Photo by Niko Tavernise/Netflix
Don’t Look Up This is an absurdly long, but sometimes funny, satire of American politics and media. It strives to be more.
As he has Interviews emphasize this pointDirector Adam McKay saw the film as an allegory of the climate crisis. His aim was to render the absurdity of our collective response to global warming more visible by likening the problem to a starker existential threat: a “planet-killer” comet on a collision course with Earth. Don’t Look UpThe image depicts a United States that is so consumed by decadent consumerism and so corrupted in its political polarization, that it can’t make deflecting a doomsday stone a national priority. Even as the Dibiasky comet descends on Earth, media outlets continue to highlight frivolities and foment culture wars while politicians continue to prioritize the needs of all humanity over the whims or billionaire donors.
This film hits many true notes. Even though it was written before the pandemic, many social criticisms of the film feel sharper in 2022. The notion that a threat as immediate and universally menacing as a descending comet could become culture-war fodder — thereby turning the mere act of “looking up” into a litmus test for partisan allegiance — is a bit too plausible at a time when anti-vaxx identity politics has pushed U.S. COVID deaths over the 800,000 mark.
Nevertheless, Don’t Look Up badly misconstrues the crisis it’s meant to illuminate. Climate change isn’t much like a planet-killing comet. And the pathologies of for-profit media and campaign finance aren’t the primary obstacles to rapid decarbonization. McKay’s film skewers social media for privileging ideologically flattering, identity-affirming narratives over honest reckonings with inconvenient truths. Yet Don’t Look Up is itself a transparent product of its authors’ immersion in social-media echo chambers. It is a cinematic elaboration of liberal Twitter’s most ideologically flattering, identity-affirming narratives about climate change.
In the film’s populist, polemical account of the ecological crisis, there is no genuine technical or logistical obstacle to neutralizing the threat, no need for Americans to tolerate significant disruptions to their existing way of life, no vexing question of global redistribution, no compelling benefits from ongoing carbon-intensive growth, and thus no rational or uncorrupted opponent of timely climate action. Don’t Look Up casts the conflict between minimizing climate risk and maximizing near-term economic growth as one pitting the interests of billionaires against those of everyone else — or, in a few moments, as one pitting Americans’ base interest in retail therapy against their repressed longing for a less materialistic and more communitarian way of life. This narrative is good for winning the retweets and support of middle-class liberals in America, but not for understanding the world or the forces that threaten it.
To clarify the problems with Don’t Look Up’s satirical vision, we first need to spoil its plot. The film begins with two Michigan State University astronomers — graduate student Kate Dibiasky and (long-unpublished) professor Randall Mindy — discovering that a “planet-killing” comet is six months away from colliding with Earth. They try to alert the White House to this threat, but President Janie Orlean’s administration would rather keep the comet under wraps until after the midterm elections. Mindy and Dibiasky tell their story to the media. They quickly vilify Mindy as a mentally unstable worrywart, while celebrating the latter mainly for being handsome (unlike other films that have cast beautiful men as nebbish profs). Don’t Look UpIt is refreshingly honest to admit that Leonardo DiCaprio can be hot even with a thick beard and a lot of nervous tics. President Orlean continues to change her tune. The U.S. launches a number of nuclear weapons at a comet, and the mission looks poised for success when Orlean abruptly stops it.
Her change of heart comes courtesy of Peter Isherwell, the billionaire CEO of tech firm BASH and super-donor to Orlean’s presidential campaign. Isherwell’s corporation has discovered that the comet contains trillions of dollars’ worth of rare-earth elements that could greatly expand the capacities of its smartphonelike products. Instead of pursuing a strategy that guarantees humanity’s survival, Isherwell persuades Orlean to embrace a high-risk, high-reward alternative: Allow BASH to use its proprietary technology to fragment the comet, divert its pieces into the ocean, and then collect them for mineral mining. BASH’s tech is unproven and its proposed procedure non-peer-reviewed. It’s an insane gamble. But the government silences Dibiasky’s dissent through the threat of imprisonment. Mindy is also made the national science adviser by the government.
