Australia — By Christmas Eve in 2012, no rain has fallen in Sydney for more than 200 days and, despite its new desalination plant, the emerald city has run out of drinking water. The effects of climate change have created the conditions for a ring of bushfires that surround the city, but authorities don’t have enough water to put them out. This is the plot synopsis for the Nine Network’s new tele-feature experiment called Scorched, which will screen nationally in prime time on Sunday night.
Promoters have hailed the production a “major television event” with an all-star cast, fake news broadcasts from authentic Nine newsreaders and a comprehensive supporting website.
“Mother nature is on the warpath. It’s armageddon,” the publicity kit modestly proclaims. Media previews have described the plot as “scarily plausible”. Director Tony Tilse claims the idea of a city running out of water is “basically a true story, but it just hasn’t happened yet”.
Oh, really? Perhaps what is more scarily plausible is that the producers of the program didn’t bother to speak to Sydney Water or the Sydney Catchment Authority before going to air, reports The Australian.
They would have discovered that even in the worst-case scenario, Sydney already has enough water in its huge network of catchments to meet demand until 2014. The city’s new desalination plant will come on line by 2010 and will be able to supply 15 per cent of Sydney’s demand, but has been designed to quickly double its capacity to a half-billion litres of water a day.
Scorched is the headline act in a wave of climate porn to hit Australia in coming weeks.
In 2006, Britain’s Institute for Public Policy Research reviewed media, government and activist reporting of climate change and found it to be confusing, contradictory and chaotic, leaving the public feeling disempowered and uncompelled to act.
Most notable was the tendency to use alarmist language, or climate porn, which offered “a thrilling spectacle but ultimately distances the public from the problem”.
Scorched producer Kylie Du Fresne says the telemovie is not meant to be seen as a documentary, but admits “we were interested in blurring the lines between fact and fiction”.
A water disaster of this magnitude is like being run over by a steamroller. It’s possible, but only if you do nothing. Sydney Water spokesman Brendan Elliott says the plot is “truly a work of fiction”.
Given it’s Sydney Water’s primary job to make sure the city doesn’t run out of water in the face of population growth and climate change, it’s not surprising they have a range of strategies to keep moving in the face of the steamroller. These include desalination, increased water recycling and increased conservation programs.
Fears series will spark panic
Water Services Association chief executive Ross Young says he is concerned the show might spark a wave of panicked callers to water authorities on Monday morning.
“It’s very important that the program is clearly labelled a drama and not a documentary,” he told The Australian. “Even though the chances of climate change are significant, there are processes in place to manage the consequences.
“The bottom line is our cities are not going to run out of water.”
Climate porn is the latest manifestation of infotainment that flourishes in the no man’s land between fiction and nonfiction: dramas loosely based on factual events and the communication of often credible and important ideas and theories sexed up with an extra dose of dramatic licence.
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles caused panic across the US when he broadcast a dramatisation of the H.G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds. Like Scorched, the radio broadcast used simulated news broadcasts to create an aura of authenticity; some of the program’s six million listeners thought there was a Martian invasion in progress.
Climate disaster movies date back to the release of Soylent Green in 1973. The dystopian science-fiction film is set in a severely over-populated and overheated (as a result of climate change) New York in 2022 facing chronic food shortages. Charlton Heston plays a detective who discovers to his horror that the newest food substitute (Soylent Green) is made by reprocessing dead people.
Then in 1995, Kevin Costner starred in the box-office flop Waterworld, a kind of climate-change crisis meets Mad Max movie set in a futuristic Earth where the polar ice caps have melted and the few survivors sail around or live on floating islands, inevitably fighting with each other.
Explicit climate porn
The most explicit climate porn may well be the 2004 blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow.
Released two years before Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, it grossed 10 times more at the box office. Melting ice sheets and glaciers caused the Altantic Ocean currents to stop suddenly, plunging the entire northern hemisphere into a deep snap-freeze. The film was derided by most climate scientists and highlighted the real problem with creating drama about the effects of climate change: in reality the changes are not sudden, but slow and insidious.
In a review, US paleoclimatologist William Hyde observed: “This movie is to climate science as Frankenstein is to heart transplant surgery.”
But even a genuine attempt to explain the science, such as An Inconvenient Truth, sailed close to the wind at times in order to sustain the level of drama in what is basically a 90-minute lecture.
In one example, Gore made much of the devastating impacts of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans as a portent of increased natural disasters caused by a warming climate.
The main cause of New Orleans’ flooding was a poorly maintained system of levees holding back the Mississippi River and surrounding lakes. But holding this aside, scientists are still arguing over whether Gore’s claim is actually true. Despite predictions to the contrary, the two subsequent hurricane seasons on the US Atlantic coast were well below average.
Climate porn is not just constrained to the cinema.