Chris Rapley in conversation with Kay Michael
Two years after Duncan Macmillan and Katie Mitchell staged 2071 at the Royal Court, Kay Michael, the 2071 assistant director and director of Empty Deck’s Cosmic Fear or The Day Brad Pitt Got Paranoia, caught up with the climate scientist behind the stage play, who co-wrote and performed it at the Royal Court, the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, and the Beaux-Arts theatre in Brussels, Professor Chris Rapley…
KAY: A lot has happened in the past 2 years since 2071: COP21 and now Brexit. Where do you see us now in regards to our global and national response to climate change?
CHRIS: 195 nations signing anything is an extraordinary feat. And the COP21 climate agreement was a diplomatic triumph. Mixing with 40,000 people in Paris, all of whom were completely committed to making the world a better place and took it so seriously was a very uplifting experience. But the planet is indifferent to a piece of a paper, so now we have to deliver, and will they honestly deliver? The answer to that is still unfolding…. Brexit looked at first like it was a triumphant win for the sort of people in the UK who want to revoke the climate change act. In fact, given commitments by Greg Clark, the new Minister in charge, there is hope that the UK’s policies might become more ‘joined up’ and effective. More generally, around the world, what we fear is that politicians will delay or renege on their COP21 promises. Even if they deliver their national pledges in full, it will still only reduce what would have been a 4-5C warming by the end of this century – which would have been absolutely unimaginable – to around 2.7C. We need a huge scaling up and acceleration of action right now.
KAY: So is meeting the 2C guardrail impossible then?
CHRIS: 1.5C I think is impossible. We’re going to live it fairly soon. 2C might still just be achievable. So I think it’s a pity that post-COP21 the climate science community agreed to a request from the politicians to invest substantial effort looking into the difference between a 1.5C and 2C world. They’d be much better employed looking at the other end – at what a 6-8C world would look like, because that we really don’t know, and it’s still a possibility. In the UK the Met Office and others are looking at these high-end outcomes; it will be fascinating to see what they come up with.
The temperature numbers seem so small, but when you’re talking about global averages 5C was the difference between the last ice age and where we are now. The last time the world was 2-3C warmer than today there were hippopotami in the Thames, there was no ice at the North Pole. We’ve built our entire civilization based on the climate system we’ve inherited, not the one we are provoking. So its not useful saying we could just convert London into a city like Singapore to cope. It would cost; we’d need to rebuild pretty much all major infrastructure for example.
I think we’re likely to be heading well over 2C I’m afraid, sadly, and I don’t know what the world will be like. The direct impacts will be bad enough, but it’s the indirect impacts that will be the insidious part and we’ve already seen it with the Syrian refugees, 1.5 million of them being displaced due to drought between 2007 and 2010. So, climate change hits you directly, but it’s also a threat multiplier. You take the world, which is already a turbulent place, and it adds further really significant stresses.
KAY: Just hearing you now Chris, it fills me with dread. I understand your choices behind a neutral delivery for 2071, but what you’re saying now really captures the urgency of the matter…
CHRIS: Well we really should have got into dealing with all this 20 years ago, even 30 years ago. The world has moved much faster than we expected.
KAY: So we’re just not moving quickly enough to deal with the problem?
CHRIS: Well oddly enough, the way institutions move formally, in their normal mode is very slow, and they’re not matched to what we need to do. The strange thing that we’ve seen with Brexit is that the political world can invert itself in 24 hrs. So, under the right circumstances, unfortunately dangerously unstable circumstances, but nevertheless under the right circumstances, extraordinary things can happen. People can just rise up.
KAY: Do you think it will take a large-scale event to trigger that kind of action?
CHRIS: Well we’ve talked a lot about this in the past. Jim lovelock once said to me ‘half a million dead – that would wake everybody up’
KAY: But there are natural disasters occurring all the time…
CHRIS: Well, half a billion could cause society to disintegrate, but half a million captures people’s attention. He wasn’t advocating, he was simply bemoaning the fact that our history as a species suggests that this might be what is needed, which is so irritating because we do have capacity for rational thought.
