Climate hysteria goes the ‘full monty’

BBC2's Burn Up, a big-budget, transatlantic TV drama from the pen of Simon Beaufoy which airs tonight, is tedious, scarcely believable eco-porn.

Rob Johnston

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If the BBC promotional department’s wildest hopes come true, eager groups of viewers will gather tonight to watch and discuss the ‘gripping eco-thriller’ Burn Up. Rest assured, whether you watch with deep greens, climate deniers or drama critics, at the end of the two-day, three-hour epic there won’t be a dry seat in the house.

Deep greens will weep with joy at the happy ending as the world economy collapses amidst mass unemployment, starvation and a Greater-than-Great Depression; climate deniers will wet themselves laughing at the plodding scientific exposition; and drama critics will spill gin and tonic into their laps as they doze off in boredom five minutes in.

Be warned: this review is full of spoilers. But it will save you the bother of actually watching the programme.

It may seem churlish to criticise a piece of TV entertainment for sloppy science, a bit like complaining that Buffy the Vampire Slayer featured too many mythical creatures. But whereas Buffy possessed authentic metaphorical truth, emotional honesty and internal integrity, Burn Up is deceptive, dishonest and self-deluded.

There is no infamy in exaggeration in order to make a point; that is part of dramatic licence. But when a drama promises to be based on fact with the noble intention of moulding public opinion on a vital issue it should live up to those promises.

For weeks, Simon Beaufoy, the writer of Burn Up, has been boasting about its scientific rigour on the subject of climate change. In a recent interview with Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, Beaufoy (who also wrote steelworkers-turned-strippers movie hit, The Full Monty) said:

‘Nothing in Burn Up in terms of the science is made up because we knew, apart from anything else, the denial industry would be cranking up and turning their guns on us and saying, “Oh it’s all made up”. So the first thing I made sure of when we started writing [was] that nothing in the film in terms of the science is even in any way exaggerated…’

Beaufoy’s language casually betrayed the source of his ‘unexaggerated’ facts. The terms ‘denial industry’ and ‘The Science’ are the shorthand of the apocalyptic, fundamentalist green lobby – precisely those for whom actual science is a dirty word, and who use ‘denial’ (with its calculated connotations of Holocaust denial) as an insult to shut down any challenge to the orthodoxy.

Earlier in the same interview Beaufoy revealed precisely why he was so susceptible to green propaganda… ignorance (perhaps, to be kinder, naivety): ‘I started the research for Burn Up about three or four years ago when oil was at $36 a barrel, when climate change and the subject of global warming was literally seen as science fiction.’

Perhaps Beaufoy has lived in total seclusion since the success of The Full Monty, but if he thought global warming was ‘literally seen as science fiction’ as late as 2005 he had an awful lot of catching up to do and little time to do it. For such a blank slate to be briefed by the likes of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other hysterical doom-mongers must be like being love-bombed by the Moonies.

The plot of Burn Up manages the impressive feat of being entirely predictable at the same time as having characters that are constantly surprising – because they act unexpectedly. They change sides, betray friends and plot each other’s downfall on vague grounds with no motivation and little emotion.

Rupert Penry-Jones is Tom, thrust into the role of CEO of Arrow Oil (a BP-alike major player). Like Beaufoy, and despite being in the oil business since university, Tom is astonished to learn that environmentalists blame fossil fuels for climate change. ‘They’re trying to pin global warming on us!’, he complains to his best friend – evil oil industry lobbyist Mack, played by The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford.

Mack knows that oil companies are destroying the planet; it is his job to lie, cheat and murder on behalf of Big Oil and the US government (one and the same). Just in case we didn’t get the message, Mack tells Tom that he uses Arrow Oil airstrips for secret rendition flights of terrorist suspects around the world; and later he wears a black cowboy hat in a Western theme bar.

Beaufoy explained Mack’s role in the same interview with Mark Lawson: ‘He’s deliberately debasing the science of it and that’s his job. He’s based on a real person who went around the United Nations conferences on climate change deliberately undermining everybody.’ (Actually, that sounds less like a real person than a ‘Trickster’, a commonly used device in writing classes and now a key component of eco-conspiracy theories.) ‘And I think it’s really important’, Beaufoy continued, ‘to try and put the denial argument. It’s very difficult because there isn’t one … the science is not there for the denial industry.’

As an aside, the Greenpeace website about the ‘denial industry’ claims that Exxon – the sole funder of denial, apparently – paid 41 sceptical groups $2.1million last year, which is about one quarter of the money lavished on Burn Up (1).

To say Beaufoy’s characters are two-dimensional would be an insult to flat surfaces. Every character is signposted ‘good’ or ‘evil’ as soon as they appear. We know that Holly, played by Neve Campbell, is ‘good’ because not only is she young, pretty, and Arrow’s new vice president for solar panels, but is also an undercover environmental activist working for MI5 and/or MI6. But the very best example comes late in the second episode. When a new hard-line US diplomat arrives to take over climate negotiations, he steps out of a black limo while puffing a cigarette. He tosses his fag to the street and announces to the welcome party that he has throat cancer; thus every cliché is ticked – from car user to smoker to litterbug to the horrible death that awaits all evildoers.

