‘The artist formerly known as global warming’

Two new plays show that climate change is better understood as a moral issue rather than a scientific one.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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Greenland and The Heretic are two very different plays, currently showing in London, that deal with climate change. The first has multiple strands from four authors, an ensemble cast and an all-singing, all-dancing visual style (sometimes literally). The second is the work of a single author, with a clear protagonist supported by just three other main characters, and one naturalistically designed location on either side of the interval.

Another difference is that Greenland is more or less premised on the prevailing consensus that climate change is a pressing problem demanding political action, while The Heretic, as the title suggests, focuses on dissent from this view. Neither play pushes a simple message, however. In different ways, each invites the audience to think more deeply about the issue and where we stand on it.

Greenland, at the National Theatre, is complemented by a series of platform discussions involving leading thinkers on either side – or rather varying sides – of the debate, as well as a more ramshackle ‘Talkaoke’ event in the lobby after each performance. But the play itself, written by Moira Buffini, Jack Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne, is most interesting as an exploration of the difficulty of relating science to politics, and indeed everyday life.

In one strand, a geographer monitors bird migration patterns in Alaska, with only his younger self for company: the idealistic, inquisitive young man has literally become a voice in the wilderness. In another strand, a scientist who builds computer models of climate change, using data like that gathered by the bird man, is recruited by an aide to then climate change secretary Ed Miliband at the time of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit. The two swap worst-case scenarios, and then bodily fluids, as they discover to their frustration that politics involves competing interests and power as well as facts and figures, and the talks collapse. In a third strand, an idealistic young activist is torn between a handsome radical who disdains mainstream environmentalism (and fancies someone else), and the more conventional but seemingly realistic politics of Greenpeace.

Other minor strands involve a brilliantly annoying woman who drives her partner insane by insisting on environmentally correct lifestyle choices, and a young black guy who presents the issue in terms of the gameshow Deal or No Deal – the point being, I think, that even if we don’t buy the climate change consensus, we can’t afford to gamble everything on the possibility it’s not happening. But this latter example is the only appeal to a register outside the middle-class, liberal-scientific perspective that drives the consensus. When the climate modeller demonstrates the ‘hockey-stick graph’ made famous by Al Gore, a disembodied voice from Middle England insists it has been discredited, only to be wearily dismissed as being out of date. The young activist’s conservative parents, too, serve only as illustrations of how hard it is to make people ‘get it’.

Nevertheless, the two minor strands also point to deeper problems. The young black guy describes a peculiar psychological phenomenon: if an individual sees smoke coming under a door into a busy room, and nobody else acknowledges it, in most cases that individual will start to believe it really isn’t there. But when it comes to climate change, is the science the smoke, ignored because life goes on? Or, conversely, is it only a sheeplike consensus that keeps us from insisting on the evidence of our own shivering senses? We are all well-drilled now in the difference between weather and climate, but long-term climate change is something we can only get any sense of through science, and unless we are all to make ourselves experts, this means most of us have to take it on trust. Climate science has simply not earned the prestige of medical science, for example, which has saved countless lives. That’s why even seemingly trivial mistakes matter, and the more political the science becomes, the more scepticism will thrive.

The eco-loon’s long-suffering partner makes another important point when she protests that the insistence we must all make individual lifestyle changes just doesn’t square with the apocalyptic predictions made about what’s happening to the climate. If it’s for real, why are we being asked to make pathetic gestures, to demonstrate our personal virtue rather than focusing collectively on climate change as a technical problem? The intuition that environmentalism is more like a religion than a serious response to a real situation is further explored at the Royal Court, in Richard Bean’s play The Heretic.

The Heretic begins with a more rigorous form of scepticism, however. Dr Diane Cassell, played by Juliet Stevenson, is a leading scientist who studies sea levels. Her own specific findings do not support the prevailing consensus, according to which sea levels should be rising because of melting ice-caps, and she refuses to throw her authority as a scientist behind an idea she cannot scientifically verify. Her broader scepticism about climate change – ‘the artist formerly known as global warming’ – is a response to the politicised climate of her own university. The head of her department is chasing funding from a foundation that is committed to the consensus on climate change, and he asks her to delay publishing a paper until the decision is made. Meanwhile, she uncovers something similar to the real-life University of East Anglia scandal going on at a rival, environmentally ‘on message’ university.

While it involves snippets of science, and useful discussions about methodology and ‘semantic precision’, Bean’s play is essentially a family drama. Dr Cassell strikes up a rapport with a troubled but smart student, Ben, a committed environmentalist who nonetheless respects her and wants to learn from her. Ben catches the eye of his tutor’s equally troubled and similarly green-minded daughter Phoebe. Both remain loyal to Dr Cassell even as the unprincipled university administration punishes her for her heterodoxy after an appearance on Newsnight (featuring Jeremy Paxman himself). A series of death threats from eco-extremists add to the tension, as Dr Cassell fights her corner and everyone struggles with personal problems.

Indeed, what’s really interesting about The Heretic is not so much the scientific controversy as the cultural, even psychological context in which it unfolds. As representatives of contemporary youth, both Ben and Phoebe are frankly pretty fucked up. Phoebe is dangerously anorexic, while Ben also has a dysfunctional relationship with food, though on environmentalist grounds (he does eat plenty of garlic, to reduce his personal ‘carbon emissions’); similar qualms keep him from enjoying fossil fuel-derived heat and transport. The two also share a hostility to the idea of having children – Ben is a member of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. It seems pretty clear that it is their negative attitudes to humanity in general and themselves in particular that explain their attraction to environmentalist thinking, rather than the former being derived from a sober consideration of humanity’s effect on the world.

Nonetheless, Ben and Phoebe like one another, and Dr Cassell. Their misanthropy is not cynical – paradoxically, it is even quite idealistic. The real villain of the piece is Professor Maloney, the head of Dr Cassell’s department, who betrays his own amorous youth in betraying her – his one-time paramour. But even he is given a chance to redeem himself in Bean’s deeply humane drama. The Heretic is not a ‘sceptical’ play, except inasmuch as it insists on the vital role of scepticism in science. It ought to be possible for those who are committed to the consensus on climate change to enjoy and feel affirmed by the play. Surely we can all agree on the importance of academic freedom and integrity – and recognise that distorting evidence even ‘for the greater good’ brings about no such thing.

Bean’s play trumps Greenland in emphasising explicitly a cultural dimension that is too often missing from, or merely implicit in, debate about climate change. Many will disagree with his provocative suggestion that environmentalism has anything to do with misanthropy – and some insist it is ‘climate change deniers’ who are suffering from psychological problems. But an honest and open consideration of such questions among the wider public is essential if we are to move beyond the binary, ‘believer or heretic’ flavour of much of the ‘climate change debate’ so far. In very different ways, both plays are useful contributions to this project, suggesting that theatre, like the humanities more widely, can and should be much more than a vehicle for ‘the science’.

Dolan Cummings is editor of Culture Wars and an associate fellow of the Institute of Ideas. Greenland is playing at The National Theatre in London until 2 April 2011. The Heretic is playing at the Royal Court Theatre in London until 19 March 2011.

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