HBO’s Chernobyl and the philosophy of climate change

Matthew McKeever
Jun 4 · 10 min read

The most pressing story of our time is one of the hardest to tell. Climate change lacks most of the features of a compelling narrative, features which HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl has in spades. Where Chernobyl is centred around a horrific and monumental event, climate change kills gradually and undramatically. It kills, literally, by degrees: by the inexorable change of temperature that slowly, but at great scale, makes land unfertile and people restive. Where Chernobyl has clear antagonists, in the form of the party apparatchiks, there is no well-defined antagonist behind climate change. Climate change is a structural problem, a tragedy of the commons that inculpates people from 19th century English aristocrats making the first factory to 21st century Chinese bitcoin miners as partly, but only responsible, parties. And where Chernobyl has clear protagonists, or at least clear victims, the diffuseness and gradualness of climate change means that it’s hard to pick out people as those who suffer. A given farmer in Bangladesh, for example, won’t have horrific radiation burns or be vomiting blood. Instead, to a large extent, they will suffer the small and undramatic but eventually devastating decline in the productivity of land, a slow suffering marked by less and less food each year. Not only that, but in any given poor harvest or flood, the farmer can never know with certainty that it’s anthropocentric climate change that’s responsible, and not just ill luck or the periodic natural disasters that have harmed farmers since there’s been farming. Climate change gaslights its victims, making them never sure whether they’re being wronged by other people rather than by nature.

These three features, the fact that climate change lacks clear and dramatic events, clear and dramatic antagonists, and clear and dramatic victims, means that climate change is hard to portray using the resources that storytelling has to offer us, because the stories we tell do tend to have these features.

This is worrying, because to act on something we need to understand it, and we understand the world and ourselves in terms of stories. My aim here is to suggest a couple of ways of thinking and representing climate change, using ideas from moral philosophy and aesthetics in the hope is that by getting clear as to exactly what sort of harm climate change is, we will be able better to think about, and then to act, on it.

Moral Mathematics

The English moral philosopher Derek Parfit was famous for presenting lots of often silly seeming cases, the sort of thing that would drive Chidi from The Good Place to distraction. You probably know of the Trolley problem: a train is bearing down to hit ten people tied to its tracks, but you have the chance to redirect it onto a different line where one person is tied. Should you switch it, intervening and seemingly being directly responsible for one, but only one, death, or let it continue as it’s been going to kill ten? Philosophers spend a lot of time on that one, but on the plus side there are some pretty good memes.

Among his many cases, though, is one relevant for thinking about climate change. In a section of his masterwork Reasons and Persons, he asks whether there can be imperceptible pains, pains the putative sufferer of which doesn’t notice. There is a corresponding question as to whether, if there are, you are responsible for inflicting them. The notion of imperceptible suffering is an extremely useful way of thinking about climate change.

Note that it’s not completely ridiculous to think that there are no perceivable pains. If some irritating person is flicking your arm, causing a mild pain, but they keep doing it milder and milder, it seems plausible there’ll come a point at which you won’t feel it, and at that point the flicking will cease being a pain.

Many interesting things arise when we start thinking about imperceptible pains. One consequence is that there could be evil people responsible for vast amounts of suffering without anyone knowing either they, or indeed anyone, was responsible for that suffering.

To see this, consider the following. We sometimes get sick, and for no reason. It happens — you wake up one morning, your stomach or head or throat is bad. You call in sick, next day you’re fine. Imagine that this happens to us 10 days a year, on average.

Now imagine an evil person (let’s call him Dr Evil) who somehow contrives to make everybody on earth sick for one day per year (a different day for each person). This person, plausibly, is responsible for a gigantic amount of suffering. After all, you know what it feels like to be sick for a day. But Dr Evil has (somehow, let’s not worry too much about the details) caused that to happen 7.5 billion times. He is a monster!

But no one will have the slightest idea that they are living among such a monster. Everybody who gets sick will just think ‘gah, I’m sick, but oh well it happens, I’ll spend the day in bed’, and not think any more about it. That is, the harm each person suffers will be imperceptible (in the sense that they won’t notice they are being harmed, attributing their sickness to everyday human frailty; of course, when they’re sick, they’ll know they’re sick.)

There are two important reasons why Dr Evil would escape detection, and why indeed no one would even suspect they’d been harmed. For one, the suffering the bad doctor causes each person is small. If, instead, Dr Evil had caused each person to be sick an extra ten or twenty days a year, then people might have got suspicious: they’d feel bad a couple of times a month, their sick leave would run out, they’d ask around, and they’d come to suspect that something was afoot. Second, the suffering the doctor causes is explicable: it is explicable in terms of the fact that humans just sometimes get sick. Again, to see this imagine a variant case in which humans never got sick; then, if every body started getting sick, if even for one, people would get suspicious and might work out someone is harming them.

Returning to climate change, imagine that, at least so far, most of the effects of climate change have been more or less imperceptible, and the change in temperature has been caused more or less slight changes — slightly lower crop yields in many of the places affected. And imagine, as is the case, that whenever we have a putative explanation for a bad event in terms of climate change, we can never be sure that it is responsible. This week’s Economist, for example, in an article about climate change and war, points out:

Just as one can never be sure that any individual hurricane would not have happened without global warming, one can never prove that a given war would not have occurred without. Environmental forces act in unpredictable ways with human greed, opportunism, and cruelty …

These sorts of considerations suggest to me that climate change is a Dr Evil style case. Its effects have mostly been been subtle (though this will increasingly cease to be so), and its victims can never be sure that their suffering — this hurricane, this war — is a result of harms caused to human-caused climate change or would have happened anyway. Climate change has created millions upon millions of people who can never be sure they’re victims, a fact that goes against our understanding of suffering, according to which to be a victim is to the subject of clear and obvious harms. Dr Evil style cases are hard to think about, the stuff of recondite moral philosophy, and it’s concerning that the most pressing problem facing the human species is like that.

