Richard Curtis is a man who thinks that comedy can save the world: Comic Relief, which he co-founded, is the occasionally cringe-making testament to that fervent belief. Unfortunately for the talented screenwriter of Four Weddings and a Funeral, nothing fails so completely as a comedy that misfires.
Last week the 10:10 climate change organisation released the short film, No Pressure, that it had commissioned from Curtis as the cutting edge of its campaign to persuade everyone to reduce carbon emissions by 10 per cent. The opening scene is set in a school classroom. The teacher is asking the pupils what they will do to assist the campaign. Only two pupils, "Philip" and "Tracey", seem unwilling to offer any suggestions. Both are surly-looking; "Tracey" is fat. The teacher presses a red button, at which point the two juvenile climate-change refuseniks explode, covering their screaming fellow-pupils in blood and gore. Ha-ha.
The founder of 10:10, Franny Armstrong, explained the movie's moral purpose as follows: "Doing nothing about climate change is still a fairly common affliction ... What to do with these people, who are together threatening everybody's existence on this planet? Clearly we don't really think they should be blown up, that's just a joke for the mini-movie, but maybe a little amputating would be a good place to start." I think that was also supposed to be funny; but as we all know, humour is the way in which people tend to express their most seriously held opinions.
Anyway, the reaction to Curtis's film was not as either he or Ms Armstrong would have wished. Many of those who support their objectives declared their disgust at the idea of blowing up recalcitrant children, even as "humour". Worst of all from Armstrong's point of view, the film went viral on websites run by those who regard the whole climate change agenda as fundamentally misguided and its proponents as misanthropes motivated as much by hatred of humanity as love for the planet. As often as 10:10 tried to pull the film off YouTube, their critics re-posted it.
This, at least, proves what a cataclysmic misjudgement Curtis had made. When you try to satirise the critics of your campaign, and it turns out that those very critics embrace your film as demonstrating exactly what they find unbearable about the climate-obsessed eco-lobby, then you know that you have kicked the ball into your own net. Unfortunately, just as a star footballer who scores a spectacular own goal must now endure his foolishness being viewed endlessly on the internet, so Richard Curtis will have this hanging round his neck, like a stinking fish, for as long as he is successful enough to be worth mocking.
Meanwhile, Ms Armstrong has gritted her teeth and declared that "at 10:10 we're all about trying new and creative ways of getting people to take action on climate change. Unfortunately, in this instance we missed the mark. Oh well, we live and learn. Onwards and upwards." This reminded me of the eternally – or perhaps that should be externally – optimistic American business manager of a venture I was once involved in. If ever one of his ingenious schemes backfired spectacularly, he would jut his handsome jaw forward and declare, "Onwards and upwards". The pathos of it almost made me want to hug him and say: "You can cry if you want."
Yet Franny Armstrong wouldn't disown her enviro-snuff movie altogether, arguing "We 'killed' five people to make No Pressure – a mere blip compared to the 300,000 real people who now die each year from climate change." That is her killer fact – literally. But where does that suspiciously precise figure come from? I think Armstrong must have got it from something called the Global Humanitarian Forum which in June 2009 produced a report claiming that about 300,000 deaths a year "can be attributed to the effects of rising greenhouse gas concentrations". This report, as Ms Armstrong is perhaps not aware, was comprehensively trashed by the Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado, Roger Pielke. Dr Pielke, a specialist in "disaster trends", described the report as "a methodological embarrassment and a poster-child for how to lie with statistics ... It is worse than a fiction, it is a lie."
Pielke pointed out that "the more scientifically robust approach would be to look specifically at weather-related disasters, and consider the role of socio-economic changes, and to the extent possible, try to remove that signal and see what trends remain. When that has been done, in every case, in the US, Australia, India, Latin America, all in peer-reviewed literature, there is not a remaining signal of increasing disasters. In other words, the increase in [weather-related] disasters observed worldwide can be entirely attributed to socio-economic change." Thus, while the Global Humanitarian Forum report specifically attributes "the increase in inter-clan fighting in Somalia" to "climate change", a more sober assessment would blame this development on the collapse of a functioning Somali government and the rise of jihadists in the region.
Obviously, an increase in "water stress" – for whatever reasons – might have political consequences; yet as the IPCC's own projections make clear, climate change (whether man-made or not) could actually reduce water stress for hundreds of millions in some areas, while increasing it in others. What organisations such as the Global Humanitarian Forum and 10:10 do is to subtract every piece of good news, multiply all the bad news by the number they first thought of, and call it "a fact".
It's not hard to work out why the tone of such organisations has become increasingly apocalyptic and even hysterical – leading to a situation in which hypothetical naughty children need to be blown up to make a political point. The failure of the UN's Copenhagen summit last December was traumatic for every European involved in the climate change movement – and bear in mind that this issue is to an extraordinary extent a European obsession.
In Copenhagen what happened was that Brazil, India, China, South Africa and (at the last minute) the United States got together and drew up their own concordat, which contained absolutely no reference to any legally binding agreement on global or national carbon emissions. They then texted the excluded European government heads and told them that they could sign this, or not sign it, but that there would be no other agreement at Copenhagen. The European heads of government, utterly humiliated in one of their own capital cities, and on an issue over which they felt they had moral and political leadership, lamely agreed to go along with the agreement to do nothing in particular.
So no wonder such people as Franny Armstrong and her chums at 10:10 are resorting to increasingly outrageous tactics. They have suddenly realised that the very countries which they might imagine would be on their side – in the Far East, the Asian subcontinent, South America and Africa – will obstruct or even boycott any globally binding initiative to reduce carbon emissions. Not surprisingly, countries across those vast regions are fixated on increasing the living standards of their own people as rapidly and as cheaply as possible, and that means building vast new coal-fired power stations.
Perhaps what Richard Curtis should have produced was a film portraying the heads of the governments of Brazil, South Africa, China and India being blown to smithereens, splattering the virtuous European leaders with blood and gore. For some reason, however, it must have seemed funnier to "blow up" some fat English schoolchildren. Oh well, onwards and upwards.