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25 November 2021

Why a 2015 Norwegian drama is suddenly the most relevant thing on TV

An energy crisis, Russian brinkmanship and an international failure to address the climate crisis: is Occupied edging towards reality?

By Will Dunn

On 13 November, as the Cop president Alok Sharma announced the agreement of the Glasgow Climate Pact, he told delegates in a voice thick with emotion that he was “deeply sorry” for the “deep disappointment” many felt that the world would not, thanks to an intervention by India and China, commit to phasing out coal.

Six years ago, Norwegian TV began showing a new drama series called Okkupert (Occupied), in which another politician – the Norwegian prime minister – attempts to take decisive action against fossil fuels. Following extreme weather and flooding, Jesper Berg (played by Henrik Mestad) is elected as the country’s first Green prime minister, having promised to end Norway’s oil and gas exports. But he too finds that the international community will not tolerate such change: an energy crisis quickly develops in the EU and shortly after the announcement he is bundled into a helicopter by Russian soldiers.

Hours later, Berg is back on TV. With a similarly bowed head and shaking voice he tells the press that more time is needed. Fossil fuels are being phased down, not phased out. Out on the rigs, newly arrived Russian engineers ensure that the oil still flows to Europe. The government, meanwhile, is forced to pretend that Norway has not been invaded.

The Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø wrote the first episodes of Occupied in 2008 and it was first broadcast in 2015 (it’s now streaming in the UK on Netflix). In the months and years since, the parallels between the show and the very real global conflicts over energy have continued growing. Nations vacillate on the climate crisis, and the politics of energy supply dictate the relationships between Russia, Europe and the rest of the world.

At the beginning of last month, Norway’s TV2 channel reported that Tina Bru, then the Norwegian energy minister, had travelled to Brussels to meet with Kadri Simson, the EU energy commissioner. At the meeting, Simson asked Bru to reaffirm Norway’s commitment to exporting electricity. Norway is the largest energy exporter in Europe, but members of Norway’s Centre Party have suggested restricting or cutting off electricity exports as a global energy shortage drives up the price of power at home. Without Norway, which supplies a third of the UK’s gas, Britain’s energy crisis would be significantly more dire.  

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Occupied also highlights the inherent contradiction of Norway: for all its green commitments, the country is dependent on fossil fuels. In 2007, the Norwegian government announced a plan to become the first carbon neutral nation; almost all Norway’s electricity comes from hydroelectric power and 80 per cent of new cars sold are electric (compared with 17 per cent in the UK). But in August this year, Norway’s oil exports peaked at more than 1.7 million barrels of oil per day. The wealth from this mostly unseen business goes into the world’s largest public wealth fund; the country’s famously progressive social policies are paid for by crude oil.

Russia, in reality and in Occupied, is prepared to be far more blatant about its use of energy exports as a political lever; its president Vladimir Putin is accused of exacerbating the current gas shortage to put pressure on Germany to approve its Nord Stream 2 pipeline. When Occupied was first broadcast in 2015, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of the Crimea and Donbas areas of Ukraine, the Russian ambassador to Norway described the drama as an attempt “to scare Norwegian spectators with the non-existent threat from the east” in a manner that recalled “the worst traditions of the Cold War”. Putin is not mentioned in Occupied, but as a Kremlin-backed crisis develops on the borders of Poland and Lithuania, and Ukraine calls for help from the US, its portrayal of a regime with an enduring appetite for brinkmanship remains accurate.

That said, Russia is not simply the aggressor in Occupied. While Norway is unofficially occupied by Russian troops, who quietly cross the border and infiltrate society, it is the EU’s need for gas – and the US’s desire to avoid conflict – that makes the occupation possible.

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Ultimately, it is not a single country that occupies Norway in Occupied but a need – that same necessity that made itself evident at Cop26: the desire to keep things running much as they were, in the face of all the evidence, and by any means necessary.

[See also: Why the UK is not giving up on oil despite its Cop26 climate ambitions]

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