Alum launches AppleTV+ series imagining a future increasingly damaged by climate change

alum Scott Z. Burns

University of Minnesota English alum Scott Z. Burns, who wrote the script for the 2011 movie Contagion, recently launched a still more ambitious “What if?”: an AppleTV+ series imagining a near future world (2037-70) increasingly damaged by climate change. “I looked at the science,” says the series show-runner over a Zoom call, “and extrapolated what could happen if we keep going down this path. What are the stories that we’re likely to see show up outside of the weather report?”
Burns has described Extrapolations, an eight-episode story arc spanning 33 years, as a thriller, with humanity at once playing hero and villain in the race to save the planet. Burns wrote or co-wrote six episodes of Extrapolations and directed three.
He is quick to point out that while climate change provides the setting and the stakes, the focus of the series’ interlinked stories is on the characters, played by a world-class cast (Meryl Streep, Kit Harington, Daveed Diggs, Edward Norton, Tahar Rahim, and Gemma Chan, among many others). Characters fall in love, experience parent-child conflicts, lose family members, and make friends, even as they must respond to a heating planet. “Considering what a climate change world does to these very basic human interactions was a wonderful experience,” says Burns.
But if engaging storytelling is the lodestar for the longtime screenwriter, producer, and director, in Extrapolations, it serves a purpose beyond entertainment. “Ever since I was a producer on [the climate change documentary] An Inconvenient Truth… what I learned has stayed with me in a personal way,” says Burns. “As I moved around in the world, scientists would say to me, ‘You’re a storyteller, you have to tell stories that resonate with people.’ And this show is sort of the culmination of being haunted by that.”

Kit Harrington in Extrapolations
Kit Harrington in Extrapolations.

The episodes look at areas of climate change such as agriculture, tech development, public health, refugees, and species extinction, imagining the repercussions of human action and inaction. “Like Contagion, the show was researched to illuminate what is possible, and perhaps even probable, unless we find the courage to change course,” Burns has said.
Burns grew up in Golden Valley, MN, and says that Minnesota is still a part of his creative landscape.
At the University of Minnesota, Burns thought he’d be a humanities major, but the English credits kept piling up. Today, he is a strong advocate for liberal arts studies.
“The great thing about a liberal arts education is teaching you to be curious about the world,” he says.
And as Extrapolations shows, a good story—and sometimes a new path forward—begins with “What if?”
This story was adapted from the original at the College of Liberal Arts. 

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