This subordination of the truly valuable (human survival) to crass longings (niftier gadgets) is mirrored in Mindy’s own character arc. Once an unheralded scholar toiling in East Lansing’s obscurity, Mindy finds himself transformed into an international celebrity. Soon, Mindy abandons his loyalty to the truth in order to preserve White House clout. He leaves his loving family of midwesterners to become a rich, wealthy talk-show host who is clearly incapable of falling in love. Eventually, Mindy becomes mad as hell and decides he can’t take it anymore. He surprises his mistress by delivering an unvarnished condemnation of Orlean’s policy on live television. Mindy flees the corruptive city to seek refuge in the wholesome heartland and tries to reconcile his wife. Around this time, the comet appears in the night sky. Mindy leads a “Just look up” campaign that implores the people of the world to literally observe the doomsday rock hurtling toward them and demand policy change. But this quickly prompts a “Don’t look up” countermovement from the president’s supporters. Russia, India and China make a last-minute attempt to deflect it (after the U.S. denied them an opportunity to mine the comet), but it fails. BASH’s does too.
As the “planet-killer” makes contact, Mindy enjoys a final family dinner. Surrounded by his wife, children, and friends, the astronomer sighs, then says, “The thing of it is we really did have everything, didn’t we?” Then all humans are annihilated (save for the 2,000 most powerful people on the planet, who lie cryogenically frozen on a spaceship programmed to seek out an Earth-like planet hiding somewhere in the ether).
There are many reasons this is a poor metaphor for the climate crisis. We’ll focus on four big ones:
The majority of Don’t Look Up’s deficiencies as a climate parable derive from a simple fact: Climate change isn’t really analogous to a planet-killer comet.
McKay made this analogy while having a conversation to David Sirota, a left-leaning journalist. And one can understand the metaphor’s appeal: Like climate change, a comet can threaten all of humanity, reveal itself first to scientists, and become more difficult to address the longer that action is delayed. A comet, unlike climate change, operates in a way and timescale that is easy to portray. While the former could lead to a gradual, diffuse, and nonlinear worsening of ecological conditions over time, the latter is a clear ticking-time bomb scenario: Take the space rock off its path, and everything is saved. But act too late, and everything will be destroyed.
Climate change is not anything like this. Contrary to popular belief, climate change is not like that. Some progressive politiciansWe do not have a set deadline for climate change, nor can we predict when it will happen. Neither is there a clear line between success and failure. Since we have already burned a lot of carbon and there is no way to stop the climate from growing, environmentalists cannot guarantee that everything will be fine if we act now. Our lives will continue to be more difficult. Nor can Greens warn that if we don’t act soon, all will be lost. We don’t know how much carbon we can burn before reaching a globally catastrophic tipping point. The United Nations’ 1.5- and two-degree warming targets are informed by science but still It is inexorably random. We do know that climate change will cause less suffering if we limit its effects. At the same time, if our concern is merely for averting near-term human extinction, it’s not actually clear that we need to do anything at all. Today, the business-as usual emissions path is expected. Three degrees of temperature increase are possibleA scenario that is not considered by most scientists to be an existential threat to humanity.
Climate change is not a threat to the end of the world at a certain date, but it does not pose a threat to all Earth inhabitants equally. The warming we’ve Already bought ourselves is enough to “end the world” from the perspective of some Low-lying Island Nations. Yet it is possible to imagine the top 10 percent of America’s income distribution living RelativelyYou can live comfortably in a world that is two- or three degrees warmer. Different regions and classes have their own distinct deadlines, even though they are not all known.
In Don’t Look UpThe technology required to divert the Dibiasky comet from space is fully operational. The only economic incentive for delaying action is an unanticipated commodity extraction opportunity that will most likely increase the profitability of predatory technology firms.
True, fossil-fuel interests have hampered the full deployment of green technologies. But it isn’t actually the case that the tech necessary for nullifying the climate threat, all without diminishing existing living standards or growth prospects, It is not on the shelf. To eliminate our dependence on carbon energy while enabling the electrification of all automobiles, we’ll need to improve energy-storage technologies to compensate for the intermittency of renewables. We need low-cost, efficient electrified cement plants and hydrogen-powered steel plants to eliminate heavy industry’s dependence on fossil fuels. We need electric airplanes to maintain global travel in a zero emissions world.
