Even casual observers of our nation’s politics will recall the moment the then treasurer Scott Morrison walked into question time with a lump of coal, waving it in the direction of the opposition and yelling, “this is coal, don’t be afraid”. It was a stunt that launched a thousand memes and op eds. It was a cheap trick as well as being fundamentally inaccurate. Burning coal and gas is the main driver of climate change, if we are to believe trusted institutions such as the CSIRO, not to mention every credible climate scientist in the country and around the world.
That being said, and in the light of my research on public attitudes to climate change and energy in Australia, I recognise there is a tiny sliver of – truth? perhaps insight is a better word – in what our now prime minister had to say about coal.
In the focus groups I do in resource seats in the New South Wales Hunter region and northern Queensland and Western Australia, where coal and gas have provided communities with jobs for decades, there is a visceral reaction to any description of those industries as “dirty” or “destructive”. Not because they don’t recognise that pollution comes from burning fossil fuels or that climate change isn’t real or that the future of energy is renewables. But because when you use words aimed at provoking fear and disgust to describe coal it seems like you are, by association, bagging the people and communities that make their living from these industries. As a man in the Hunter remarked to me in a focus group last year: “I don’t like the word dirty. I get that coal is polluting, but use that word, it sounds like there is something wrong with the people who are working in the mines. And they are just trying to pay the bills.” The importance to the nation of the work done in these communities is increasingly being acknowledged by the climate movement, which continues to argue for support for workers during the inevitable transition away from fossil fuels.
Over the last two decades, as the climate wars have toppled prime minister after prime minister, the word “carbon” has become as politically charged as “coal”. Carbon emissions, carbon footprint, carbon credits, carbon tax. Words the public hear all the time and don’t really understand. A new documentary, Carbon: The Unauthorised Biography, on which I worked as script adviser, attempts to explain what carbon is and what it can do. It tries in its own way to “un-demonise” carbon. To show how carbon is everywhere, talked about but so misunderstood. And, of course, abused and misused, ultimately to our own detriment and the detriment of future generations.
The film aims to be more than just the usual science documentary you might watch on the National Geographic channel, or on a rainy day at a high school. Its first unique twist is to personify carbon, to make it the narrator of its own story, in the evocative tones of acclaimed actor Sarah Snook no less. And it opens in the most beguiling way, with scenes to make us realise how essential, how omnipresent, how wonderful and how powerful carbon is. It makes us fall in love with carbon through images and poetic language that guide us through photosynthesis, minerals, plastics, the air we breathe, the food we eat and cook, our bodies themselves (one-fifth of our bodies are made up of carbon). Snook’s voice of Carbon is not the only storyteller. World-renowned researchers such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bob Hazen and Katharine Hayhoe speak in rapturous terms about the power and the glory of carbon as both a creator and destructor.
By the time we are in the thrall of carbon’s boundless capacities, we slide into a sequence that shows its terrible power as highlighted by the industrial revolution, world wars and of course climate change. In this way it is a climate change documentary in science documentary clothing, but all the more effective because of that. The writer and co-director of the film, Australia’s Daniella Ortega, wanted to tell the story of carbon as a way to cut through the noise and partisan politics around climate. “I have two young children,” she says. “In a world with a climate already changed and a future filled with the destructive consequences of this, I want to offer them a narrative that can best prepare them for the journey ahead, and that I believe is the life story of carbon.”
The message of this visually arresting documentary is clear. If treated with respect, carbon is life-giving,…