Surrealism reached a pitch this week in Paris that Salvador Dali could only dream about. The premier of the independent film Climate Hustle began in a maelstrom of the bizarre. But for me, a single moment seriously stress-tested my own sanity.
But first, the context. Delegates representing almost 200 countries are currently at the COP21 conference in Paris burning the midnight oil negotiating a new international agreement aimed at reducing carbon emissions and preventing devastating climate change.
Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, is heading the UK team and also the European Union block. Barack Obama, the US presidentUK prime minister and Francois Hollande, the French president, will return to Paris at the end of the week to announce the final agreement.
The oil industry and other carbon intensive industries have very little to be concerned about: even the best outcome from Paris would do nothing to limit the extraction, production, sale and use of fossil fuels. Instead, national governments have submitted plans to try and encourage a reduction in the emissions of greenhouse gasses.
Thousands of observers from corporations and NGOs have filled huge aircraft hanger style halls and providing an ambient chatter to proceedings. The delegates themselves huddle over dining tables, and behind closed doors in their temporary offices.
There are also thousands of journalists from around the world, packed together in a fact factory and pecking away at the official UNFCCC press releases; off the record, background briefings by delegations and camera-ready protests.
And into the crowds of iPhone-addicted, highly focussed discussions and negotiations rolls the cavalcade of climate deniers: replete with stretch hummer limousine, human-sized white teddy bear and what from a distance looks like a ‘world premier’ film showing.
On Monday, a handful of climate deniers hosted by the Heartland Institute and the Committee For a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) begin their “examination of the data” at the Hotel California on the opposite side of town. I was promptly thrown out.
The front group CFACT was at one time funded by the oil behemoth ExxonMobil and the comically malevolent Charles Koch. Their income has collapsed in recent years from around $5 million to about $1 million, and it’s not difficult to see why. From the Vatican, to Vegas, to Paris this week, their press conferences appear to be attended by fewer and fewer press.
Marc Morano, a compulsive media mouthpiece, has decided this precipitous decline should be met by ever more desperate gambles, and hence we have the Climate Hustle. A film which has been hyped longer than it has been in production.
The climate deniers hired out the Cinema du Pantheon, Sorbonne, Paris. They had ordered in a short scrap of red carpet for the front steps and called around every right-leaning think tank and crank group in France hustling up a stand-in for an audience.
Lord Christopher Monckton was billed to appear. Only days earlier he was telling me that Obama was part of a discreet conspiracy of “totalitarians” who were using the climate conference to install a world Communist Fascist state on an unexpecting, and cooling, planet.
During the interview I asked the viscount whether there was anyone in the world who cared for him and had his best interests at heart who had tried to let him know that he was in fact delusional. It was like water off a duck’s back. Although I thought I could notice his eyes redden and water.
Dr Willie Soon was another star of the night. He was recently exposed as promising “deliverables” – peer-reviewed articles and conference appearances – to his benefactors. Chief among them, predictably, is ExxonMobil.
And creeping among the shadows, Chris Horner. The lawyer has been bombarding universities with Freedom of Information requests in a decade long attempt to expose genuine, work-a-day climate scientists as being part of some hoax.
A bankruptcy filing elsewhere resulted in documentary evidence surfacing that he was in the pay of a coal company.
And James Delingpole again. The same Delingpole who went to Oxford with David Cameron and later ratted him out as a dope smoker. While chronicling his own struggle with reality in the pages of the Daily Mail.
This merry crew were clearly very excited about their big night. But there was a problem. The investigative journalist Graham Readfearn had uncovered their plans for a Paris premier and preempted their announcement, making public the time and place of the event.
And so Coral Bleach, from the Billionaire United Mining Services, arrived early at the cinema sporting an emerald-studded hard hat, high-vis’ jacket, and furs.
She was with the troupe Clim-Act, who specialise in the comic and chaotic. The children’s author – real name Deborah Hart – explained to me during an earlier protest against Heartland: “We use satire because that is the most effective form of straight talking.”
And with them were two men dressed as silver spoons, whose performance of the surreal was well beyond the parameters of the sane.
So when Morano, Monckton, Soon and Horner arrived there was absolute pandemonium. Monckton’s relationship with reality appears to be tenuous at best, so what he was making of the whirling light and colour and sound I can’t begin to imagine.
There were air-kisses as the climate protesters acting out as coal protesters fought to keep on the steps alongside the climate deniers pretending to be climate realists. Camera flashes flashed and innocent French bystanders looked on in bemusement.
After the excitement began to settle, Morano and his gang snuck off into the night and ran into a local restaurant. The climate protesters, satisfied with their intervention, left the scene.
I waited outside the restaurant, curious to know if they were going to come back to watch their own film being screened. And that’s when I realised the white stretch limo parked next to the side-walk was for them.
Dr Fred Singer, the aged grandfather of American climate denial, was ushered out of the restaurant. He appeared frail and confused, but seemed to enjoy the pandemonium unfolding around him.
And then the assembled climate deniers posed for a team photograph, in true showbiz style. There was one person taking photographs with an iPhone, and then me flashing away with a Nikon.
Morano looked genuinely chuffed, with his starched white shirt and tuxedo. He grinned with absolute delight everyone the flash bulb illuminated. And then I realised I was part of the madness, I was a necessary and welcome character in Morano’s film premier fantasy.
I walked the 50 yards back to the cinema, caught up in the experience of realising I was only fuelling their bizarre escape from reality. I passed the 150 smartly dressed audience members and waited for the limo to follow on behind me.
The Hummer pulled up and Morano arrived for the second time at the venue – this time holding his arms aloft to receive the applause and rapture of an adoring crowd.
And this is the moment that seemed so surreal to me, because the star of the show was met with a strange, unforgiving silence. And yet he continued as if there were cheering, as if he were famous, as though he was George Clooney on the red carpet of Hollywood cinema.
He bathed in the white light held by the cameraman he had made the film with, and of course the flash, flash of my own camera. The audience members looked on disinterested to the point of not even being confused. Just silent.
And the look in his eyes, the white tooth smile, made me think that he actually believed this was real. That he was, tonight at least, famous, adored, taken in anyway seriously.
And I felt a deep sadness. These people I had come to ridicule had with only the slightest encouragement become so ridiculous, so lacking in self awareness, so divorced from reality that I felt concerned for them. And mental health is a serious issue.
Concerned for these men. These men, many paid indirectly by the oil industry to propagate demonstrable misinformation about the single most dangerous threat to human civilisation.
@DeSmogUK What’s so satirical about a Red Carpet film debut. Your friends in Hollywood make a lifestyle of it. BTW I don’t deny Holocaust.
— Patrick Moore (@EcoSenseNow) December 12, 2015