KAY: After working on 2071 I was left thinking – well what on earth am I meant to do? I remember reading an earlier draft of the rehearsal script, and saw that what could be described as the need for a revolution was diligently crossed out…
CHRIS: I’m currently writing the Pelican Introduction to Climate Disruption and in it I’ve been right up front:
We need to transform how the world is powered, financed and run.
I talk very critically of free-market fundamentalists since, as pointed out by Lord Stern, climate change is the greatest market failure. I am liberated with the book in that I can say things that we decided not to say in 2071. Because we felt in an hour and a quarter, rightly or wrongly, we needed to keep the messaging really simple. We wanted to attract, engage and inform, and let the audience make up their own minds. We wanted to let the climate science tell the story of climate change. And maybe as a result our audience would then be inclined to read a newspaper article on climate change when they would have previously turned the page – they would become permanently engaged.
KAY: Well you certainly speak for me! Working on 2071 turned my life around. The question we’re trying to ask now with Cosmic Fear is — ‘What can I actually do?’
CHRIS: Well in 2071 we very lightly say what is already happening…
‘Many individuals have taken measures to reduce their own climate-related impacts by making changes in their personal, professional and public lives: installing solar panels; increasing the energy efficiency of their homes, vehicles and appliances; using public transport and avoiding unnecessary travel; changing diet and choosing to forgo activities that generate emissions.
They have encouraged changes to be made in their workplaces and written to their MPs.
They have sought to educate themselves about the issue and to talk about it with their friends, families and communities.’
KAY: And it’s a political as well as a personal thing…
CHRIS: Everybody can patrol their own conscience about their own lives. But in the end you realise that saying ‘every little helps’ isn’t very convincing because despite the fact that you bicycled here I’m afraid the planet isn’t really going to notice that.
[On the hottest day of the year, Chris has noticed my sweaty cyclist’s back…]
But you have an identity, a self-image and a set of values; and to be a human being who feels of value and worth you have to remain true to those values. So you should feel good about the fact that you bicycle. It’s a good thing to do, and other people would applaud it, but in many respects it’s about how you feel about yourself that’s important. It’s not good, for example, to continually feel guilty about yourself… When there’s a dissonance between the way you lead your life and the way you feel you should lead your life, that’s not good for you as a person. But in the end the planet is indifferent.
At your workplace, wherever you are in the food chain, you can make a difference, and I can give you a whole set of amazing stories of small, medium and large companies that have really gone to town on this [Which Chris then does]. What they find is that not only does it reduce costs due to the efficiency savings, but staff morale and productivity goes through the roof and staff turnover goes to zero. And the finance director suddenly becomes the champion and goes out and tells other finance directors you must do this – its transformed our company!
KAY: There’s a line in our play – ‘The changing climate is the outer expression of the inner transformation which has only just begun’… If we can transform ourselves in this personal way, then this will hopefully have an impact on the climate at large. Change starts from within yourself…
CHRIS: Exactly. I think that’s a really really important idea.
So many people feel isolated in the modern world, and what you find are movements growing like the transition towns. When you say to people ‘how does it feel to be saving the planet?’ – what they will mostly talk about is the feeling of community
– ‘oh yeah yeah we’re saving the planet but the main thing is that me and my neighbours really get on now’.
KAY: Well we’ve really taken this idea of community to heart. It means a lot to us as a company, and we want to reach out to others too whilst performing the show in Edinburgh, and either leave a legacy or build a certain momentum towards something.
CHRIS: It’s important to understand, when you sit back and watch the denialist blogosphere, that many of them feel the same way; they feel they’re the valiant defenders of what they have determined is ‘truth’, and they see what they’re doing as magnificent.
KAY – Do you feel that that community is shrinking though? Because my feeling is that the status quo now, especially since Paris, is that people understand climate change to be happening, the science is there.
CHRIS: Well there has been a rise in climate acceptance in the USA, but it seems to be much more to do with personal experiences of drought and weather extremes than with anything that happened at Paris. Although Paris might cement things… I think what’s happening is that the hardcore skeptics are becoming more and more entrenched, and they have to, as the evidence becomes more and more overwhelming. I think people who were previously mildly indifferent are being drawn into the camp where they accept that it’s real, but they’re still “climate ignorers”; they’re not actively engaged because they don’t know quite what to do about it.
