The crucial lesson HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ teaches us about Climate Change

In 2019, the cable company and streaming service HBO released a historical period drama mini-series about the soviet nuclear disaster Chernobyl. As an ardent supporter of nuclear energy (not nuclear arms, of course), I was skeptical, of watching the mini-series. What is to be the moral message of the show, that nuclear power is bad? Is it to be simply a retelling of the catastrophe?

My assumptions were proven pleasantly incorrect. The message ‘Chernobyl’s’ writer, Craig Mazin, chose to communicate was a prudent and impactful one, given our current global predicament. Throughout the show, the protagonist, Valery Legasov, who is based on the man of the same name that led the soviet commission into Chernobyl, makes a series of remarks about the importance of embracing truth and rejecting falsehood. This running theme culminates in a moving monologue, during the final fifth episode of the show:

‘To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on our search for truth, we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it is even there, but it is still there. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognise the truth at all. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants. It doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl.’

This ‘gift’ which Legasov, played by Jared Harris, talks about is a bittersweet one. Nonetheless, it is true that many of our institutions, namely political and financial, find that the ‘truth’ of climate change ‘offends’. Their response to the collapse of entire ecosystems, the mass bleaching of coral, out of control bushfires and far higher temperatures than the expected norm? Lies. Even now, at the time of writing, President Trump is speaking at Davos, Switzerland, on Climate Change. He claimed that climate change activists are ‘prophets of doom’ and called for a rejection of ‘predictions of the apocalypse’. Furthermore, there is a scientific consensus on Climate Change. In other words, the overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree on three things: 

  1. Climate Change is a real and tangible occurrence.
  2. Climate Change (on this scale) is man made, owing to our use of fossil fuels.
  3. The consequences of not dealing with this imminent threat will be catastrophic.
Photo by Yves Alarie on Unsplash

Despite this grim consensus, the political, financial and media realms cannot seem to fully recognise the truth of this issue. Even one of the most reputable new outlets, the BBC, has taken flak for carrying out what is usually considered the good journalistic practice of giving even air time to each side of a debate. This was acceptable in Climate Change’s infancy, when there was still a reasonably sized core of scientists who did not believe in Climate Change. However, over the years, the number of scientists who disagree has shrunk. Now, one watches a climate scientist, with a plethora of accolades and qualifications under their belt, engage in a verbal battle, for our understanding, with a climate change denier, whose last science lesson was GCSE triple. 

Similarly, misguided leaders, such as Australia’s Scott Morrison, either outright deny Climate Change’s existence or concede, as Prime Minister Morrison was forced to do in the wake of bushfires sweeping his country, that climate change exists, but is not caused by mankind and our use of fossil fuels. Financial institutions also ignore economist’s conclusions that dealing with this crisis now will only cost 1% of the world’s GDP, whereas dealing with it in 2050, will cost the comparatively far higher 20%. These institutions offer large investments, alongside our governments, to companies that produce and extract fossil fuels, further exacerbating this global issue.

So what does ‘Chernobyl’ have to teach us about Climate Change?

Chernobyl teaches us that not only are the actions of mankind influential enough to dramatically alter our environment, as was the case with the nuclear disaster of the same name, but that we must take responsibility for our actions. Just as the Soviets deliberately lied about the cheapness of their equipment, the exact amount of radiation that was put out by the reactor meltdown and how much control they had over the situation, our leaders, our news outlets and our financial pillars (all with some exceptions) are lying to us about the sufficiency of their response and the steps they “will” take to solve the crisis. 

This stream of lies leads back to Legasov’s point that: ‘the real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognise the truth at all’. On most Facebook posts that relate to Climate Change, with a non-skewed target audience, you will find a large number of Climate Change deniers who make such assertions as:

‘America should not be fixing the world’s problems, we put out very little CO2! Go after China!’ (America is the second largest gross emitter of CO2, after China, and the highest emitter per capita.)

‘Please tell me more about the Climate info you get from a 16 year old, who doesn’t go to school.’ (in reference to Greta Thunberg)

These people have heard ‘enough lies’ that they ‘no longer recognise the truth at all’. In his book ‘Climate Change: A Very Short Introduction’, Mark Maslin states that in the ‘last 100 years’, through our use of fossil fuels, we have done the work a natural Climate Change process would take ‘1000s of years to do’. This is something we have known about since 1925. Our ‘debt’ to the ‘truth’ is coming to be paid, whether we like it or not. We have a choice between acting now, using 1% of the world’s GDP and scaling back our unsustainable activities, or waiting until the ice caps melt entirely, millions drown, billions more starve and human civilization, as we know it, collapses. It is time to stop lying; it is time to embrace the truth, so as to live without enduring its harsher consequences. The truth ‘doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions’. It only cares that we acknowledge it, and there is still time. But for now, my thoughts on the matter are the same as Legasov’s: 

‘Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: what is the cost of lies?’

1 thought on “The crucial lesson HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ teaches us about Climate Change

  1. Excellent piece of writing. Informative, engaging & more to the point, true. Climate change is happening !! Open your eyes people !!

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