Why this new climate change documentary needs the Hollywood treatment

Creative Sensemaker | Soho House

Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

Sunday 7 August 2022      By James Wilson

If you’ve been in London over the past month or so, you won’t just have felt the heat – you’ll have seen it. Roads melted, rail tracks buckled and the grass in our public parks became a dry, pale yellow. Temperatures reached the highest ever recorded in the UK (40.3°C). Records fell across Europe too, and wildfires raged. Globally, the seven warmest years on record have all occurred since 2015.

But is it really the result of climate change? Can you really be totally, completely, 100% sure?

That question – that doubt – has been peddled by a handful of prominent people in academia, politics and the media for decades. Now, a new three-part documentary, Big Oil v The World (all episodes available on BBC iPlayer), charts how this questioning of the scientific consensus was insidiously pushed by the fossil fuel industry over the years in an attempt to delay meaningful action on climate change.

While hardly shining a light on any brand new information, the documentary is a comprehensive and damning overview of how Big Oil systematically set about fighting the science on global warming – right from when the industry first realised its activities were increasing temperatures. Exxon was conducting research into it by 1979. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the link between fossil-fuel emissions and global warming was widely acknowledged. Governments across the world were voicing their concern and proposing plans to tackle the problem.

But as Tim Wirth, one of the first US senators to attempt to address the problem of global warming through legislation, says: ‘the minute targets and timetables began to appear, those were magic signals to the industry... Little did we know how devastating the counter-attack was going to be.’

And devastating it was. Every major company in the fossil fuel industry, as well as every manufacturing trade association that produced or consumed fossil fuels, came together under the banner of the Global Climate Coalition in 1989. Its purpose? To push back against the emerging evidence that pumping CO2 into the atmosphere wasn’t a good idea. 

The GCC’s press team provided backgrounders with the intention of confusing reporters, and set about recruiting third-party experts, pushing for them to appear on panels, news shows and in the pages of popular publications as dissenting voices against the emerging consensus. 

But as damning as Big Oil v The World is, there are limits to its effectiveness: first, it’s three hours long. Wonkish documentaries can be off-putting at the best of times. While its subject is big, not to mention potentially cataclysmic, being respectful of viewers’ time wouldn’t hurt. And there’s a second, broader issue, although it’s not one which is the fault of this team of filmmakers.

When it comes to climate change being referenced in film and TV, the lion’s share of the coverage is in documentaries. A study commissioned by Good Energy, an organisation campaigning for more coverage of the climate crisis in film and television scripts, found that less than 1% of TV and film scripts in the US from 2016 to 2020 contained the term ‘climate change’, with only 2.8% mentioning any of 36 commonly-used ‘climate-adjacent’ words or phrases, like ‘global warming’, ‘climate crisis’, or even ‘save the planet’. 

This lack of representation in the culture is a problem. The whole point of Big Oil v The World is that stark scientific facts about climate change are, depressingly, not terribly effective at cutting through. Entertainment can do it so much better. 

Parasite (2020), for instance, motivated Seoul’s authorities to renovate 1,500 of the Banjiha basement apartments like the one the Kim family lives in. Philadelphia (1993) was a significant step forward in the struggle to de-stigmatise HIV/Aids. In 1975, the year Jaws was released, beach attendance in the US went down; false reports of shark attacks went up.

Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up was a welcome foray into climate territory by satirically depicting humanity’s reaction to an impending comet strike big enough to wipe out Earth. Humanity reacts – spoiler alert – by doing nothing. A clear metaphor for climate catastrophe and our collective unwillingness to tackle it, the film has proven scarily prescient. It was released at the end of 2021, since when TV presenters on real channels, in real time, have made light of the oncoming threat with what can only be called a toxic level of positivity.

Don’t Look Up wasn’t ignored. In fact, it notched up the biggest week of views in Netflix history. Big Oil v The World is a thorough account of the way the fossil fuel business has focused resources on winning over hearts and minds to a worldview that doesn’t care about the world, the future or humanity. It’s time Hollywood told the story, as only it can.

Here are this week’s recommendations.

Creative Sensemaker | Soho House


Rogue Agent
When Alice (Gemma Arterton) meets smooth car salesman Robert Hendy (James Norton), her life is upended: he reveals that he is, in fact, an undercover MI5 agent, except, he isn’t actually that either – in reality he’s a conman with a track record of using his false identity to extort and kidnap victims. A fictionalised version of the story of real-life conman Robert Hendy-Freegard, this has suspense, twists and excellent performances from Arterton and Norton underpinned by a strong script. A thrilling watch.

Creative Sensemaker | Soho House
Creative Sensemaker | Soho House


The Measure by Nikki Erlick
Life’s two certainties are death and taxes. When it comes to the latter, we’re told exactly how much we have paid – or are due to pay – either in our payslips or through the post. But what if we were suddenly given the same level of information about life’s other certainty, death? That’s the question posed by Nikki Erlick in her debut novel, The Measure. Every person over the age of 21 wakes up to find a box with their name on outside their home containing a piece of string. The length represents the amount of time each person has left. In such a scenario, how would you react? Would you even look?

Some of Erlick’s characters opt not to. Others, known as the ‘short-stringers’, attend support groups to come to terms with their tragically short lifespans. Politicians quickly look to take advantage, turning long-stringed citizens against the short-stringed. The Measure has a brisk pace and doesn’t attempt to take itself too seriously. A pacey and intelligent summer read, perfect for the beach.


Thanks to Tortoise ThinkIn Executive Katherine Whitfield for this review of The Blindboy Podcast, by David Chambers aka Blindboy Boatclub

Even for someone with as short an attention span as mine, The Blindboy Podcast is a delight. Hosted by David Chambers, the satirist and musician commonly known as Blindboy Boatclub, each episode is a deep dive into topics ranging from mental health to the Limerick swinging scene; from the secret meanings of pampas grass and palm trees to the not-so-tenuous link between warfare and Cubism. 

Summarising the episodes, of which there are hundreds, would be a disservice to the sheer volume of research Chambers does for each one, and would spoil the often bizarre journey of listening to each carefully crafted hour. The Blindboy Podcast has been nominated for Best Arts & Culture, Best Entertainment, Best Health & Wellbeing, and the Spotlight award at The Irish Podcast awards – give it a listen to see why.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes,

James Wilson
Tortoise Media

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