosts the web series “Climate Winers”, about how the international community is working to blunt the effect of climate change and what the world will look like if those efforts fail.
You’re a climate change advisor with the United Nations. What does that job entail when you’re not in a television writer’s room?
I am part of the United Nations Development Program, the largest part of the U.N. We are responsible for a lot of the work that has to do with climate change development goals. My role is cut in half. The first part is being our point person on the international negotiations on climate change. I’ve been attending these negotiations for about 10 years and providing support, particularly to developing countries as they are at the negotiating table. The second part is supporting countries translating all of those words on paper, like the Paris Agreement, into action on the ground. With the Paris Agreement, nearly every country in the world put forward a national target and now they have to reach those targets. Part of my role is to help these countries do that.
How did you become involved with Incorporated?
The U.N. Department of Public Information manages a lot of the engagement with creative media projects and when they heard about Incorporated they reached out and asked me if I was interested in talking to them. I happened to be in Los Angeles at the time and the show’s writers are in Los Angeles. So I had the opportunity to go and sit with the team in the writers’ room. We had a fantastic discussion about climate change.
I think that, particularly on climate change, storytelling is incredibly important. Telling stories about the impacts of climate change, but also how people are dealing with climate change through innovation, can be very powerful.
The show isn’t about climate change, but that’s where the premise comes from. Do you think that showing a hypothetical situation can help people understand the stakes of the global warming debate?
The show poses the question ‘what if?’ and, with climate change, we get that question a lot. What is really important about the ‘what if’ question, and why I think Incorporated is very powerful, is that climate change isn’t just an economic question — it’s a social issue; it’s an economic issue. What happens when you have sea levels rise to a point where communities have to move? How does that work economically? There are a lot of questions about how climate change will affect the future, and I think Incorporated is really trying to get at some of those questions in a powerful way.
Do you think there are some aspects of the show that you think people may be surprised to find aren’t science fiction? What comes to mind is that some of the characters are climate change refugees.
The thing with climate change is that we are already seeing the impacts. Sometimes I use the term ‘Global Weirding’ instead of global warming because of all those moments when you say, ‘Oh, that’s weird,’ like during a very warm winter in New York. I think what Incorporated tries to do, is to say, ‘Well, we know of these impacts now. But what if we turned up the volume on it?’ This is what might happen in the future — the seas will rise higher and faster; the weather will become more erratic. Droughts will be hotter and longer. I think Incorporated tries to look at those potential effects and extrapolates how the world will be changed socially, legally, and economically.
Do you think there is something about television that makes it the right platform for this type of story?
I think television is an incredibly compelling medium and a good place to explore the ‘what if’ question. Climate change sometimes can seem very rocky. You have a lot of scientists with a lot of graphs talking about a lot of numbers, and sometimes it’s hard to feel that it’s real. It’s hard to identify with something that is on a graph. I think what storytelling does with something like climate change is translate what we see in those graphs and what scientists are telling us into something that translates into our everyday lives.
The idea of everyone being a part of the solution, and wanting to be a part of the solution, is very important. I think that we, as in individuals, can make such a difference in the fight from climate change. Even if you’re not the United States president or the head of a huge company, you in your everyday life can make a difference on climate. And it’s certainly important to show what might happen if we don’t do anything at all.
This interview has been edited and condensed.