If Only We Could Be As Anxious About Climate Change As We Can Be About Nuclear Catastrophe

A close look at how Chernobyl turned history into television helps explain exactly what separates the fear these threats evoke.

A scene from Chernobyl
A scene from Chernobyl. Liam Daniel/HBO

By now, an army of internet fact-checkers has picked over the successful HBO miniseries Chernobyl, meticulously cataloging the places where the show deviates from the historical record. Comparing history to popular bits of historical fiction is a reliable source of #content, including for us here at Slate—little is more SEO-friendly than a phrase like “is Chernobyl [or Lincoln, or Birth of a Nation, or Fosse/Verdon] historically accurate?” Some creators surely chafe at being nitpicked in this way, but Chernobyl’s creator, Craig Mazin, seems to embrace the exercise—he participated in an official podcast that explained his choices (possibly hoping to preempt some of this critique).

The project of fact-checking historical fiction, though, isn’t just about gotchas. The specific elisions and omissions made will always tell us something about the gaps between history’s vagaries and the kinds of narratives that resonate with people in 2019. In the case of Chernobyl, a show that some have hailed as a welcome bit of environmental storytelling at a time when we desperately need it, the choices Mazin made show just how difficult it is to tell similarly effective stories about climate change.

The show took every opportunity to make radiation, an inherently invisible thing (like … carbon!), visible and threatening—starting with the cloud of smoke that dominates the first and second episodes. “The black smoke bothered me,” Aaron Bady wrote in a thoughtful assessment of the show’s relationship to historical truth on the Week. The black cloud “tells a story, crystalizing the innocent ignorance of the surrounding towns and villagers,” when in actuality, after the first night of firefighting, the historical cloud coming from the reactor fire was white—less visually impactful, but much more dangerous to people’s bodies. And yet, on film, the black cloud’s visibility did a better job of representing the doom that was to come.

While some reviewers have described the flawed and corrupt Soviet bureaucracy as the true subject of the story, the most memorable parts of the miniseries were, in essence, body horror. The depictions of acute radiation syndrome, or ARS, in Chernobyl scared the crap out of me—an A-plus, please, for the makeup artists who made the actor who played the doomed firefighter Vasily Ignatenko look so ghastly in that final stage right before his death. But the series took liberties here too—Chernobyl made it seem like ARS was always contagious and always fatal. The show also uncritically repeated Lyudmila Ignatenko’s searing story—which came from Svetlana Alexievich’s book Voices From Chernobyl—that her child died soon after birth because the baby had “saved” her mother from radiation poisoning by absorbing it in utero.

But Robert Gale, a physician and specialist in bone marrow transplantation who treated Chernobyl victims for two years after the accident, recently wrote in a critique of the series that the first responders from Chernobyl would not have been contagious once their clothing was removed and they were washed—because their exposure was external. The isolation chambers that surrounded the patients in their final stages—that plastic that Lyudmila breaches, against doctor’s orders, to be near her husband as he dies—were actually there for the exact opposite reason: to keep the severely immunocompromised patients safe from infection from outsiders, not to keep outsiders safe from radiation. Gale also doesn’t believe it’s possible for a fetus to absorb radiation and “spare” its mother. As for fatality rates, Gale wrote that he and his colleagues treated 204 victims for ARS after Chernobyl. They saved 175—a relatively hopeful number.

Mazin, the creator, has said on multiple occasions that the show was not meant to make people afraid of nuclear power. (“For a million reasons, this was not an anti-nuclear polemic,” he said to Slate’s Sam Adams earlier this month.) But to make the stakes clear, the show needed to take liberties. It needed to depict the effects of radiation as certain, epic, spreading doom. It needed to omit the stories of the people who survived their radiation poisoning after drastic medical intervention. And I don’t think I was the only one to find the effects terrifying—writer and president of the nuclear-power advocacy group Environmental Progress Michael Shellenberger has collected multiple examples of Day After–esque reactions from viewers and reviewers of the show who set about Googling the locations of local nuclear power plants and described themselves as being “in a full-blown panic.” A few specifically mentioned the hospital scenes of the first responders rotting away as foundational to their anxiety. Horror, clearly, is energizing.