Most of the first episode is the rapid ‘education’ of Tom (and viewers) about The Science of climate change. Although he studied under eco-guru Sir Peter Langham, Tom is flabbergasted when Langham tells him that in only five to 10 years, the Siberian tundra will thaw and release unimaginable quantities of methane, there will be runaway global warming, melting of the Arctic and Greenland, rapid sea level rise and the inevitable end of human civilisation.

There is considerable dramatic license here. No wonder Mark Lawson seemed concerned by the elision of fact and fiction: ‘There’s one speech, for example, where one of the characters says basically don’t start reading any long books … we’re all doomed, it could all be over in a few years – that is dramatic licence because we don’t know whether it will be or it won’t be…’

‘I think if you talk to most of the scientists’, Beaufoy responded, ‘they say we’re very near a critical point in terms of climate where the warming becomes irreversible and then if it is irreversible you can say categorically that civilisation, at some stage will go, so indeed that’s not made up.’ Clearly those claims did not come from ‘most scientists’, independent research by Beaufoy or any Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report – it is straight from a Greenpeace PR briefing.

If he truly wanted scientific truth, Beaufoy would have followed the IPCC quite closely – for the standard, consensus, view. He would have rejected the maverick ‘deniers’ who totally dismiss the IPCC but also rejected the shrill prophesy of impending disaster. Sadly, The Science of climate change sold to Beaufoy and expressed by the ‘good’ characters in Burn Up is an extreme pessimist viewpoint probably held by even fewer true scientists than those who reject man-made climate change entirely. The Science which Beaufoy buys into is certainly not from the global climate projections of the 2007 IPCC Report (2).

The second episode of Burn Up relies, for dramatic tension, on whether the US delegation to a Kyoto 2 climate conference can be persuaded or tricked into voting for tight restrictions on CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, it is just as exciting as it sounds. Worse, the intended build-up of pressure and drama of the vote is totally undermined when someone points out that no one actually took Kyoto 1 seriously – except the gutsy Brits, of course – rendering the entire exercise moot.

In the desperation to paint America as the ultimate evil, Burn Up invents a British government that is not just a benign presence, but an avenging angel. The (unseen) prime minister must be Hugh Grant from Love, Actually, still in office and still sticking it to the big bully US of A. The PM’s personal envoy (an enjoyably slimy, but very confusing Marc Warren) actually leads the Green Alliance campaign for strict Kyoto 2 limits on CO2 and has British security agents distribute top secret Pentagon documents that turn Mexico and other developing countries against the US.

Confirming the zeitgeist, the only country more treacherous and duplicitous than the US is China. Its delegation promises to ratify Kyoto 2 if the EU pays for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) on its coal plants; but it also promises to join the US alternative scheme if the American government pays for its new nuclear power stations – beautifully double-crossing both sets of gullible Westerners. Obviously the Chinese (like Beaufoy and his characters) do not know that CCS is (at present) an imaginary technology that, if it works at all, will reduce the efficiency of coal power so much that it will wipe out any CO2 saving.

Bradley Whitford is the only thing worth watching – even though he‘s really just playing the evil twin of Josh Lyman (his dedicated ‘liberal’ role in The West Wing). With little insight in the script, he manages to be intense and brooding one minute, then flippant, or erudite, or warm, or ruthless the next – and all the while remain convincing. It is a tribute to his charm and believability as an actor that he wrings some real emotion from a role drawn with so little sophistication.

However, even Whitford does not persuade in the final scene when, with a creaky rationale, he betrays everything he holds dear – what he has lied and murdered for – in order to help Tom reveal the ‘big secret’ to the world: that Saudi Arabia has run out of oil. Why Mack would be so loyal a friend to the weak, vacillating, stupid, and insipid Tom is anyone’s guess – because there’s no hint in the film.

Burn Up is predictable, in that no possible plot, visual or expositional cliché goes unexploited; surprising in that the characters’ lifelong opinions change in an instant and their actions serve only to move the plot along (slowly, very slowly). With three hours of screen time available, one might expect some convincing long dark nights of the soul, signs of intellectual torment or inner conflict, or careful clues scattered about for later pay-off. But no … beliefs, relationships and careers are renounced, betrayed and tossed aside like cigarette butts at a pub door.

But, if you thought it was only the writers, producers and actors who misunderstand the subject, the BBC production brief contains a classic question for cast members: ‘Do you think that living in a city makes it hard to lead a green lifestyle?’ They all think it does. If any of them had bothered to do just a little genuine research of their own they would have discovered what everyone truly interested in the subject already knows – city living is the most energy-efficient and ‘green’ lifestyle possible.

My recommendation: record Burn Up, and skim through, only pausing to watch Bradley Whitford’s scenes. You won’t miss anything worthwhile but you’ll get a feeling of the old Josh back – albeit on the ‘wrong side’.

Rob Johnston is a freelance writer on the environment, health and science. Visit his blog here.

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(1) Exxon still funding climate deniers, Greenpeace USA, May 2007

(2) IPCC 2007 Report Chapter 10 Global Climate Projections

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