Governments need to rewrite the ending of our climate disaster movie

When the third section of the IPCC Report was published on 4 April, UN chief António Guterres posted a tweet describing it as “a litany of broken climate promises. Some government & business leaders are saying one thing, but doing another. They are lying. It is time to stop burning our planet”.

In The Guardian, Jim Skea, professor at Imperial College London and co-chair of the working group behind the report, stated: “It’s now or never if we want to limit global warming to 1.5C. Without immediate and deep emission reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”

The newspaper noted that the report “was the third and final section of the IPCC’s latest comprehensive review of climate science, drawing on the work of thousands of scientists. IPCC reports take about seven years to compile, making this potentially the last warning before the world is set irrevocably on a path to climate breakdown”.

While I agree with every word from Guterres, I worry that it’s not going to help convince enough people to make the changes we need. Why not? Because while people like to be entertained by the idea of apocalypse, near extinction or global annihilation in movies or TV shows, they don’t want to face the reality of it.

Put simply, we will happily spend a couple of hours watching a giant fictional simulation of the planet being destroyed on a cinema screen surrounded by our fellow human beings but we will stop listening and avert our eyes if a scientist tells us the same thing. The true story is too big for the screen. We can’t engage with it. We want it to be told on a much smaller scale using human archetypes that we can identify with. We also want the underlying reassurance that what we’re watching is fiction.

In any case, there’s a problem with trying to portray something as seismic as the climate crisis in a visceral way through the medium of cinema because it’s too slow moving for the screen. It takes too long to get to the action. It’s too far off to see clearly. Our attention wanders, we start to think of other things. Like Dougal in the famous scene with the plastic cows in the caravan in Father Ted, we cannot grasp that the huge crisis outside is an existential threat that dwarfs anything facing us in the here and now. We have no sense of perspective. We’re happier to watch a dramatisation unfold on the screen rather than look outside the cinema and witness the real thing happening on a much larger scale in the distance.

So when someone warns us that the planet is burning, it has very little effect on most people. We cannot accept a reality where our planet is on fire, it seems far less true than a bonfire on a summer’s night. It has become meaningless, a cliché used so often that it has no shock value. That’s not Guterres’ fault. It’s the law of diminishing returns.

If people don’t want to be scared, they won’t be. It’s like going to a horror film. People choose to watch horror films because they want to be jolted and scared. But the crucial difference is that they are a willing audience to the event, they know what’s coming and part of the thrill is in the anticipation of what is about to happen. They know it is an illusion, that it poses no real threat to them.

By contrast, we cannot engage with the extent of the climate crisis or acknowledge it properly because it is too terrifying for us to do so. There is no anticipatory thrill in what the next scare or shock will be because there is no place for us in the audience for an extinction level event. We may believe we are sitting at a distance in the crowd but the truth is we are unwitting extras in the film of our own destruction. We just don’t want to acknowledge it.

One of the most frightening things Guterres said in the aftermath of the publication of the IPCC Report was the following: “Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.”

The fact that so many of us can’t see that is why we are where we are. If the climate crisis is not averted it will be because governments failed to deal with it. Young people chaining themselves to the goalposts during premier league football games and blockading oil terminals can only achieve so much. We need our governments to lead and do whatever it takes to save the planet.

To return to the film analogy, the extras can’t change the ending, that’s up to the writers, the director, the backers and the producers.