The Best Climate Change Documentaries Now Streaming
These must-watch documentaries take climate change head on. | DSD / PEXELS

Millions of students of all ages are studying from home at the moment due to COVID-19. Distanced education can be a challenge. But the quantity and quality of virtual resources in 2020 is helping young people to keep learning, including educational films and TV. But as the world steadily warms and natural disasters caused by climate change become more frequent, everyone could benefit from more robust education on the issues most critical to the global population.

Nature documentaries have become one of the most valuable modern sources of information about wildlife, the natural world, and global environmental issues. Over the last few years, an increasing number of documentaries have provided information and insight on climate change.

Around the world, climate education is increasingly emphasized for students of all ages. In July, New Jersey became the first U.S. state to make climate change a compulsory topic in public school—at every grade level and as part of every subject. Climate change is a scary topic. It’s a lot to take in, and climate education can feel overwhelming. But knowledge is a key tool in the fight against global warming.

Global warming and increasingly erratic weather events—from storms to fierce wildfires—are impacting communities worldwide. But it is overwhelmingly young people who will have to deal with the most severe effects of climate change. In 2019, the Future of Humanity survey spoke with more than 10,000 18 to 25-year olds from 22 different countries. Over 41 percent of respondents cited global warming as the most important issue facing the world.

9 Climate Change Documentaries To Stream Now

As global awareness of climate change grows, continuing education is essential. Both to emphasize the severity of the situation, but also to promote achievable and actionable change to mitigate the climate crisis. Many of these documentary films serve as a combination of cautionary reminder, inspirational motivator, and educational resource.

1. Cowspiracy

Cowspiracy (2014) explores the impact of livestock farming on the environment. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change. It’s a major contributor to deforestation, water consumption, resource depletion, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale meat production and factory farming have a significant impact on the planet and Cowspiracy advocates for a plant-based or vegan diet as a sustainable alternative. According to The Economist, going vegan for just two-thirds of all meals could reduce food-related carbon emissions by 60 percent.

Cowspiracy is available on Netflix.

2. A Plastic Ocean

A Plastic Ocean (2016) documents the impact of waste plastics on the marine environment. The documentary features scientific analysis of ocean gyres—large systems of circulating currents—where much of the plastic in the water ends up. At the center of the Pacific Ocean, researchers found more plastic than plankton.

Microplastics, in particular, are difficult to quantify and contain. In May 2020, an analysis led by the University of Manchester found up to 1.9 million plastic pieces per square meter on the bottom of the Mediterranean.

A Plastic Ocean offers an in-depth overview of the impact of plastic on marine ecosystems, aquatic life, and human health. There is also an accompanying education guide complete with worksheets and other information about the film.

A Plastic Ocean is available on Netflix.

3. Racing Extinction

Racing Extinction (2013) documents and explains several examples of Anthropocene extinction—the theory that humans have caused a mass extinction event comparable with the destruction of the dinosaurs and other species 66 million years ago.

The film highlights climate change and poaching, in particular, as key contributors to the ongoing extinction event. It also cites animal agriculture as a leading contributor to species and biodiversity loss and notes its causal relationship with climate change.

Racing Extinction features notable appearances from anthropology and industry experts such as primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall and business magnate Elon Musk.

Racing Extinction is available on Amazon Prime.

4. Before the Flood

National Geographic-presented documentary Before the Flood (2016) follows Academy Award-winning actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio as a United Nations Messenger of Peace. It was shot over the course of three years and shows DiCaprio’s journey around the world to document the devastating impact of climate change.

The film also features appearances from notable figures such as former president Barack Obama and was executive produced by director Martin Scorcese, a long time colleague of DiCaprio. It highlights the concept of a carbon tax along with the need for more decisive action on global warming—particularly in the U.S.

“The U.S. has been the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas in history,” says DiCaprio in the film. “This is the most important issue of our time. [The] question is, can we change our course in time?”

Before the Flood is available on Disney+.

5. Chasing Coral

Chasing Coral (2017) is a Netflix Original documentary that follows a team of divers, photographers, and scientists as they explore and document disappearing coral reefs. Production took over three years and featured more than 500 hours of underwater footage from 30 countries.

Coral reefs are dying around the world, due to a combination of mining, pollution, fishing, and climate change. Rising ocean temperatures can bleach and kill coral, depending on the severity of localized warming. The film is directed by Jeff Orlowski, who also made Chasing Ice (2012)—another documentary exploring the catastrophic impact of climate change on the planet.

Chasing Coral is available on Netflix.

6. Food Inc.

Food Inc. (2008) focuses on the industrial production of food, highlighting the lack of sustainability and its impact on the environment. The first part of the film focuses on animal agriculture and factory farming, which is a significant contributor to climate change, in addition to pollution and environmental destruction.

The second half of the film highlights the industrial production of plant foods such as grains and vegetables, which the film argues is also unsustainable. In the third section of the film, the food industry at large is examined, including labeling regulations, economic factors, and the industry’s effect on American consumer health.

Food Inc. is available on Amazon Prime.

7. One Strange Rock

One Strange Rock (2018) was produced by National Geographic and is hosted by Grammy Award-winning actor and musician Will Smith. The documentary series shows how life survives and thrives on Earth, from the perspective of eight astronauts who have been in space for 1000 days.

The documentary series was produced in conjunction with award-winning director and environmental advocate Darron Aronofsky. It emphasizes the uniqueness of earth, focusing on stunning areas such as the volcanic landscape of the Danakil Depression. Aronofsky has said that he chose to highlight the impact of human-caused climate change by focusing on the beauty and fragility of the planet, rather than addressing the issue head-on.

“Our planet is literally bursting with life,” says Smith in the film. “The strangest place in the whole universe might just be right here.”

One Strange Rock is available on NatGeo.

8. An Inconvenient Truth

Despite being 14-years-old, An Inconvenient Truth (2006) eerily remains as timely as ever. It follows former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s educational campaign on global warming. The Academy Award-winning documentary helped to raise international awareness of climate change at the beginning of the 21st century. It has since been included in school curricula around the world.

The film highlights increasing global temperatures year-on-year. It highlights melting snow, increasing water levels, and increasing extreme weather events—much like those we are experiencing now. An Inconvenient Truth is an illustrated version of Gore’s climate talk, with which he aimed to educate the public on the issue of global warming. It ends with a positive and empowering message: that each and every one of us can make a difference to climate change.

An Inconvenient Truth is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

9. Our Planet

Our Planet (2019) is a recent nature documentary series produced for Netflix and featuring national historian and presenter David Attenborough. The show focuses on global conservation. It received praise for its increased emphasis on human-caused climate change and its impact on the changing natural world. It also addresses mass-species extinction and environmental degradation more than preceding Attenborough documentaries such as Planet Earth (2006).

“This is the story of our changing planet, and what we can do to help it thrive,” said Attenborough in the documentary. In recent years, Attenborough has become increasingly outspoken in his environmental advocacy. He has highlighted the meat industry’s contribution to climate change, in particular, and called on people everywhere to do what they can to mitigate its impacts. Attenborough’s entire filmography focuses on exploring the natural world.

Our Planet—and Planet Earth—are both available on Netflix.