Over eight stories, where plotlines and characters recur and echo into each other’s narratives, director and executive Scott Z. Burns has crafted the small-screen event of 2023. With a blindingly starry cast, AppleTV+’s new series Extrapolations depicts the personal consequences of a planet plummeting into devastating, irreversible change.
Each of the episodes is set in the future, beginning with 2037, then jumping forward a decade, another and another, ending in 2070. Extreme weather, heat and growing hostilities between nations as they fight for limited resources blight everyday existence. How realistic are some of the ideas in Extrapolations, though? Professor Lisa Alexander, from the Climate Change Research Centre and ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes at the University of New South Wales, says that scientists’ predictions, or estimations of changes, are based on current trends. These predictions are called “extrapolations”, which is where the series gets its title from.
On February 25, 2023, two major winter storms swept across the US and came with warnings that one might be the biggest on record; millions of people could be affected. Professor Alexander says, “Globally, there will likely be more extreme weather events which will be directly related to increasing global warming. This includes increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves and heavy rains. In some regions, we’ll also see increases in droughts and an increase in the proportion of intense tropical cyclones. Changes will scale with the rate of our greenhouse gas emissions. There is no way to predict future changes, but we project what changes might occur given a range of different future scenarios.”
The dire vision of 2037 in Extrapolations seems realistic in light of the disasters we’re currently experiencing. As dark as the future is, this is a must-watch series, especially for the cast. Sienna Miller is Rebecca Shearer, a pregnant environmental archivist, taking recordings of species that are on the brink of extinction (elephants and whales included). When we first see her, she is coughing and spluttering her way through forest fires in the Adirondacks in 2037. A young, Black rabbi, Marshall Zucker (Daveed Diggs) is visiting his elderly parents (Isabelle and Ben) in the city. From their high-rise apartment windows, they observe smoke clouding the skyline.
Their stories intersect with a gluttonous beachside property tycoon (Matthew Rhys as Junior) and his yoga teacher wife (Heather Graham) in St Petersburg. While Junior is trying to out-maneuver China in a race to secure the melting glaciers for a US-led desalination project, an environmental summit in Tel Aviv serves as a global overview, connecting each of these disparate places and people.
“It will all go to shit at the end of the century…We’ll be smiling in gold-plated coffins,” sneers the greedy Junior to his colleague. Soon enough, he’s in the Arctic Circle, fuming into his phone about whether it will be the US or China who makes the most money from the glaciers melting. Junior’s vision is for a mass, commercial desalination plant that transforms seawater into a drinkable commodity. As the epitome of greed, immorality and excess, he’s captivatingly gross.
“How do I get the Chinese out of my Arctic?” he demands of his business manager Ben, who is also Rabbi Marshall’s father. A major commercial operation resulting from the melting glaciers in a drought-ridden future is not so far-fetched. The largest desalination plants already exist in some of the richest, and driest places in the world: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Israel.
In the cities, the heat is overwhelming: drought, fires, dissipating water sources and growing public protests in smoke-filled city streets. More than a discomfort, it’s a genuine health danger, Professor Alexander explains. “Heat stress is already a huge problem. The consequences affect about half the world’s population. Our youngest, oldest and poorest people are at the highest risk of death and disease during extreme heat events, which will likely be exacerbated as the climate continues to warm. This also has flow-on effects for national productivity given the millions of manual workers exposed to occupational heat stress every day. On top of this, climate change is likely to have negative health impacts on infectious diseases and respiratory, cardiovascular, and neurological outcomes.”
Climate change has already caused species loss and mass mortality of plants and animals and this is only set to get worse with every tenth of a degree increase in global temperature.
This tragic vision of the future is one we’re accustomed to from writer and director of Extrapolations, Scott Z. Burns. He rose to global fame for the 2011 film Contagion, which depicted a then-seemingly impossible scenario in which a deadly virus spreads across borders, causing an international crisis. A decade later, Contagion looked prescient. Indeed, we are already seeing extreme conditions, even if scientists can’t be definite about exactly what consequences climate change will have immediately or in the near future.
“There are still lots of natural climate drivers that affect our weather and climate at any given time,” says Professor Alexander. “However, global surface temperatures in the last couple of decades have been about 1 degree [Celsius] warmer than they were at the end of the 19th century. This warming is likely to mean more extreme weather events, even this year. Some regions will experience extreme rainfall or heat events. A compound event is another extreme where multiple extreme conditions occur at the same time. For example, the US is currently experiencing extreme heat in the south and extreme storms in the north.”
Later episodes of Extrapolations feature Meryl Streep as Shearer’s heartbreakingly tender mother, Game Of Thrones’ Kit Harington as Nicholas Bilton, a technology nerd with ideas on how to bolster human’s capacity to survive through artificial means, and Edward Norton as scientist Johnathan Chopin, who is struggling to be taken seriously by the White House. Not blinded by the stars, yet? Did we mention French actor Marion Cotillard (Inception, La Vie En Rose), (Spiderman himself) Tobey Maguire, (Ross from Friends, aka) David Schwimmer, Yara Shahidi (Grown-ish), Keri Russell (The Americans, Cocaine Bear), Hari Nef (Transparent), and Diane Lane (House of Cards)?
Streep’s role as Rebecca Shearer’s mother pulls on the heartstrings. Though we only see her in flashbacks, Shearer has kept recordings of her mother’s voice and through the use of technology, she has enabled her mother’s voice to translate the language of the last living whale into verbal communication. Giving a human voice to this majestic female creature only makes her plight more harrowing to consider. Is it feasible that there could be a near future with no whales and that children may not even recall what elephants look like? “Unfortunately, yes,” says Professor Alexander. “Climate change has already caused species loss and mass mortality of plants and animals and this is only set to get worse with every tenth of a degree increase in global temperature. The IPCC has a good factsheet on this.”
In Extrapolations, the use of technology is relied upon to archive the sounds and vision of species that are on the brink of extinction, and as a means of returning those species to population. How problematic is that? Prof. Alexander accedes that: “Technology forms a very important part of how climate change might play out in the future, however, it’s not the whole answer. We need to make drastic reductions now in addition to making technological changes as they come into play. It’s unlikely that the scale of technological advances needed to ‘reset’ the climate will come in time for us not to reach some of our climate “tipping points”. So, some systems like ice sheets and glaciers, or the extinction of entire species will reach a point of no return.”
The highly urbanized cities depicted in Extrapolations, exhaustingly hot and polluted, are fearsome. Prof. Alexander says what our cities look like will depend on our choices. “There are certainly ways to reduce the temperature in cities quite substantially even now through urban planning that includes green spaces and building materials that reflect, instead of absorb, solar energy. Research from the UNSW and University of Sydney points to new building materials that could reduce the temperature in our cities by up to 4 degrees.”
In Extrapolations, the Earth has been so devastated that humans are attempting to establish liveable environments on Mars and the Moon, forcing the question of whether humankind can cease its ruinous behavior on this planet and any others, and find genuinely sustainable ways to exist. Sylvie Bolo, played by Marion Cotillard, is suitably grim about the prospect. “Human history is the story of one terrible catastrophe after another!” she insists.
Prof. Alexander is more optimistic about whether humans can redeem our behavior enough to prevent the bleak future imagined by this series. “I think that is still a choice we can make,” she posits. “Either we continue on a business-as-usual trajectory and make that a possibility or we make urgent and drastic cuts in our anthropogenic emissions very soon.”
Extrapolations is available to stream on AppleTV+ with new episodes dropping each Friday. Watch the trailer below.
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