When Ross Clark was writing this excellent novel about climate change, he couldn’t have known that by the time we read it the world would be paralyzed by a pandemic. Now that’s happened, it adds a whole new layer to The Denial’s themes of hysteria, self-righteousness and dodgy statistics.
Bryan Geavis is a retired meteorologist living in the south of England in ‘the near future’. He used to work for a large oil company, though has to keep this quiet as there are prison terms for anyone who worked in the industry. A storm blows up in the North Sea which causes flooding in London. Geavis had predicted its course, while the Agency for Modeling Climate Chaos (formerly known as the Meteorological Office) had not. This leads to Geavis appearing on local radio, then on national television, and finally in court.
This is not one of those ‘issue’ novels where wooden characters give three-page speeches rehearsing theoretical arguments. Stuff actually happens — plenty of it. Nor is it one of those novels that thinks satire has to be earnest. Clark knows that the best satire is funny. His climate activists (the Greenshirts) are inspired by regular speeches from Zoe Fluff, an ex-actress who, like many members of her profession, delights in taking a complicated debate, over-simplifying it to the point of emptiness, then using the resulting nonsense to beat listeners relentlessly around the head. At one protest the Greenshirts’ opponents try to set fire to Fluff’s electric car, but they can’t: it contains no flammable fuel.
When winter arrives, people are unable to heat their homes properly because solar power and wind power (introduced to replace evil fossil fuels) fail to produce as much energy as their supporters promised. People resort to burning whatever trash they can find. The Greenshirts organize a camp in Trafalgar Square called the ‘Huddle for Love’. When they send a deputation to Downing Street to ‘advise’ (i.e. threaten) the government about its response, they deliberately include a 12-year old because ‘there would be nothing more disarming for the prime minister than to be put in her place by a child’.
Clark is too clever to create a hero who completely denies that climate change is happening at all. That would make him the equivalent of a flat-earther and annul the book’s credibility. Rather, Geavis just asks whether the situation can be as simple and extreme as the Zoe Fluffs of this world claim. When the scientists can’t even predict what a single storm is going to do over a few hours, how can they be certain what an entire planet’s weather is going to do over the next century?
Those scientists will reply that a general direction of travel can be confidently predicted without knowing every tiny detour along the way. Of course they’re correct — but the danger comes when that ‘general direction’ pushes not-very intelligent people into simplistic and dangerous acts. Campaigns gather way more force than even the most terrifying hurricane, and rational thought is jettisoned. At one point, Geavis reports his own temperature readings to a government scientist, showing that his garden has cooled slightly over the last decade, rather than heating up. He uses it merely as a reminder that local pictures can differ from overall trends. The scientist advises Geavis to ‘consider adjusting some of your data in line with established fact’. It is now, after all, a criminal offense to deny that climate change is happening.
Clark is also very good on hypocrisy. Ordinary people have to complete regular ‘carbon audits’, with a limit set so low as to make flying, owning a car or even eating meat virtually impossible. (‘How he missed meat!… What irritated him most was the way that his dinner had been dressed up as a steak, as if disguising a concoction of beetroot would be enough to stave off his cravings for the real thing.’) But if you’re an approved ‘climate influencer’, you’re allowed to jet off round the world spreading the gospel. COVID-19 has elicited a similar hypocrisy. Some politicians and advisers have ‘exempted themselves’ from the restrictions placed on mere mortals. But the main parallel is the fear: the irrational, all-consuming terror out of any proportion with the real risk. In the novel there are initial reports that the London flooding ‘could’ have killed tens of thousands of people. The government is forced into action purely to show that it’s listening. When it cuts the carbon allowance by 10 percent, the opposition demands 20 percent. If the government had said 20 percent, they’d be demanding 40 percent. It turns out that only 35 people have died.
Meanwhile COVID-19 has killed 1.5 percent of 1 percent of the world’s population (that isn’t a misprint) — and shut down the planet. Everyone is scared because everyone is scared. Let’s hope we have at least a few officials like the one in The Denial who — just in time — spots an error in a law that’s about to take effect. The legislation makes it illegal to produce any carbon dioxide at all. The official remembers to insert an exemption allowing people to breathe.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2021 US edition.