(Note, incidentally, the terrifying but conceivably realized possibly that there are other Dr Evil style cases in the world — there are people out there causing vast amounts of suffering but slipping under the radar because they do it subtly. It seems to me highly likely there are such people, and perhaps likely that we, right now, are suffering thanks to them.)

This fact is only exacerbated by the fact, mentioned at the start, that not only is it hard for the victims to be certain, in any given case, that they are victims, but also that they can’t understand their harm as being caused by some one malevolent antagonist, because it simply isn’t. The causes of climate change are multi-generational inaction, and thus climate change is hard to tell stories about and thus hard to understand. Our stories have bad guys who we can pin the blame on; but the baddy of climate change is a multi-generational collective action problem, an abstract and hard to depict antagonist. We are familiar with victimless crime; climate change, in a sense, creates crimeless victims, a much harder concept to grok.

Unusual problems cause for unusual measures — in this case, for new ways of thinking and presenting the issues. I want to finish by suggesting a way, inspired by the artistic techniques of Chernobyl, that might help us overcome the very serious problem that climate change doesn’t make a compelling story, and that will anyway propose a hopefully interesting answer to a confusing feature of the show.

Why Do They Speak English In Chernobyl? The Verfremdungseffekt

Although Chernobyl is a paradigm story, as suggested here, with big events and good guys and bad guys, it’s nevertheless interesting and instructive to note that it doesn’t obey all the tropes of realist storytelling. For example it often, as people have pointed out, has the feel of a horror film, but I want to focus here on another interesting aspect: the use of Anglophone speakers with English accents, who are distinctly out of place in the Ukrainian and Russian setting.

One interview with a producer suggests that the reason they went for this is because Slavic accents have a tendency to come across as comedic. The English accents were meant to give the piece dramatic gravitas, apparently.

This was not the effect that I took from it, and to be honest I don’t think it makes complete sense. It’s just a weird move, to transplant a bunch of English speakers into a world where signs and briefings are in Cyrillic and where tannoy systems play out Russian (Ukrainian?) warning messages. If you’re going to go the gravitas-through-Englishness route, at least be consistent!

It’s jarring, I think, to hear received pronunciation in Moscow hospitals: it takes the viewer out of the action.

But I think there was a good artistic reason for this. To see this, consider the notion of the Verfremdungseffekt, a hard to translate notion much used in theatre and media studies.

Introduced by playwright Bertolt Brecht, it means something like ‘alienating-effect’, and he used it to put distance between viewer and action, in order to make the viewer approach the drama more reflectively. An example would be, for example, breaking the fourth wall, whereby the illusion of the play (/film/whatever) is broken as a character in it speaks directly to the audience. Being jolted out of your immersion in the performance, you can approach its themes reflectively and, the hope was, if those themes are socio-politically important, you might be more inclined to change your behaviour with regard to them for the better.

My suggestion is that, whether or not the show runners consciously knew it or not, we should understand the Anglo-Slavic mashup precisely as a Verfremdungseffekt. In particular, I think, the distance it imposes stops you from thinking that disasters are things that happen to other people; ecological disasters are not just the plight of Soviet-era Eastern Europeans hamstrung by an effective and dying communist regime. We can insert ourselves into the action by seeing people who sound like us undergoing it, which encourages us to think about how we would manage in such a situation, and indeed reflect on the real possibility that one day we will face similar disasters.

And this serves, I think, a very noble artistic purpose. We (most of us, most of the time) think that disasters are things that happen to other people. But they only are until they aren’t. Inserting ourselves in the Chernobyl action lets us realize this.

In the same way that Game Of Thrones managed to convey the traumatizing impact of the death of beloved people by breaking the artistic rule according to which you don’t randomly kill off protagonists (something I discussed in detail here), so Chernobyl, on my reading, breaks the rules of realism in order to get us to really feel its message. And this is important and helpful to realize because, if you buy the first bit of this article, we are in an era when conventional artistic devices will fail us in trying to portray the most important events in our life.


In a fascinating article, journalist Zeynep Tufekci argues that the perceived drop in quality of the last season of Game Of Thrones was owing to the fact that the writers moved away from a sociological model of storytelling towards a psychological one. On a sociological model, one tells stories that reflect the fact that the actions we, and more important people, perform, are often to a large extent determined by sociological factors external to us. She writes:

In sociological storytelling, the characters have personal stories and agency, of course, but those are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them. The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life.

Sociological storytelling differs from psychological storytelling, which tries to explain why people act in terms of factors internal to them — their mental life, desires, relationships. The intrigues in big tech, Tufekci argues, are best told with sociological stories: we learn more about Facebook’s most recent scandal not by learning about how Zuckerberg was in college, but by considering the social/political/technological/economic era in which he lives. This seems right and important: we should tell more sociological stories.

However, if the argument here is sound, there’s yet another sort of happening ill-suited either to sociological or psychological storytelling. The narratives of climate change, of a gradual worsening spread across millions of lives, perpetrated by the centuries’ spanning impersonal force of capitalism, is close to maximally undramatic: unfitting for the sort of stories we tell of heroes and villains and events. This is important, because we use stories to understand happenings, and climate change is the most crucial happening there is. We need to think of new artistic techniques to capture it, and following the lead of both Chernobyl and Game Of Thrones, that might involve throwing out the playbook for realist stories and starting afresh.

Matthew McKeever

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Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books. Academic philosophy papers at: http://mipmckeever.weebly.com/, free book about 90s & now at http://bit.ly/90sbook