Many of the changes Chernobyl made to history enable classic heroes-and-villains stories. That scene where three workers volunteer, dramatically, to drain water tanks didn’t happen. (They did go in, at great peril to themselves; they didn’t volunteer. They also ended up fine, physically speaking, and as of 2015, two of them were still alive.) The miners who dug underneath the core (remember, the naked ones) did all that for nothing, because the uranium never got through the concrete pad to the tunnel underneath. Valery Legasov wasn’t as honest or as bold as the show’s ripping final episode would have us believe; the composite character Ulyana Khomyuk, as the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen argued, is a “truth-knower” who could never have survived in the Soviet system.

One popular takeaway is that the show—with its moral about how a possible worst-case-scenario nuclear disaster was mitigated by truth-telling scientists—sends a timely warning about the perils of government inaction on climate change. The hope is that we’ll leave our viewing experience recommitted to making sure that we seek out the truth and deny power to those who would lie to us about the current threat posed by warming. But the true lesson of the success of Chernobyl might be just the opposite—what the series actually demonstrates is just how difficult it is to make the reality of climate change into a story that could resonate similarly with viewers. The elements that made the story of the historical Chernobyl accident into a satisfying five-episode miniseries just aren’t as available to people writing stories about climate change. The visceral type of fear the prospect of an imminent nuclear meltdown elicits isn’t as easy to evoke in a story about the slow-moving predicament of climate change.

Back in 2017, I interviewed historian Spencer Weart about what we could learn from the seven decades of public nuclear fear he has studied, when trying to sound the alarm on climate.
He told me he did not think this history was overly transferable. Cultural products that tap into nuclear dread (the subject of Weart’s cultural history The Rise of Nuclear Fear) have a near-perfect grip on preexisting narrative tropes, what Weart described as “the mysteries of the universe, the mad scientist, the apocalyptic end of the world.” Nuclear fear comes from somewhere mythical and Biblical, making for a perfect story. Chernobyl’s alterations to history all serve to heighten its connection to these narrative tropes that make nuclear fear so sticky.

I’m not the first to observe this, but perhaps most problematically, global warming suffers from a clear lack of individual heroes and villains. (James Hansen and Exxon come close but aren’t quite it.) Most importantly, for this comparative case, it’s often very hard to directly connect the casualties of climate change with their causes. Seven migrant children—most of whom came from Guatemala, where farmers have suffered from extreme weather events, fluctuating temperatures, and uneven rainfall and have migrated in response—have died in federal custody since last year. Are these “deaths from climate change”? Four families in Puerto Rico believe that their children died by suicide in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria because of the storm—which was unprecedently strong, because of climate change. Are those tragedies attributable to warming? We’re already bad enough at remembering the many excess deaths caused globally by the mostly invisible scourge of air pollution every year—numbers that will probably increase slowly and steadily alongside the carbon in the atmosphere, if nothing is done. How could anyone, even anyone willing to pump up the drama the way the creators of Chernobyl did, make a cautionary tale out of these uncertain chains of mights and maybes?

In 2016, the World Heath Organization’s 30-year update on Chernobyl’s lasting effects noted that the “psycho-social impact” of the disaster might have been its biggest public health legacy, with exposed populations suffering double the anxiety levels of nonexposed populations. The show gestures toward these second-order tragedies vaguely, through the extremely successful invocation of a pervasive feeling of dread. It might be that feeling of creeping doom in the atmosphere that’s actually the most relevant lesson for climate storytellers. Climate change isn’t about a single event, or a set of gruesome deaths, or the failures of any one nation. It’s everywhere, and affects everything, and is everyone’s fault. The challenge lies in finding ways to make us feel that truth.