LONDON -- Two plays about climate change hit the London stage this month, one airing the views of the convinced and the other, those of the skeptical. Both treat their subject in completely different dramatic ways, but one succeeds, while the other fails dismally.
"Greenland" at the National Theatre in London's South Bank arts complex weaves together work by four writers looking at the impacts of climate change on the planet, society and individuals.
First, a young girl argues with her skeptical parents, then a climate scientist tries to illustrate the looming Armageddon. A political aide campaigns for action; meanwhile, a birdwatcher in the increasingly less frozen North laments the changes, and two women argue over what to do.
But the playlets fail to coalesce, the tone is hectoring and the end product fails to engage the emotions while barely glancing off the intellect. It has been universally panned by the critics.
At the other end of the spectrum, "The Heretic," by playwright Richard Bean, at the Royal Court Theatre in Chelsea -- a theater that has always been at the cutting edge of drama and was once described by The New York Times as "the most important theater in Europe" -- uses a combination of dark humor, pathos and incisive observation to successfully convey its skeptical message.
The play follows university geodynamics lecturer Diane Cassell, whose mantra is "I am a scientist. I don't 'believe' in anything," and who becomes increasingly ostracized by her colleagues for stating repeatedly and publicly that there is no proof of human-induced climate change.
She notes that climate change has become the new religion both in language and in attitude, with belief replacing empirical evidence and unbelievers denigrated.
Science is seduced by politicians
The underlying message is not so much that nothing bad is happening to the climate, but that science and scientists have become so ensnared by politicians and money that they have lost their crucial objectivity, and with it, their basis of trust -- at best, overlooking data that fail to fit their models, and at worst, trying to bury them.
Cassell is first warned and then suspended by her faculty boss and one-time lover because her attitude risks upsetting the smooth running of the department and, even worse, might persuade a potential investor with loads of money for climate change research to take it to a rival university.
"Earth sciences has been ignored for so long, but now, suddenly, the kids think we are cool. ... It's official -- we are the kings of the castle. Let's not fuck it up, eh!" he says.
Both plays trot out an array of now very familiar statistics to make their varied points including food miles, waste, plastic bottles, sea level rise and retreating ice.
Both also employ the famous hockey stick graph charting changing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. But while "Greenland" mentions that it has been challenged, it is a throwaway line followed immediately by the statement that all science now supports it.
On the other hand, "The Heretic" -- with a scarcely veiled reference to the accusations in late 2009 of scientific data manipulation at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit -- says how data can be manipulated to distort the outcome.
"The Heretic" succeeds where "Greenland" fails because it engages rather than lectures the audience. It is a linear story following a small group of people on personal journeys of self-discovery. Meanwhile, "Greenland" is a rather frayed patchwork of stories that never really interconnect -- at one stage, the cast bursts into a dance routine prompting rather pale comparisons with "Enron," the musical.
"Greenland" makes even the most praiseworthy sentiments of the environmental lobby sound trite to the point of being laughable. At one stage, it even has a cynical Greenpeace eco-warrior talking earnestly about the need for a new economic paradigm -- not a phrase often heard on a drama stage.
Dueling polar bears
Well-intentioned as the play doubtless is, it is heavy-handed to the point of being a blunt instrument, which is not a known way to attract audiences -- especially of the unconverted, who are presumably the people the authors and director are after.
Both plays resort to polar bears. "Greenland" has two actors in a polar bear suit lumbering onto the stage at one point (deemed by some critics as the play's high point), while "The Heretic" uses a line drawing of one standing on the tip of an iceberg as the motif on its programs.
They also attack the big international institutions, with "Greenland" using the chaos of the December 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, to highlight the shortcomings of the U.N. process in the face of the climate crisis and "The Heretic" attacking flaws that came to light around the same time in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Interestingly, both plays also have other one other area in common -- the moral of the story that in the end it all comes down to personal choice.
In "Greenland," the committed climate scientist whose model predicts looming catastrophe gives up and takes up gardening because he wants his life back after a decade of championing the climate cause. The political aide -- who began by saying it would be irresponsible to bring a baby into such a melting world -- agrees to quit her job and settle down with the scientist to start a family.
In "The Heretic," Cassell's severely anorexic daughter's life is saved by a climate militant who had sent the lecturer death threats because of her attitude and planned to kidnap her.
The daughter, a Greenpeace member who had also started out saying she would never have children, ends up getting pregnant with one of her mother's idealistic students who began by refusing to get into a fossil-fueled vehicle but who has slowly turned into a committed and questioning scientist.
Even Cassell changes her view and decides that people, not nature, are the real miracle of life. "I've decided that the stars are rubbish. ... The stars are God's mistakes. We are the miracle. Life. Human intelligence. Human innovation, creativity, invention. That is why, every night, the stars gaze down on us in awe."