POSTED: 21 JUNE 2008 - 10:00am EST

Oilmen believe our planet is burning up

image above: Rupert Penry-Jones and Neve Campbell in Simon Beaufoy's new BBC two-part drama

by Simon Beaufoy on 19 July 2008 in The Daily Mail

Even oilmen believe our planet is burning up, says Full Monty writer behind terrifying TV drama.

I am sitting in the office of a man who was, until recently, chief executive of one of the biggest oil companies in the world: a man who made his company billions of dollars. I listen, make the odd nervous note and reflect that it's been a long road since I wrote one of Britain's best-loved films, The Full Monty.

As a scriptwriter, I have met lots of powerful people, but my reaction is always the same. When I went to the Oscars, I sat next to a pleasant, elegant woman and chatted happily to her until somebody pointed out it was Claudia Schiffer. After that, I could not utter another word.

But today it isn't because I am star-struck that I am terrified; it is because the oil man is telling me the opposite of everything he should say. Over the tinkle of teacups, he is predicting the end of civilisation.

My friends give me uncomfortable looks about my new film, Burn Up, because I have a Cassandra-like reputation for writing fiction about things that later become fact.

Many years ago, I made a film called The Darkest Light about a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. Two years later, it happened for real.

I wrote the script for another film called Yasmin that suggested disaffected British Muslim youths could turn to terrorism. A year later came the London suicide bombings.

I'm not boasting: I just listen to experts who prove frighteningly accurate.
Burn Up - starring Rupert Penry-Jones, who played Adam Carter in the hit BBC series Spooks - is about the moment runaway climate change collides with an unprecedented oil crisis.

So given my track record, my friends are keen to know what happens at the end.

Once I had decided to write a drama about climate change I spoke to everybody who was prepared to talk.

Surprisingly, this turned out not just to be the usual environmental suspects such as Greenpeace, Friends Of The Earth or WWF, but people in the oil industry.

And these weren't disaffected whistle-blowers, but some senior figures who were prepared to step out of the shadows and tell me just how scared they were.

The oil man predicting an apocalypse was one of them. I had gone to his office expecting him to tell me global warming was at best an uncertain science based on dodgy data, at worst a Left-wing conspiracy designed to tax us all to death.

'Fiddling while Rome burns': Even oil industry chiefs now privately admit global warming will worsen disastrously without urgent action

Oil companies pumped out the oil that was producing the carbon dioxide, so why would he tell me any different?

Sure enough, that's how the interview started. The world was 'going through a 40-year transition period from a carbon economy to a hydrogen economy' where oil would smoothly be replaced by other sources of renewable energy.

He talked on convincingly. The tea-lady brought round the trolley. I felt reassurance waft over me: the environmental scaremongers were wrong.

Then I looked up. A '40-year transition period'? I cleared my throat, and nervously suggested that Sir John Houghton, the scientist who led the first Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change, had told me we had at best ten years to stop the increase in global temperatures, otherwise we were in danger of runaway climate change. Ten years tops. Not 40.

The CEO stopped in his tracks. 'Oh, you've talked to him, have you?' His tone changed.

He sat down heavily and said: 'Well, I know John and he's right, and if you want to know what I really think, I think we're fiddling while Rome burns.' He was the first of many to come to the confessional. People who for the sake of their careers shouldn't even have returned my phone calls were opening their hearts to me. Why such dangerous honesty towards a writer?

I found the answer at a conference of the Tipping Point organisation which puts artists and scientists together to learn about climate change.

We met at Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre, in which were placed signs reading 'politics', 'business', 'the media' and 'science'. We were asked to stand under the sign we thought offered the most hope of progress on the issue.

With some giggling and shoving, 200 people crowded underneath the various signs. When this musical chairs for adults finally stopped, there were just two people under the 'science' sign. Only one of them was a scientist.

We were aghast. The room was full of eminent scientists from across the world, yet none of them had the confidence to stand under their own sign.

Why? ' Because nobody is listening, ' they answered. 'For 15 years we've been warning about rising sea levels, melting icecaps, changes in sea currents, weakening monsoons, the acidification of the ocean. Yet nobody is listening to us.'

It is extraordinary. There are thousands of scientific studies by climatologists, oceanologists, biologists - every ologist imaginable - charting the current and future effects of climate change. Yet half the population of this country still doesn't believe it.

Today, there's a lot of talk about renewable energy and the G8's latest pledge of cutting carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2050. But we've got ten years to turn this around, not 40.
Sir James Lovelock, author of the Gaia theory on the ecological balance of the planet, told me it was like the days of appeasement before the Second World War when Hitler was rearming, polishing the boots of his stormtroopers and annexing countries while much of the British Establishment chose to look the other way.

I was so frightened by what I heard that I put solar panels and a wind generator on my roof, changed to a green electricity tariff, cycled everywhere.

Did it make one jot of difference? No. But if I couldn't change my behaviour knowing what I now knew, how could I expect a government to change?

As I dug around the oil industry, I came across another extraordinary elephant in the room that nobody dared mention, but which will become crucial in the fight to prevent irreversible warming: Peak Oil.

This is what they call the moment when we start running out of the stuff.

When I started on this journey, three years ago, oil was 50 dollars a barrel and the Peak Oil theorists were dismissed as alarmist fringe elements. We were apparently at least 50 years away from Peak Oil. Anyone who dared to say different was simply laughed at.

But then I met a man employed by the oil industry to collate data on oil reserves, and he told me that already we are not producing enough oil to meet demand, and even if output were increased, it would be used up by growing demand from China and India.

So, I asked, what did this mean?

'A global crash,' he said, 'at a guess somewhere between 2008 and 2010.'

I left his office on a beautiful, globally-warmed day with house prices soaring and the financial markets blossoming. Clearly, the man was nuts.

But who is nuts, now? Oil has hit 147 dollars a barrel, house prices are plummeting and the stock markets are going through the floor. And yet, still, is anyone listening?

Somehow, I had to turn a mass of complex science and politics into something people would want to watch, but how could I dramatise carbon dioxide, an enemy you can't see, smell or touch?
It would be like Spooks without the terrorists, The Wire without the drug dealers.

I found the answer in men like John Ashton, Tony Blair's 'climate tsar'. A former diplomat, he now shuttles between China and Europe, patiently negotiating, encouraging, persuading the Chinese, soon to become the world's biggest emitters of CO2, to sign up to emission reduction targets.

You are unlikely to see his name anywhere, for that is certainly not his style, but if we ever get ourselves out of this mess, it is people such as John who will have saved us.

And that's what gave me the key to Burn Up: the lies and duplicity of the denial industry pitched against people desperate to prevent runaway climate change.

I concealed a mass of factual science and politics inside the Trojan Horse of a racy thriller.

And where does this leave me? What does Cassandra have to say about the chances of humanity solving this most dangerous of puzzles?

You might be surprised to know that I believe there is still hope.

As Rupert Penry-Jones's character says in the film: 'Oil. Oil is everything.' Its all-consuming use has caused the problem and now its scarcity might just save us.

A spiralling price that triggers a global power-down could buy us the time to stop the warming. In fact, it's happening right now.

Will it work? We're about to find out.

• Burn Up begins on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday and concludes at the same time on Friday.

see also:
Island Breath: world Made By Hand 3/10/08
Island Breath: The Day After Tomorrow