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Big Oil V The World,21-07-2022,Generic,Oil refinery industrial plant at night.,Shutterstock/Ttstudio,Ttstudio
The art of looking up

The art of looking up

Big Oil V The World,21-07-2022,Generic,Oil refinery industrial plant at night.,Shutterstock/Ttstudio,Ttstudio

A new BBC documentary series gives a damning account of how big oil made us doubt man-made climate change – but the fight for climate justice still needs a more effective way of reaching viewers

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, rails buckled and the grass in our public parks became a dry, pale yellow. Temperatures reached the highest ever recorded in the UK (40.3 degrees). 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 per cent 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 eighties and early nineties, 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.

“Momentum was on our side, and it kind of opened up the world and you had the feeling… this is really going to change,” says Tim Wirth, one of the first US senators to attempt to address the problem of global warming through legislation. “But 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 was simple: to push back against the emerging evidence that pumping CO2 into the atmosphere wasn’t a good idea. By this time plenty of journalists were looking to report on this issue but were stumped by its complexity. The backgrounders provided by the GCC’s press team would, in reality, serve to confuse reporters even more. 

The GCC also cottoned on to the fact that industry spokespeople held less sway with the public and the media than third party experts – and so they set about recruiting them, pushing for them to appear on panels, news shows and in the pages of popular publications as dissenting voices against the emerging consensus.

President George W. Bush with Vice President Dick Cheney (L) and Secretary of Energy Sam Bodman, 2008

The series also puts the links between the oil industry and the Republican Party under a spotlight. Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobil, was appointed US Secretary of State by Donald Trump in 2017; Dick Cheney, former Halliburton CEO, went on to serve as vice president to George W. Bush – who was already parroting Big Oil’s doubts about human-induced warming less than a year into his presidency. Political lobbying was key – legislative failures for both the Clinton and Obama administrations which prevented the US from taking action on climate change were in large part engineered by the industry.

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 one per cent of scripts in the US contained the term “climate change”.

Analysing the scripts of 37,453 TV episodes and films that aired in the US from 2016-20, the study also found that only 2.8 per cent of scripts mentioned any of  36 commonly-used “climate-adjacent” words or phrases, such as “global warming,” “climate crisis,” or even “save the planet”. It also found that of films that mentioned extreme weather or fossil fuels, only 10 per cent  had any dialogue about the climate crisis. (One high-profile exception from before the study was The Day After Tomorrow (2004), a disaster movie intended to serve as a warning about climate change, which was released to criticism from all sides, including from climate scientists and activists for its lack of scientific accuracy.)

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

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.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in Don’t Look Up, 2005

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.


Trainwreck: Woodstock 99 (Netflix)

Richie Havens, the singer-songwriter who performed a three-hour set at the original Woodstock in 1969, described the festival as “both a peaceful protest and a global celebration.” The 1999 revival of the event, as this new Netflix documentary shows, was the polar opposite. 

Trainwreck: Woodstock 99 charts the depths to which the festival sank, with sexual violence, vandalism and arson marring the weekend and its attempt to live up to the original’s celebration of peace and music. It’s far darker than Netflix’s 2019 hit of the same genre – the festival disaster documentary Fyre – and the blame game that’s played by organisers and promoters is particularly disturbing given the horror playing out in the original footage. Some of the decisions, like one to hand out candles to thousands of intoxicated festival-goers, are simply jaw-dropping. A three-episode account of a real-life horror show.

Rogue Agent (Netflix)

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.


Volt Rush – Henry Sanderson

Something often promised as a beneficial byproduct of the transition away from fossil fuels is the end of armed conflict over natural resources. But as Henry Sanderson, the FT’s former metals and mining correspondent, makes clear in his new book, a future in which all our houses, offices and vehicles are powered by solar and wind will be a future dependent on batteries. And these batteries can’t be made without  essential rare earths and minerals. Rather than consigning the global race to control natural resources to history, we may just be gearing up for a new one. The race for these resources also generates a race to the bottom in terms of labour practices, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s cobalt mines. 

Rather than making an anti-green argument, Sanderson is warning of the new geopolitical reality that will exist as a result of a transition that we’re already in the throes of. He also makes the point that this is an opportunity simply to consume less. A timely and thought-provoking book on an issue which will likely soon dominate much of our lives.

P.S. If you didn’t catch Giles Whittell’s Tortoise ThinkIn on this subject back in June, do give it a watch.

The Measure – 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 this review of Renaissance by Beyoncé from Sensemaker Daily reporter Phoebe Davis

There are lots of words you could use to describe Beyoncé. Singer. Chart-topping. Black. Mother. Wife. Queen. But her new album Renaissance – her first solo endeavour since Lemonade six years ago – can be summed up in just one: sexy. The tracks positively drip hedonism and intimacy and beats you can’t help but move your body too. Unlike the introspection of Lemonade, this isn’t a break-up album. Rather, it’s a celebration of Black-ness, queer-ness and above all being unique. Personal favourites are the closing track, ‘Summer Renaissance’, a homage to the disco icon Donna Summer’s 1976 track ‘I Feel Love and Move’ (featuring this year’s Kite festival headliner Grace Jones and Nigerian singer-songwriter Tems). But there is really something for anyone who finds euphoria and freedom in dance. The only caveat: both Beyoncé and Lizzo (Special) have faced backlash for using an able-ist slur on their album that led to the removal of the word from their respective tracks. As much as artists may wish they worked in their own creative bubbles – they don’t. There’s the potential for power in music – as both their albums prove. Wield it with care.

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. Who knew a monologue could be so interesting?

‘A post lockdown mental health plan’ guides the listener through Chambers’ own experience of lockdown and the impacts that enforced isolation had on his mental health. During the pandemic, health professionals and politicians told us staying inside was the safest thing we could do. Seeing loved ones even at a two-metre distance became a potentially life-or-death risk. Socialising was dangerous with a capital D. For someone with social anxiety, this public health fact reinforces those internal voices that tell us that the outside world is scary. This unravelled a lot of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) work Chambers had done to recover from agoraphobia.

In comes Chambers’ personal ‘map for healing’ to guide himself out of the panic, from a state of grief, panic and hyper-vigilance to a mindset that’s more mindful and present, and less fearful. The market for mindfulness and wellness podcasts is now saturated terrain. They can too often be hot yoga and green juice, over-simplifying the lived reality of mental illness. The Blindboy Podcast’s mental health-centred episodes are a welcome remedy.

Summarising other 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.”

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

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

Best wishes,

James Wilson

Photographs courtesy BBC/Mongoose Pictures, Netflix, Getty Images