KAY: And that’s a huge proportion of people.
CHRIS: Well yes its huge.
KAY: And that’s the group we want to be engaging with.
CHRIS: You know there’s an irony: climate scientists ourselves are probably some of the people who are most able and most practiced at disavowing the issue because if we confronted it we could fall to bits, because we really know what is at stake. We tend to intellectualise the problem – to deal with the planet as ‘an abstract object of study’ – the theoretical object in the computer model or satellite image.
KAY: Well yes, it’s almost unimaginable to know what the world will look like. Even if we were to get to net zero emissions the world is still going to change, and what does that mean?
CHRIS: Climate scientists try and provide the best estimate by building models that project into the future. A recent report on climate risk asked what is the worst that could happen, even with a probability as low as fractions of a percent? Answering that question can have a big influence on the strategy you adopt. But the science community tends to “err on the side of least drama”; we try hard not to be seen as alarmist, even if presenting alarming facts. The IPCC reports mention what a 1.5, 2 and 4C world would look like, and there’s one mention of a 5C world. But about higher temperatures, still within the range of possibilities, they are completely silent…
Even if we knew the science perfectly we don’t know what human beings will actually do, therefore there will always be some uncertainty. So the thing to do is to work backwards to see how long we can hang on to the present system, and then adopt an adaptive management approach, that takes into account how the future actually unfolds. So for example, the Environment Agency has a plan [TE2100] to protect London from sea level rise and river flooding concludes that
we have 15 years before key decisions have to be made –
KAY: 15?! That’s nothing.
CHRIS – Oh, sorry, we all felt that was rather good!
KAY – Really? 15 years to carry on business and life as usual?
CHRIS –Yes, for protecting London. What we’ve got is probably good enough to protect the London flood plain, upon which there is £200 billion worth of real estate, 35 tube stations, 8 power stations, more than 1000 electricity substations, 16 hospitals, a host of heritage sites, and a one and a quarter million residents. That is ok probably for the next 15 years, or a little bit longer. But we have to make a decision in 15 years or so, and then it will take 5-10 years to do something. If sea level rise accelerates we might even have to intervene early. What they have thought through is 3 schemes: light medium and heavy, which have estimated costs already identified…
… So you can believe that provided somebody spends something like £10-20 billion, London will be protected against sea level rise and river flooding up until 2100. But then you can ask: What is the largest rise of sea level beyond which you would give up on protecting the London flood plain?’ The answer is somewhere between 3-5 metres; beyond that the costs and civil engineering become so significant that you’d do better to give up. So you then say: How long do you think that could be? Well 10 years ago we would have all said it’s probably 1000 years from now, so it’s not insignificant, but its not in our remit to deal with. Now we’re worrying it could be 150-200 years or less if things go really badly wrong on the ice sheets, at which point you say well perhaps we shouldn’t be spending the £20 billion then if there’s a reasonable probability that we’re going to have give up the flood plain so soon. Maybe we shouldn’t be wasting our time, maybe we should be confronting it now and start redesigning, rebuilding London on the Chilterns.
… That is a serious question although not a comfortable one.
KAY – Well this is alarming, and you’re dealing with a reality that is soon going to transpire…
CHRIS: – Well you’ll have heard the analogy of putting a frog in a pan of water that’s slowly heated up and it adapts and doesn’t notice – and supposedly ends up boiled. But if you dropped the frog in when it’s hot then it would jump out. Imagine instead the frog sitting in the pan and the water is gently warming up and it turns to its science advisor and asks: What is my situation? And the science advisor says ‘Well give me a £100 million and a super computer and I’ll come back and tell you’. And he does that, and a few minutes later he comes back and says ‘Well, in 20 minutes time you’re going to be a few degrees warmer’. And the frog says it doesn’t sound too bad, I’ll stay where I am. If he turns to his strategic advisor and asks the same question the response will be ‘Well if you sit there long enough you’re going to die, so if I were you I’d get out now’. And that’s the whole point of the London example and indeed a myriad of other examples. Climate change is undermining the validity and legitimacy of many assumptions that are completely inbuilt into the way we are currently functioning, and people are slowly waking up to this. But things are on the move. Mark Carney saying ‘This is the biggest financial threat’ got a lot of people thinking about it and taking action like they never did before.
