Climate Heresy Not Just An Act


"Green is a proxy for anything: Class war. Hate your dad. Hate America. All religions are shot through with inconsistencies." So says Dr Diane Cassell, the protagonist of The Heretic, the Melbourne Theatre Company’s (MTC) new British import about a scientist whose scepticism about Maldivian sea levels leads her to unravel the global warming hoax and find love. The smash hit has garnered both opprobrium and praise from critics, but it should be viewed as much more than a passion play for the Right; it’s a litmus test for how scepticism has now entered the mainstream.

Clive Hamilton, the ethicist and one-time Greens candidate who has entertained the idea of suspending democracy to overcome the polity’s resistance to climate mitigation, wrote a lengthy post on The Conversation denouncing the play, saying "…everyone associated with it — the director, the programmers, the designers and the actors — will have to accept their little share of the blame for the world that’s coming".

The sceptics are obviously in love with the production. Sceptic blogger Joanne Nova writes "Golly, but The Heretic is a play that appears to be genuinely useful art, something that actually challenges the paradigm," and Andrew Bolt cautions us to "Beware the ultra-righteous. And it can take a heretic to expose their views."

After seeing the play this weekend I tend to agree with Hamilton’s diagnosis, if not his conclusions. The Heretic is a clever piece of propaganda, and the playwright, Richard Bean admits as much. It’s inexcusable that Hamilton wants to vilify the actors, some of whom are young up-and-comers, unless he proposes he be the new green Maxim Gorky; Noni Hazlehurst is fantastic in the lead role as Cassell, the play is full of the kind of acerbic comedy the Right does so well (if you like PJ O’Rourke, you’ll like this) and the stagecraft is excellent. I wonder whether Hamilton’s politics prohibit him from enjoying blockbusters too — Chris Hemsworth’s role in the Avengers means he’ll have to share responsibility…

But despite being a good production (if a little long) The Heretic is propaganda, first and foremost. The play begins with Cassell receiving a death threat from a student environmental group, an inversion of the real-life threats faced by climate scientists here and overseas. Her left-wing, "warmist" colleague and head of department, Professor Kevin Maloney, is the author of an alarmist book called "Snowball Planet", an account of how we’ll be wiped out in a new ice age, and is too busy writing another IPCC report, full of fudged figures, to take note of Cassell’s death threats.

Cassell takes the liberty of marking in pink all the statements in his report she takes to be "politics" — the whole paper is, of course, highlighted. Her own research, a sceptical view of Maldivian sea-level rise, is to be published in the first-order journal Nature. (Another nice fantasy — Nature accepts the science.) Maloney puts the kibosh on that, so Cassell publishes it in a "sceptics’ rag" Maloney compares to the "editorial pages of the bloody Spectator" and debates the Maldives’ High Commissioner on television, which gets her sacked.

The quips go on. Maloney confesses "we’re all sceptics about the hockey stick", "we’ve all done it [fudged data]". He suppresses Cassell’s findings to ensure private sector funding will flow into the department. When a set of tree-ring data is "debunked" in a replay of the Climategate hacking scandal, he comes around because it guarantees more filthy lucre for his department.

In short, Maloney is characterised as a bumbling but likeable whore. Appropriate, because he and Cassell were young lovers, and reunite after she cries "What happened to the boy I fell in love with?". Poor old Maloney is the only authoritative figure who believes in the science, and he gets screwed the whole play.

Likewise, the two young characters, both environmentalists, are objects of unreserved derision: self-harmers, anorexics, trend-obssessed and vacuous. Ben Shotter, a suicidal green student wracked with anxiety because he killed his mother in childbirth and did prison time for assaulting his dad, is brought around by Cassell’s moral stand and motherly influence. He marries her daughter, and Cassell’s wedding speech, which forms the play’s denouement, is all about the wonders of human industry. Lay it on.

The take-home message is that the sceptics are the only "real" scientists, because scepticism is the true scientific ideal. The "warmists" plagiarise their figures, take their authorities from activist groups and politicians and present as fact that which is unprovable. The sceptics are heretics in the IPCC’s Catholic world; in reality their scientific heresy is to be bankrolled by vested interests, like the American billionaire Koch Brothers’ Heartland Institute, who seek at every turn to undermine the credibility and independence of climate science.

Disappointed by the MTC’s decision to stage The Heretic, Hamilton laments the state of "avant-garde" theatre:

"But the MTC is not being bold; by capitulating to the comforting feelings that flow over those who reject the scientific warnings, it is being cowardly. Brave theatre companies don’t run from unpleasant truths, they rub our faces in them.

"Perhaps Richard Bean’s next project will be The Heretic 2, another ‘funny, provocative and heart-warming family drama’ in which the maverick academic David Irving, lone defender of the truth, uncovers definitive evidence that the Holocaust never happened."

Why lash out and invoke Irving? Although the play has been a success, it will only really shock the MTC crowd and in any case many of the attendees would have agreed with the play’s message to begin with — Nick Minchin was at the performance I attended. I imagine few outside of the climate debate will have even heard of it.

It makes more sense to recognise, unlike both the sceptical fans of the play and critics of Hamilton’s ilk, that there is nothing avant-garde or particularly confronting about The Heretic. As the French Maoist Alain Badiou says, "If the exercise of resistance is abstract, the suddenly unexpected is virtually infinite." The MTC production should surprise nobody. It demonstrates precisely that scepticism is now very much a mainstream issue.

As Mark Latham has carefully argued, the issue of climate change has devolved into an intra-elite battle from its previous status as a broad-based consensual political issue. The inner-city cultural class, the media and politicians are the only groups who still entertain the notion of climate as a first-order priority. Much ground has been lost since the heady days of the Turnbull-Rudd ETS and unfortunately climate is now a non-factor in the lives of most people, especially in Australia — just look at the polls.

Latham’s point, "Most people are inherently empirical, relying on the things they see around them was a way of gauging the future; the practicality of Aspirational Australia," isn’t an excuse for bone-headedness and selfishness. Acceptance of climate change can only be advanced so far by castigating the public. He argues it’s time the Left realises the climate debate, as it is now waged, is lost:

"At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, there were two great socialist goals: widespread economic ownership and universal education. The first has produced a highly materialistic society (undermining traditional left-wing values of compassion and collectivism), while the second has, perversely enough, encouraged anti-enlightenment on climate change.

"…The failure of the left to win the climate-change debate should be the catalyst for a post-left movement, abandoning the moribund assumptions of green-left politics and starting this ideological project afresh."

Whether you agree with Latham (and Robert Manne, whom he cites approvingly) his point is the opposite to Hamilton’s. If climate change is to be approached seriously the vagaries of public opinion must be engaged with, not dismissed. Moral panic over sceptical plays is one thing, but the real battle is out there, not in the theatre.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.