These and other technologies will not be developed until the costs of rapid carbonization are reduced. In Don’t Look UpIsherwell claims that mining the comet would help eradicate poverty. This is portrayed by Isherwell as a self-interested villain rationalizing his speculative argument. In reality, however, there is a real trade-off between minimizing climate risks and maximising their effectiveness. near-termHuman welfare. Don’t Look Up’s obsession with America’s decadent consumerism is, in some respects, narcissistic. The United States has contributed more than any other country to the climate crisis. But it will likely contribute to Only 5 percent of global carbon emissions are expected to be generated in the next century.The battle for a sustainable world will be won or lost by the global South, where carbon intensive growth is still required for more than better smartphones. More than 700 million humans still don’t have electricity in their homes. Carbon-powered growth has been steady in India and China. The global poor must be freed from their grievous poverty. Technological advances should eventually allow us to reconcile the competing benefits of mitigating climate risks and raising global living standards. But they aren’t here yet.
The American economy must be decarbonized. But drastically cutting our nation’s exceptionally high per capita emissions will require Americans to accept policy changes that impinge on our lives a lotMore than a launch of a nuclear missile. People are needed to reduce agricultural emissions. Reduce the consumption of non-lab-grown meat. To reduce household emissions, municipalities must tolerate the construction of High-rise housing developments located near mass transit.To increase public investment in green transition dramatically, it will be necessary to raise taxes and, in the short-term, to inflate more.
For certain communities in the United States, the costs associated with a rapid transition could be particularly severe. Late in Don’t Look UpDibiasky goes back to her blue-collar town, where her parents quickly condemn her politics. “Your father and I are for the jobs the comet will provide,” her mother explains. This is the film’s sole (metaphorical) representation of working-class opposition to climate action. It calls this opposition insane. A comet is weeks away from destroying all life on Earth, and these people are prioritizing entirely hypothetical employment opportunities, implicitly because they’ve been brainwashed by the right-wing media.
In real life however, blue-collar resistance towards a green transition can often be quite rational. The primary, if non-primary, source of income in many parts the United States is the fossil-fuel industry. Only, source of middle-class employment available to non–college graduates. The average annual wage in West Virginia’s coal industry far outstripsThis is higher than any other industry in the state. The shale booms have been evident over the past decade. High-paying JobsTo places long abandoned by industrial capital. Green energy is not promising comparable gains at the moment. In 2019, the Median annual salary for a solar-photovoltaic installer in the U.S. was $44,890, while that of a wind-turbine technician was $52,910. The median wage in the fossil-fuel power sector was $70,310 to $81,460. Meanwhile, fossil-fuel construction projects Higher paid tend to be more successfulThese are labor-intensiver than renewable ones.
There is no reason why green-energy jobs can’t be good jobs. All workers will benefit from cleaner air and a more stable environment. But the past 40 years of deindustrialization have given fossil-fuel workers every reason to believe that economic change isn’t their friend. And they’re plausibly correct; at the moment, progressives do not actually have a coalition capable of guaranteeing them basic social-welfare protections, let alone highly paid, unionized jobs in a post-carbon economy.
Individually, none of these problems are significant. Don’t Look Up’s allegory would be fatal. But when you put them together, it becomes clear that the satire’s fundamental premise is mistaken. In 2021, the chief impediments to American climate action aren’t really the news media’s frivolity, the public’s inattention, or the campaign-finance system’s corruption.
If climate change really were akin to the Dibiasky comet, then McKay’s targets would be well chosen. Which means that if (1) global warming were on the cusp of destroying all human life, (2) Americans could unilaterally eliminate such warming using existing technology, and (3) eliminating warming did not require disrupting status-quo living standards or economic arrangements in any way, then America’s inaction could only be explained by some combination of elite treachery and mass delusion — which is to say by a collective failure to “look up” and acknowledge reality.
But climate change isn’t like a comet.