It’s like a novel, a detective thriller, that nobody’s written the end of yet. Are we going to make it, scrape through or will we continue to sleepwalk until its too late?
KAY: But there’s two narratives you’re talking about here: there’s adaptation and then there’s mitigation, and how much is being mitigated? Because as an individual that’s where I go ‘Well that’s where I could step in’.
CHRIS: Well that’s right, but now we’re seeing that the adaptation is really serious. We only have limited resources of intellect, effort, money and time. And now we’re having to split between two things when if we had acted prudently decades ago we could have focused on the one. What’s interesting is that many of the companies that have gone into adaptation planning have got an interesting story to tell. Many have global supply chains, they’re feeling climate insults already, but having pushed their thinking ahead into adaptation planning, they get to the point of saying the same thing: ‘Wow, we don’t want to go there, this is going to be devastating for our business.’ The adaptation exercises bring them back to mitigation: ‘What can we do to prevent this from happening?’ It’s a nice story.
KAY: But in what ways are they mitigating? Is it as simple as not relying on fossil fuels?
CHRIS: It’s a mixture of enlightened self-interest and a belief that they can make the world a better place.
[Chris then gives the example of Coca Cola who have reduced the amount of water they need to produce a drop of coca cola, as well as reducing carbon emissions from their bottling plants and transportation. These examples of using less energy save them money, but I can’t help but think we need to get onto the subject of rolling out green technologies ASAP if we’re to get off the fossil fuels any time soon!]
KAY: It’s amazing to see people in the business world engaging with climate change with that kind of zeal.
People like to feel like they’re making a difference, it makes people feel good.
KAY: That’s absolutely what we’re trying to cultivate with Cosmic Fear. It’s about climate anxieties, the anxieties that arise when you talk or think about this subject. So as a secondary – and just as important, if not more important – part to our project is ‘Cosmic Outreach’ – which is a space where we’re encouraging people to reflect on and engage with more sustainable modes of living. I’ve personally become vegetarian in the last 8-10 months, and am doing what I can to become vegan – these are the little things that I’m doing, and its about encouraging people to make the kind of adaptations that big business is expected to make. It takes some effort to get over the negative critiquing voices in your one’s own head though…
CHRIS: … and the assumption that your life will somehow be less satisfying; because its actually more satisfying. I agree. The more we can do to get us through that transition the better.
KAY: So, what do you think theatre’s role is with this topic?
CHRIS: I estimated we probably got to about 10,000 people in all the performances we did of 2071, and maybe double that if people talked about it and bought the book. But this is a tiny tiny fraction of humanity. I’m keen that whatever the theatre does, it finds a way of increasing its audience… It’s the greatest story of mankind’s history!…
The more we stir things up the better; that’s one of the things theatre is for.
KAY– Do you think theatre’s objectives of ‘attract, engage and inform’ that you set out to achieve with 2071 are still the same now?
CHRIS- Not necessarily. It may not be the priority to put the effort into now. The Royal Court, post-war, shocked society into thinking differently. It said you guys are sleep-walking and there are serious issues you have to confront. It’s the same story now, and is there a way theatre can do that still?
KAY: You’re relying on a seed being planted…
CHRIS: Yes, but then you have to offer the dialogue that follows. You need to have a guided dialectic. It’s a good question; you’re closer to it than I am.
KAY: To engage people interactively seems to be useful… So people can imagine the choices they can make…
CHRIS: All the work that we’ve been doing with psychoanalysts and neuroscientists says that if you frighten people you will get their attention but then there will be a big backlash because they will resent having been frightened if the threat doesn’t immediately materialise. And the problem with climate change is what’s been called ‘slow violence’. We react incredibly strongly to immediate threats but throughout our evolutionary history the best strategy for slow threats is to wait and see what happens … deal with it when it finally crystalizes and you can understand what it is. The problem with climate change is that by the time it happens it’s too late. There’s another 30-50 years of climate change in the pipeline. Even if we turned off carbon dioxide tomorrow we wouldn’t actually begin to see the climate systems’ trajectory change until about 2060/70. I wont be around, you probably will be. And of course that’s one of the problems with politicians that say ‘why should I risk my political career or become unpopular to do something which is political generations away?’ Well, because as a moral and ethical person, you have a responsibility.
