By Camilla Royle
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The Heretic

This article is over 11 years, 4 months old
Royal Court Theatre, until 19 March
Issue 356

The Heretic by Richard Bean centres on Dr Diane Cassell, a specialist in sea levels, whose observations lead her to question anthropogenic climate change. As its title suggests, the play argues that belief in climate change is a religion, whereas scientists “don’t believe in anything”.

In The Heretic environmental activists aren’t seen in a good light. At best environmentalists are portrayed as people making a fashionable lifestyle choice – they ride bikes, stop eating meat and turn lights off when they leave the room. At worst they are seen as totalitarians who want to “price the poor out of the skies and off the roads”. They even send death threats to Cassell to try to silence her.

Cassell is also put under increasing pressure at work. The fictional Yorkshire University where she works is facing cuts from central government and increasingly tries to secure funding from private sources. That’s why having a scientist with unorthodox views in the earth sciences department is a problem. Bean has recognised a genuine issue facing academics – Tory universities minister David Willetts has called for the greater involvement of the private sector in higher education and supported the creation of private universities.

In these circumstances it is easy to see how a few charismatic individuals could get media attention by questioning the science of climate change – although it seems unlikely that climate change deniers are acting out of a concern for academic freedom.

The play draws on comparisons with the “Climategate” scandal in 2009, where emails between researchers at the University of East Anglia were leaked after a hacking operation. The emails supposedly showed that they had manipulated data in order to exaggerate the effects of climate change. The emails were quickly taken up by sections of the media as evidence of corruption among scientists. In reality the quotes used in the “Climategate” emails are widely considered to have been taken out of context. Similarly, debates about the timespan for the melting of the Himalayan glaciers in one chapter of the IPCC report – also mentioned in the play – was seized upon by climate change deniers.

It is unclear whether Bean is sceptical about climate change himself. I would guess that his position is more nuanced than that of his characters, especially as The Heretic was produced with the cooperation of the earth sciences department of UCL.

However, the play may well appeal to real-life sceptics – it is described as a “must see” on climate denial website

The Heretic is very topical but doesn’t always get the science right. It’s funny in parts but hockey stick graphs and debates about sample sizes don’t always make for the best comedy. Bean also tries to make jokes about anorexia and self-harm – obviously not an easy task and one that he doesn’t seem to get quite right, making it uncomfortable viewing.

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