The movie Don’t Look Up is a satire. But, as a climate scientist doing everything possible to open people’s eyes and prevent the destruction of the planet, it is also the most successful film I have seen about society’s terrifying lack of response to the climate emergency.
The film, directed by Adam McKay and written by David Sirota, tells the story of astronomy student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her PhD supervisor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), who discover a comet – ‘ planet killer’— that will hit Earth in just over six months. The probability of impact is 99.7%, as likely as almost everything in science.
Scientists are practically alone with this information, while society ignores and discredits them. The panic and despair they feel reflects the panic and despair that many climate scientists feel. In one scene, Mindy hyperventilates in a bathroom; in another, Dibiasky, live on national television, yells: “Aren’t we being clear? We’re 100% sure we’re fucking going to die.” I feel identified. This is what it feels like to be a scientist today.
The two astronomers have a 20-minute audience with the president (Meryl Streep), who is happy to hear that it is technically not 100% safe for the comet to hit Earth. Weighing the electoral strategy over the fate of the planet, he decides to “wait and evaluate.” Desperate, the scientists then turn to a national morning television show, but the hosts play down their warning (which is also overshadowed by the news of the two celebrities’ separation).
By then, the imminent collision with Comet Dibiasky has been confirmed by scientists around the world. After the political winds have turned, the president sets out on a mission to deflect the comet, but changes her mind at the last minute when a billionaire donor (Mark Rylance) urges her to do so following her own plan to guide him to a safe landing. using unproven technology, in order to secure the precious metals that are inside the comet. The cover of a sports magazine asks: “The end is near. Will there be a Super Bowl?”
But this is not a movie about how humanity would respond to a comet that could wipe out the planet. It’s a movie about how humanity is responding to the climate collapse that is wiping out the planet. We live in a society where, despite clear, present, and growing climate danger, more than half of Republican congressmen in Congress they keep saying climate change is a hoax and many more want to stop actions to prevent it; in which the official program of the Democratic Party follows giving huge subsidies to the fossil fuel industry; in which the current president promised that “nothing will fundamentally change”; in which the Speaker of the House of Representatives even dismissed a modest climate plan calling it “the green dream, or whatever“; in which the largest delegation at COP26 was from the fossil fuel sector; in which the White House sold the drilling rights of a huge expanse of the Gulf of Mexico after the summit; in which world leaders call the climate an “existential threat to humanity” while increasing the production of fossil fuels; in which major newspapers continue to run ads for fossil fuels and weather news is often overshadowed by sports; in which entrepreneurs promote incredibly risky tech solutions And billionaires sell the absurd fantasy that mankind can simply move to Mars.
After 15 years of working to raise awareness about the climate emergency, I have come to the conclusion that the general public, and world leaders in particular, underestimate how fast, serious and permanent the climatic and ecological collapse will be if humanity does not mobilize on it. Maybe only five years left before, at current emission rates, humanity spends its remaining “carbon quotas” to stay below 1.5 degrees of global warming, a level of warming that I am not sure is compatible with civilization as we know it. And there may only be five years left for the Amazon jungle and the great ice sheet in Antarctica go beyond an irreversible tipping point.
The Earth system is collapsing at an impressive speed. And climate scientists have faced an even more difficult public communication task than astronomers in Don’t look up, as climate destruction unfolds over decades – at lightning speed as far as the planet is concerned, but icily slow as far as the news cycle is concerned – and is not as immediate and visible as a comet on the sky.
Considering all this, you may criticize Don’t look up for considering it too obvious say more about the critic than about the movie. It’s fun and scary because it conveys a harsh truth that climate scientists and others who understand the climate emergency in depth live on a daily basis. I hope this movie, which comically depicts how difficult it is to break the rules, will help break those rules in real life.
I also hope Hollywood learns to tell weather stories that matter. Rather than stories that create a comforting distance from the grave danger we run through unrealistic technological solutions to unrealistic disaster scenarios, humanity needs stories that highlight the many absurdities that arise from collectively knowing what lies ahead and yet , do not act collectively.
We also need stories that show humanity responding rationally to the crisis. The lack of technology is not what prevents us from acting. Humanity has to confront the fossil fuel industry, accept that we need to consume less energy and go into “emergency mode”. The solidarity and relief that we would feel once this happens — if it does — would be revolutionary for our species. More and better data won’t catalyze this sociocultural tipping point, but more and better stories could.
Peter Kalmus is a scientist and author of ‘Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution’.
Translated by Julian Cnochaert