This piece, co-authored with Professor Mark Maslin, co-director of the UCL Environment Institute, appeared in the Times Eureka supplement in March 2011
There’s a puzzling soliloquy in the first act of Richard Bean’s The Heretic – currently playing at the Royal Court Theatre – in which the head of a climate research unit at an unspecified British university declares that climate scientists are “the kings of the castle”, and that environmental science is now the cool degree on campus.
If only. Like other instrumental sciences, climatology is largely about measurements and arguments about measurements, and for every field-trip to a photogenic glacier there’s a ton of contentious data to compute. But the global urgency accorded to climate change has given it a distinct cultural allure to which the arts have become increasingly attracted. In the last six months alone there have been three major theatrical productions in which the principal character is a climatologist: Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London, the multi-authored Greenland (currently on at the National Theatre) and Bean’s The Heretic (Royal Court). And then there’s Ian McEwan’s Solar, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital novels, and the television drama Burn Up, each of which pits a heroic climate scientist against the forces of planetary destruction. It may be strangely flattering but it’s not exactly plausible, though it probably stems from a fundamental mismatch of scale: climate change is an all-encompassing planetary phenomenon involving every major earth system from the oceans to the atmosphere; it is also a global political challenge affecting every nation on earth. The arts, however, are resolutely human-scale, with a single character or motif standing in for an array of competing ideas.
The problem with all this “scientist-as-hero” is that it misrepresents the collaborative nature of science. All three climate plays portray their protagonists as troubled loners, rooting out the evidence needed to single-handedly save the planet. Greenland’s climate modeller, Dr Ray Boykin, is so terrified by his own data that he tries to keep it secret, until a glamorous adviser from the Department of Energy seduces it out of him: science literally getting into bed with politics! It is one of many laugh-out-loud moments in a play which, despite some faults, is an impressive attempt to convey the scientific and ethical complexities of its subject. Much of its technical content is quoted from credible sources (in fact Boykin’s “scary” model derives from a recent Hadley Centre paper), while the multimedia design allows for a range of supporting material such as graphs and charts to be shown alongside the dialogue. The central scene, set at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, is a brilliantly nuanced examination of the summit’s collective policy failure, and is worth the price of admission alone.
So why have the critics been so harsh? “Two punishing hours of strident polemic” (Telegraph); “not so much a play as a statement put out by a committee” (Observer); “horribly similar to surfing the web” (Sunday Times). A recurring complaint, even in the more sympathetic reviews, is that with four playwrights involved (Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne), you can’t tell who has written what. From a science perspective, this is a surprising objection: most scientific books and articles are multi-authored, collaborative enterprises in which no individual “voice” can be detected. In the arts, by contrast, where individual creativity is valued very highly, such collaborations, while not unknown, remain relatively rare. But this situation seems to be changing, and Greenland, with its heterogeneous authorship, its wealth of documentary material gathered through exhaustive interviews with scientists and policy-makers, and its supporting programme of platform talks and discussions, is testament to an emerging, evidence-based model of making collaborative, documentary art.
And it seems there will be a lot more of it in the future, due in large measure to the ongoing work of initiatives such as TippingPoint, Cape Farewell, and Julie’s Bicycle, which have spent the last few years bringing climate scientists and artists together in creative colloquy, and in some cases commissioning new pieces of work. In fact on Tuesday this week TippingPoint, with generous support from Major Road and Without Walls, announced seven new climate change commissions, ranging from intimate spoken word pieces to huge outdoor installations. Look out for As the World Tipped, an extraordinary piece of aerial theatre set around the disastrous Copenhagen Summit; The Funeral for Lost Species by Feral Theatre, an immersive blend of visual art, performance and participatory workshops; and My Last Car by 509 Arts, a multi-authored celebration of the end of the automobile era. Whether or not these artworks prove successful – and there is an army of critics out there waiting to judge them – it is clear that climate change, with its manifold challenges, has become one of the shapers of contemporary culture. The science may be “settled”, as Al Gore contentiously claimed, but the art is only just getting into its stride.
Mark Maslin and Richard Hamblyn