Saturday, July 26, 2008

Burn Up

Stephen Garrett, a spokesman for Kudos Film and Television who made Burn Up, was quoted in the BBC press release for the show describing it as "a potent cocktail of fiction and fact that we hope will enlighten as much as it will entertain". This programme can't be assessed just as harmless fiction. It is political propaganda and should be understood as such.


I'm no scientist but I know enough to be pretty confident this film isn't going to enlighten anyone. It dresses up the speculative fringe of climate science as the absolute truth. "Runaway climate change is upon us", apparently, if everyone doesn't sign up to 'Kyoto 2'. The only character in the film who is a scientist, an academic from Oxford, tells us that is because methane deposits are going to be released unless we meet a 5 to 10 year deadline for curbs in emissions.

Let's see what the Met Office's Hadley Centre, definitely part of the alarmist scientific 'consensus' says about possible releases of methane:

"Substantial quantities of methane are emitted naturally from wetlands, and this emission is expected to change as wetlands change. Changing rainfall patterns will cause some wetland areas to increase in extent, others to decrease, and increases in temperature will act to increase emissions from wetlands. One version of the Hadley Centre climate model includes a description of wetland methane, and this predicts an increase in natural wetland emissions by the end of the century equivalent to the amount of man-made emissions projected for that time, thus leading to a more rapid rise in methane concentrations, and hence warming.

On the other hand, the chemical reactions in the atmosphere which destroy methane are expected to become more efficient in future, largely as a result of increased water vapour. This will act as a negative feedback on methane amounts.

Methane is also stored in permafrost, and it is likely that some of this will be released as surface warming extends into the permafrost and begins to melt it.

Finally, huge amounts of methane are locked up in methane hydrates methane clathrates) in the oceans. They are currently at high enough pressures and temperatures to make them very stable. However, penetration of greenhouse effect heating into the oceans may destabilise them and allow some of the methane to escape into the atmosphere. The potential for this to happen is very poorly understood. There is concern that this may be another positive feedback not yet included in models, although there is little evidence for this from the behaviour of methane during the large temperature swings between ice ages and interglacials, and in particular over the last 50,000 years."

This bears no relation at all to the 'science' in Burn Up. There is no suggestion here that we face an imminent threat of runaway clmate change. Apocalyptic methane releases don't appear to have occured in previous, natural warmings. Most people watching Burn Up won't know how speculative the film's vision of imminent, methane-driven climate catastrophe is. No character in the film questions the idea.

Burn Up isn't really trying to enlighten people but, like Al Gore's film, to create an emotional reaction. To scare people so that rational and measured debate over policy can safely be avoided, so that proper scrutiny of policy can be written off as irresponsible and immoral.


In the first part of Burn Up, in particular, the Inuit are crucial to the story. A campaigner for their cause protests to the film's central character, Tom - head of Arrow Oil, and then, having lost in a legal case suing Arrow for climate change-related harms to the Inuit people, burns herself to death on the court's steps.

This is brutal stuff and , of course, climate change could create challenges for a people whose way of life is so intimately related to particular conditions. However, just a little research confirms that the film utterly distorts the true nature of the problems facing the Inuit.

There is little sign that the destruction of the Artic habitat is really taking place on anything like the scale that is being suggested. Polar bear numbers are still robust, this is from the Telegraph:

"A survey of the animals' numbers in Canada's eastern Arctic has
revealed that they are thriving, not declining, because of mankind's
interference in the environment.

In the Davis Strait area, a 140,000-square kilometre region, the
polar bear population has grown from 850 in the mid-1980s to 2,100

"There aren't just a few more bears. There are a hell of a lot more
bears," said Mitch Taylor, a polar bear biologist who has spent 20 years
studying the animals.

His findings back the claims of Inuit hunters who have long claimed
that they were seeing more bears."

Their numbers wouldn't be as strong if the number of seals was in serious decline. Life in the Arctic appears to be in solid shape at the moment.

I know Wikipedia isn't the most reliable of sources on this particular issue but it is probably correct when it suggests that the major problems facing the Inuit are those faced by many North American aboriginal peoples:

"Inuit communities in Canada continue to suffer under crushing unemployment, overcrowded housing, substance abuse, crime, violence and suicide. The problems Inuit face in the 21st century should not be underestimated. However, many Inuit are upbeat about the future. Arguably, their situation is better than it has been since the 14th century."

That is what makes all this focus on climate change so dangerous for peoples like the Inuit. They have huge social problems and it would be far too easy to forget the genuine issues in a mad rush to co-opt them into a grand narrative around global warming.


Once again, the idea that the number of hurricanes and other natural disasters is massively on the increase was brought up. It can't be repeated enough that increases in insurance industry claims are not necessarily a sign of increased damage but, more often, a sign of increased development (meaning there is more valuable stuff to be damaged) and increased take-up of insurance (the stuff damaged is more likely to be insured).

