HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries has reinvigorated our collective fascination with the 1986 nuclear disaster that may have in part contributed to the Soviet Union unravelling.
But the lessons the show imparts aren’t about how nuclear power and communism are Bad. The miniseries’ gritty, horror movie-like atmosphere sets up radiation as an invisible agent of death. But the real drama driving the five episodes is the battle of expedient lies versus inconvenient truths. In doing so, the show’s creators have made a drama that can tell us a lot about humanity’s most pressing challenge today: climate change. It’s a cautionary tale.
It’s impossible to not see parallels in the threats: the invisible radiation crawling into every nook and cranny of Pripyat and the invisible greenhouse gases piling up in our atmosphere. Similarly, both the explosion and nuclear fallout that followed at Chernobyl and the current climate crisis require a sustained, coordinated response to keep worse calamities from unfolding.
At its heart, Chernobyl is about the struggle to set the truth free in the face of lies designed to preserve the system, something that builds in the penultimate episode and comes to a head in the fifth and final episode. The show’s protagonist Valery Legasov, a Russian nuclear scientist, is caught in the middle of this tug of war.
Legasov is conscripted by the state to help deal with the explosion that nearly caused one of Chernobyl’s nuclear reactors to meltdown, but he and Ulyana Khomyuk—a fictional physicist who is standing in for all the real-life scientists that Legasov worked with—find that the reactor had a fatal flaw in its shutdown mechanism that caused it to explode, a flaw that exists in all the Soviet reactors. Legasov is asked to hide this truth in testimony before the world in Vienna and at the state trial for the plant’s operators.
He omits these facts in Vienna but chooses to tell the truth during the operators’ trial in Chernobyl. The KGB pull him aside afterward, locking him in an abandoned basement room. There, the show’s fictional KGB director meets with him and says he will be forced to live in professional exile before agents shuttle him out to a waiting car. The last shot in the show is an aerial view of that car shuttling him through the Exclusion Zone back to an ostensible life of exile in Moscow.
In a voiceover, actor Jared Harris—who played Legasov—utters the last words of the show (emphasis ours):
“To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on our search for truth we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants—it doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions—to lie in wait for all time. This at last is the gift of Chernobyl. Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask what is the cost of lies.”
The chilling words certainly apply to all that was on screen during Chernobyl’s five episodes, but they just as easily apply to our world today and how world leaders have chosen to face climate change to date. Scientists have warned that the fundamental altering of planet’s atmosphere that hasn’t been seen in millions of years could lead to the collapse of nature, heat death, uninhabitable coasts, and other harrowing consequences.
The risks have never been clearer, but the truth about the climate crisis—that human greenhouse gas pollution is the cause—has been staring us in the face decades. Scientists’ warnings have only gotten louder, and Chernobyl’s final soliloquy wouldn’t be out of place during a press conference announcing any one of the increasingly horrifying reports released in the past year alone.
While the Legasovs of 1980's Soviet Union were trying to reveal truths in the face of an all-controlling state, the scientists of today face a much different opponent. That includes not just conservative politicians who view climate change as anathema to their worldview, but also a host of billionaire donors who fetishise the free market and extracting every last drop of oil and lump of coal possible from the ground. It also includes large corporations such as Exxon whose own scientists warned of climate risks as early as the 1970s even as the company sowed doubt in public. The vested interests that have gotten rich off an economy tied to fossil fuels are understandably having a hard time acknowledging the good times will have to come to an end. And it’s this backdrop—the alignment of the ruling and bottomlessly monied classes—that poses the biggest barrier to truth telling today. It’s why groups like Extinction Rebellion are calling on governments to literally “tell the truth.”
Craig Mazin, the Chernobyl’s writer and creator, had this to say to Slate about what to take away from the show (emphasis ours):
“We live on a planet that is under threat, and scientists are warning us, just as they did in the ’70s regarding RBMK reactors in the Soviet Union. Governments are choosing to listen or not listen, and people are choosing to listen or not listen. But the truth, the globe, the thermometer, doesn’t care. And the RBMK didn’t care either. It didn’t matter what they wanted to do that night. It didn’t matter that the fatal flaw of the RBMK reactor was a state secret. The reactor didn’t care. And that’s the problem we struggle with. We are attempting to make ourselves superior to fact, and we are not.”
I’m not saying the Chernobyl disaster is the perfect climate analogue. The 1986 explosion represented a delineation between “before crisis” and “after crisis”. There is no neat line for climate change. We’ve been pumping invisible poison into the atmosphere for decades and the changes it’s rending unfold around us daily, slowly strangling what the world once was like a boa constrictor. And the world of 2019 is much different than the Soviet Union of 1986 in terms of the wealth that could be deployed if it chose to act. Also, most world leaders accept the science of climate change (with one very notable exception), meaning they’re not as deeply in denial as Soviet leadership is portrayed in Chernobyl.
But carbon emissions continue to rise, indicating that world leaders are still lying to themselves and citizens about the crisis that’s unfolding. It may be a softer form of denial, but as long as it continues, the cost of the lies will continue to rise.