Making a climate crisis into a drama

You may think the BBC's Burn Up was far-fetched. Believe me, having witnessed climate negotiations myself, it was anything but

The BBC's two-part global warming thriller Burn Up, which concluded last night, brought imaginary sex and murder to the real-life world of the climate negotiations. Along the way, writer Simon Beaufoy did his level best to weave real-life climate science and politics seamlessly into the fictional drama. Most people who have spent any time at climate negotiations will conclude that he did a credible job. Those who have been influenced by the more effective pieces of contrarian propaganda, notably Channel 4's documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle, or Michael Crichton's novel State of Fear) will doubtless conclude that Burn Up is rooted in fantasy right across the sex-murder-science–politics spectrum. They might be right about the sex and murder, but they couldn't be more wrong about the science and the politics.

Let me consider each in turn. The central scientist character, a British chief scientific advisor, feels an urgent need to warn the world about amplifying feedbacks in the process of being awakened as the world warms. He majors on methane emissions, including from warming hydrates below the permafrost. A hydrate is an ice-like solid that locks up the potent greenhouse-gas methane under pressure in cold sediments at high latitudes. In the first episode, the hero – CEO of an oil company not unlike BP – is converted to the popular global cause of deep carbon emissions reductions in part because he sees the methane feedback with his own eyes (plus enjoying a night of passion with Neve Campbell). In a sequence exactly like one filmed by the BBC in the real world, he breaks an ice layer capping permafrost and sets escaping gas alight.

The methane hydrate amplifier, and all the many others we know about, have long been warned of. In 1990, I flagged the danger myself in Global Warming: the Greenpeace Report (Oxford University Press), and again in The Carbon War (Penguin, 2000). In 1990, such warnings tended to be dismissed as scaremongering, even by government climate scientists concerned about mainstream estimates of global warming. Even by 2000, only the boldest of government climate scientists spoke out about the worst-case analysis that amplifying feedbacks could snowball. Now, such warnings have entered the mainstream, for those with the eyes to see and ears to listen. Last week at a meeting in London, for example, a top German climate scientist told an audience of 150 captains of industry that climate scientists couldn't guarantee that a runaway greenhouse effect wouldn't happen, if emissions continue apace. He and the majority of his fellows now believe that we face a race to save civilisation of the kind Burn Up portrays.

As for the politics, the drama centres on an oil-industry lobbyist based on the real-life carbon club hitman Don Pearlman, whose real-life antics I chronicle over almost a decade in The Carbon War. Viewers who have never seen climate negotiations at work might find the notion of a roomful of oil-coal-lobbyists plotting the subversion of a multilateral negotiating process involving over a hundred sovereign governments far-fetched. It isn't. The Carbon War describes plenty of such scenes. The idea that western oil-company lobbyists can ferry notes to Opec officials or senior US politicians telling them what to say might seem to involve too much dramatic licence. It doesn't. I have seen it with my own eyes at the most dramatic of moments in the real-life climate negotiations, just as vital negotiating issues hung in the balance.

Burn Up also addresses some of the questions that puzzle many of us who care about the climate threat to civilisation. Why do the carbon-club lobbyists and contrarians do what they do? What is in their heads as they go about their work? Surely they must see the power of the emerging evidence that the threat is real, and massive? Even if they don't, or can't, surely they must realise that there is uncertainty in the equation that can have horrible downside implications. Why, then, don't they show a little humility? This is not an armchair scientific debate. If the contrarians are wrong, and, for example, the Greenland and west Antarctic ice caps melt and destabilise, civilisation cannot easily survive.

How can transparently oil-funded scientific naysayers like Fred Singer keep spouting their disinformation with certitude, even as the scientific evidence hardens? How can the commissioners of naysaying for the media, like Channel 4's Hamish Mykura, persuade themselves that they are doing society a service? After Ofcom's ruling that The Great Global Warming Swindle had misrepresented climate scientists last week, Mykura – its commissioner – said: "Channel 4 believes in engaging with the debate in its fullest form, rather than closing it down. That is why this film was a valid contribution."

The true situation is that climate change, according to the vast majority of modern climate scientists (but not all), will kill many millions of people if it remains unabated. The holocaust, according to the vast majority of modern historians (but not all), did kill millions of people. Why is it a valid contribution to screen a film by one of the very few climate-change deniers, and not a film by one of the very few holocaust deniers?
My conclusion is that Mykura, Singer, Pearlman, Crichton and the minority like them have made it more likely that millions are going to die now, because they have diluted the collective will to abate global warming.

I still don't understand why or how they can do it.

The answer in Burn Up, as we hear it from the lips of the Pearlman figure, is that the rich elite that created by the oil age secretly know it is all true, but they are worried by the rise of the global population. They are waging a wilful campaign to thin it: a game of last man standing.

That device of the drama I have to roundly reject. Surely we are not collectively that evil. But I don't have an explanation to replace it with.

Meanwhile, the carbon propaganda war goes on. Many of us prefer stories to documentaries, it seems. For those who do, I hope Burn Up leads you to the real-world truth. I hope that Mykura's poisonous DVD goes unwatched, and Crichton's toxic novel goes unread. They won't, of course. They will play their part in delaying humankind's survival reflex, perhaps until it is too late.

A final thought. An unseen but oft-quoted long-term talisman for survival in Burn Up is solar energy. The hundreds of diplomats at the fictional climate summit in Burn Up are effectively trying to keep carbon fuel in the ground, while accelerating the survival family of technologies, including solar. That is the road I have trodden, vocationally, these last 20 years. Of course, cynical bloggers often choose to believe the reverse: that I hype the climate threat so as to sell more solar. I invite them to reconsider. Having read the above, and thought – just a little – about the real-world Burn Up, just how likely is that?

From The Guardian


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