I've written before about the actual data on hurricanes and how the best indicators we have are that we are currently seeing particularly low levels of hurricane activity. Beyond that, Indur Goklany, in the excellent Civil Society Report on Climate Change (PDF), shows that deaths from natural disasters have massively declined over the course of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Figure 6, on page 48, really says it all (the low numbers pre-1920 are almost certainly the result of poor data).

More prosperous, more technologically advanced and more democratic societies are better able, and have more of an incentive, to help those facing a natural disaster and they do a very good job. We do not have increasing difficulty coping with natural disasters and the best way to help the poor world enjoy the security we do is to promote the institutions that can deliver a prosperous and democratic society.


This film was shot through with anti-Americanism. The evil characters are portrayed wearing cowboy hats, getting teary eyed over faith healing TV and doing all the other things snobbish Europeans like to laugh at.

Their democratic process is portrayed as an utter joke. A Senate hearing falls to pieces in a flurry of sordid ad hominem. Their political parties have been bought by the oil firms. None of this reflects reality but it is a comforting way for Burn Up to write American resistance to the Kyoto-plus agenda off as venal. At the same time the programme potrays we British heroically promising to wreck our economy to satisfy the green agenda - at one point we even promise to send so much money to China that country will profit from restricting emissions.

Conspiracy theories

There are a breathtaking number of conspiracy theories in this film. The Department of Defense have a study that they're covering up which shows the harms of climate change and plans to take water from the Mexicans. The Saudis are concealing the fact they've pretty much run out of oil. Americans are killing anyone, even on the streets of London or in a hotel at the centre of a major international conference, who might let out the Saudi secret to prevent an oil shock.

However, the mother of all conspiracy theories is only revealed at the end. Apparently the reason the Americans aren't acting on climate change actually isn't an attachment to economic prosperity or even petty venality. Instead, they're hoping that climate change will kill all the poor people and then that will leave the Americans in a stronger geopolitical position. While it will hurt them they'll be the last ones standing.

Just when you think the Americans can't get any more evil it turns out they're actively plotting ecopocalypse! This is absolutely mad.

Ad hominem

The scientist is testifying before the Senate and is silenced by one of the Senators bringing up old, and false, accusations of sexual misconduct. This is a really perverse reversal of the reality that, while the greens are free to speak their minds, there are serious attempts to silence sceptics.

The charge that a scientist or other has, at some point, received funding from fossil fuel companies is just a lazy ad hominem. Most academic researchers get funding from all manner of sources and some of that, at some point, coming from industry doesn't imply they've been bought. However, that lazy ad hominem is used by Monbiot and countless others to try and prevent 'deniers' being heard. Burn Up reverses the situation and has the alarmists as the victims of mindless ad hominem.


There is never any question that renewables might not be able to effectively replace fossil fuels. Of course, within the craziness of this story that makes some kind of sense. People don't want renewables to work because then we wouldn't need to wreck the planet. Real world considerations such as providing an affordable and reliable supply of power aren't nearly melodramatic enough to fit in this silly story.

The creepy bits

From the polar bear, with "Extinct" written on it sitting incongruously in the middle of climate negotiations to the bizarrely precise "cut emissions by 90%" banner a protestor is holding. This film is trying to get a lot of messages across without ever openly confronting the audience with them.

At the start, the father can't drive to work because it is "Environment Week" and the kids have taken his keys. Isn't the idea of the children imposing the state's new moral code like that a bit Orwellian?


Burn Up is pure alarmist propaganda. If the Greens have such a strong case why do they have such a need to continually resort to such wild distortion?


Anonymous said...

This absurd programme with its immature science is typical of the BBC's drama output at present. Bonekickers is another really daft programme which follows all the beliefs of the left : Christians = nutters : Muslims = downtrodden : Americans = evil. No preconception is left unturned.
Frankly the BBC is plumbing depths never before reached and quite honestly it is no longer possible to watc any of its programmes with any belief in its impartiality.

Aaron said...

While I like your scathing remarks on this show, I must say that your previous article proposing more coal plants is a bit frightening. Don't forget that people living around coal plants have dramatically higher rates of lung problems and cancers. I think it's illogical for a supposedly intelligent, sentient species to allow that. I think you're right about Burn Up being outright fear tactics, but I think television culture enjoys it more than, say, active participation in the pursuit of learning sustainable living. I follow the latter group. Come April 2010 and I will be living off grid in an ecovillage, because personally I feel ill in mainstream consumption society.

Ladyhihi said...

I think you're right about Burn Up being outright fear tactics, but I think television culture enjoys it more than, say, active participation in the pursuit of learning sustainable living. I follow the latter group. Come April 2010 and I will be living off grid in an ecovillage, because personally I feel ill in mainstream consumption society.

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