KAY: You’d hope they think like that!
CHRIS: Well yes but it’s a lower priority!
KAY – On this topic, our actress Jessica Sian has this question for you: ‘Are there practical ways we can challenge the evolutionary psychology of only responding to immediate threat?’
CHRIS: There are examples in history where direct action has worked, take the Suffragettes for example, but an awful lot of what I see from those groups both in the UK and elsewhere is sadly misdirected. This is where theatre can come in – it can make people laugh and cry.
You can grab people’s emotions in their solar plexus and that’s what you have to do to get them to walk out of the theatre a changed person.
KAY: It’s interesting what you’re saying: the fine line between direct, almost sledge-hammering action and the more subtle approach…
CHRIS: You can be powerful and you can be subtle and achieve amazing things.
KAY: Sam Ducane, another of our actors asks: ‘How can we keep climate change at the forefront of the public’s mind?’
CHRIS: It’s about opening up the dialogue. Most people would prefer not to talk about it, because A, I don’t know much about it, B, it upsets me and C, because I’ve been told by the Daily Mail and Daily Express that its not an issue anyway – so go away. So making it a permitted subject is vital.
KAY: Yes, so it doesn’t continue to be a taboo or ‘fatigued’ subject…
Sam: ‘Are there clear goals we should be aiming to achieve?’
CHRIS: Pursue the ambitious goals that were set out in COP21. But the thing to do now is to hold the whole political class to its policies and commitments. The amount of effort it will need in the UK and Europe will be much bigger now since Brexit.
KAY: Sam: ‘Is there more the individual can do or is the problem ultimately so big it needs systemic change within major co-operations / governments?’
CHRIS: Well it needs all the above. We didn’t talk about political, and that’s the one I press home all the time. Write to your MP; keep up the pressure. I’ve been told by MPs its extremely rare if ever that they get anything in their postbag about climate change. This is politics. If we want people in Westminster to take it seriously, then the public have to keep on and on about it to them. A barrage of emails, demonstrations outside their offices… then we’d see a shift in their attention.
KAY: Question from Jack Gordon: ‘Where are we in terms of temperature now?’
CHRIS: 12 of the last 14 years have been the hottest on record; 2015 the hottest; and 2016 looks like it will be hotter than 2015. In the Arctic, which is very sensitive to temperature rise and where the temperature increase goes at twice the rate of the average of the planet, pretty much throughout last winter temperatures were consistently 10 Degrees C above normal, and 3 days before Christmas at the North Pole temperatures were somewhere between 20 – 30C warmer than normal and the ice was beginning to melt. We’ve not seen anything like this. Since then, surface melting on the Greenland ice sheets started early this year; and there have been three big bursts of melting since. In the Antarctic things are different and a bit more complicated. But in the Arctic it’s affecting the arctic peoples. They have ‘traditional knowledge’ that allows them to survive in their extreme conditions, but it’s now no longer relevant. The system has moved outside the bounds of their long experience and faster than anything they’ve ever known. They have never had freezing rain in the early winter before and this is leaving impervious layers of ice under the snow so the reindeer can no longer smell where the lichen and the fodder are, so they’re all starving. They were having problems with the modern world anyway and this is like a death threat to them.
It was a fascinating, illuminating and important conversation that Chris and I had, and I’m incredibly grateful for his time and reflections. In the hottest week of summer in London climate action has certainly not gone to bed!
Please see what we’re doing to continue the climate conversation in theatre here and for bookings of our four-week run at the Edinburgh Fringe, go here.
The book of the play 2071 – The World We’’ll Leave Our Grandchildren by Chris Rapley and Duncan Macmillan is on sale published by John Murray.
Available for £8.99 from all good booksellers and from Amazon