The Climate Crisis Is Upon Us

Thomas A. Østbye’s documentary film about the first Norwegian climate lawsuit draws a poignant picture of the authorities’ reluctance to act.

Thomas A. Østbye, The Play of Everyman, 2021. Videostill. On the witness stand: Gaute Eiterjord, head of Young Friends of the Earth Norway.

When I emerged from the darkened room after having seen the exhibition version of Thomas A. Østbye’s The Play of Everyman / Enhver har rett til at Noplace, the gallery guard, Armelle Breuil from Extinction Rebellion, asked if I was all right. She added that she generally asked people this question, as she had found that some people respond quite strongly to the piece. However, I arrived emotionally prepared and had steeled myself beforehand, for as a critic I had been able to take a sneak peek at the film on my own laptop in the comfort of my own home. I did not show quite the same degree of composure then: I was soon reduced to sobs among the cushions of my sofa.

Every person has the right to an environment that is conducive to health and to a natural environment whose productivity and diversity are maintained. Natural resources shall be managed on the basis of comprehensive long-term considerations which will safeguard this right for future generations as well.

These two sentences open Article 112 of the Norwegian constitution, having been incorporated into that document in 1992, and this piece of environmental legislation constitutes the core of Østbye’s half-hour-long documentary. The film, whose English title can be read as a reference to the fifteenth-century morality play Everyman, follows the trial that took place in the Norwegian Supreme Court leading up to the verdict issued in December last year when the organisations Greenpeace and Young Friends of the Earth Norway (Natur og Ungdom) tried to activate the hitherto dormant article to bring a halt to Norway’s plans to open new oil fields in vulnerable natural areas in the Arctic.

Thomas A. Østbye, The Play of Everyman, 2021. Videostill. On the left: public prosecutor Fredrik Sejersted.

As those who have followed the case will be aware, they were unsuccessful in their attempt to have the 23rd licensing round declared invalid in court, and after the climate lawsuit was first filed in 2016, the Norwegian authorities have approved the 24th and 25th licensing rounds, too. However, the organisations behind Norway’s first climate lawsuit have not given up: this summer, they appealed the lawsuit to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg, based on Articles 2 and 8 of the Convention on Human Rights. Now they are waiting to find out if the ECtHR will process the case, which is by no means certain, as the court apparently rejects over 95 per cent of all complaints they receive.

It is easy to get mired in despondency after watching Østbye’s film, a veritable tragedy with lingering close-ups of faces that evoke Carl Th. Dreyer’s classic The Passion of Joan of Arc from 1928. Even if they do not quite match the intensity of Renée Falconetti in the role of Joan of Arc, poignant despair and resignation are still clearly registered on the faces of the climate activists and their legal representatives, both before and after the verdict. The public prosecutors, on the other hand, seem relatively unaffected by it all, while the Director General of the Norwegian Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, Ole Anders Lindseth, looks deeply outraged as he sits with his arms crossed, wearing a grim expression. Eleven out of fifteen Supreme Court judges took part in rejecting the plaintiffs’ appeal, but several of them left an impression of being uncomfortable and unfree. As if they were acting against their better judgment. Or perhaps it is just because at the time the verdict was given, they were isolated due to pandemic restrictions, stuck behind their own computer screens; perhaps this is why they look a little lost as one by one they proclaim their support with a simple “Likewise.”

Thomas A. Østbye, The Play of Everyman, 2021. Videostill. On the witness stand: Bjørn Samset from the Cicero Centre for International Climate Research.

Alongside the many close-ups, the editing is instrumental in making The Play of Everyman such a captivating film. The camera focuses as much on those who listen as on those who have the floor at any time. One of the images that seared itself onto my brain is that of a court clerk dozing during the presentation given by expert witness Bjørn Samset from the Cicero Centre for International Climate Research. Samset is currently in the news as one of the contributors to the report issued by the UN’s climate panel IPCC, which emphatically asserts – for anyone who may still be in doubt after another summer of record-breaking heat, rapidly melting glaciers, floods, and uncontrollable wildfires – that the climate crisis is upon us already, and that a change of direction is urgently required to avoid going to hell in a handcart. Samset conveys a clear message in the courtroom: emissions must be reduced to zero, and it needs to happen quickly.

It is also difficult to forget the images of Ketil Lund, a retired Supreme Court judge and, in this context, a representative of the Norwegian Grandparents’ Climate Campaign, who in addition to delivering a heartfelt message about how we can no longer seek profit at the expense of the climate was also among the activists being filmed while following the final video-conferenced court proceedings. At one point he drops his glasses from his forehead down onto his nose with a slight nod of his head in order to inspect something on the computer screen in front of him. Such details imbue the film with a melancholy feel. At the same time, Østbye presents the various people involved in the trial with extreme clarity – the camera’s gaze scrutinises them closely, holding them accountable.

Thomas A. Østbye, The Play of Everyman, 2021. Videostill. On the witness stand: Ketil Lund from the Norwegian Grandparents’ Climate Campaign.

The strongest impression of all is made by Gaute Eiterjord, head of Young Friends of the Earth Norway. In his courtroom speech, he sometimes struggles with tears, yet speaks calmly and with grim determination about how people all over the world will lose their livelihoods and about the injustice afflicting the young generation to which he belongs. He explains that young activists feel they have tried everything else and now see no other option than to resort to the court system to stop oil extraction. However, with the Supreme Court’s rejection of the appeal, which they justify by pointing to the strict conditions for judicial review of a parliamentary decision in Norway, the responsibility for the climate crisis has been sent back to the realm of politics – and, in practice, to the hands of the activists.

The Play of Everyman is extremely topical, not only in light of the UN’s recently launched report, but also because so much is at stake in the Norwegian climate struggle in the coming month: there is the upcoming parliamentary election on 13 September as well as ‘Nordic Rebellion’, a week of mass action under the auspices of the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion due to take place in Oslo at the end of August. How we view Østbye’s documentary in ten or twenty, not to say thirty years will depend largely on whether we manage to bring about an imminent turning point in our climate policies.

Thomas A. Østbye, The Play of Everyman, 2021. Installation view from Noplace. Photo: Kristian Skylstad.