The actual proposal of American proponents for rapid decarbonization is something like this:
The natural disasters will continue to get worse no matter what we do. It’s not clear exactly how much longer we can delay decarbonization before we will cross a threshold that condemns your children to lower living standards or worse (this depends in part on where you live and how wealthy you are). The longer we wait, the more climate-sensitive people we will kill and the greater the chance that we will be a victim of catastrophic outcomes. Thus, responsible decarbonization is rapid decarbonization. And to achieve that, we’re going to have to accept sweeping disruptions to the status quo. Localities will need be open to accepting massive solar farms and high-voltage transmission lines as well as giant lithium mines. The sudden devaluation and loss of skills that workers in the fossil-fuel industry have spent years developing will be a reality. And the upper middle class will need to pay higher taxes and/or higher prices to facilitate the remaking of America’s energy infrastructure, development of green technology, subsidization of sustainable industrialization in the global South, decarbonization of various American industrial sectors, and (ideally) economic reforms that raise wages and benefit levels for all laborers so that displaced fossil-fuel workers enjoy a just transition.
To be clear, even if we do all this, it’s still possible that catastrophic climate change will immiserate our grandchildren anyway. However, the economic and public health benefits of transition, as well as the ecological and public health benefits, are likely to outweigh any costs. This is the most responsible and rationally minded course of action.
It becomes clear that mass delusion is not necessary to prevent responsible action when you present the case for a rapid green transition. Even if all Americans were well informed about climate change and were deeply concerned about it, they wouldn’t necessarily support any measures to reduce it. These measures have real costs. Any measure has some benefits. IndividualThis measure is highly speculative and, if objectively not negligible, highly speculative. It is unlikely that one solar farm or ultrahigh voltage transmission line or multifamily housing development will make or break the green transformation. But such projects do often impinge on locals’ valued nature preserves, or peace and quiet, or parking availability. Meanwhile, most people are not affluent professionals who already “have everything.” Even voters who support action against climate change tend to prioritize their more quotidian concerns about jobs, wages, inflation, and tax rates. 2019 will see a significant increase in the number of people who are financially secure. Reuters survey found that 69 percent of Americans believed the U.S. should take “aggressive” action to combat climate change — but only 34 percent were willing to pay $100 more in taxes a year to finance that action.
In fact, even those Americans who are not American citizens are actually quite capable of being. MostClimate change is a real problem, and many people are aware of it. However, they refuse to prioritize it over other issues. Maine was named the Best State for Climate Change in 2012 Referendum heldWhether to approve a high voltage transmission line that would carry hydropower from Canada. If Mainers voted yes on the ballot measure, the project would be rejected — and AnyTo approve the future high-voltage transmission lines, two-thirds of the state legislature must support them. If Mainers voted against, the project would be approved and greenhouse-gas emissions will likely fall by about 3 million metric tonnes per year, which is the equivalent to removing 700,000.00 vehicles from the road.
And three of Maine’s top “green” groups — Environment Maine, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and the Sierra Club — helped team “yes” carry the day, deciding it was more important to preserve Maine’s “natural beauty.”
These groups are scarcely the climate’s only fair-weather friends. In 2016, McKay’s political hero (and my preferred presidential candidate), Bernie Sanders, decided to prioritize his ideological antipathy for nuclear power over reducing emissions when he Supported the closing of Indian PointNew York’s nuclear-power plant, That was last year. Source of zero carbon energy closed, and gas fired power plants took its place. In 2020, a Sunrise Movement chapter was established in each locality. Protest against the upzoning in Soho, thereby prioritizing … the interests of lower Manhattan’s landlords (?) … over the promotion of energy-efficient housing developments near mass transit.
In a world in which America needed to hit its emissions target for 2030 or else all earthly life would perish on January 1, 2031, I suspect that self-styled climate hawks wouldn’t feel so comfortable opposing ideologically displeasing measures that would reduce CO2 emissions. But those aren’t the stakes, so they often do.
I don’t mean to suggest that anti-nuclear environmentalists, Fox News producers, and fossil-fuel lobbies are EquallyResponsible for our current dire situation. There is no question that conservative media has helped to keep America’s climate policies markedly more irresponsible than those of the typical OECD country. And big coal’s hired hands are on the cusp of single-handedly killing Joe Biden’s green agenda. It’s true that if America had begun its green transition when man-made warming first became a scientific fact, decarbonization could have been achieved with less disruption and more surefire ecological benefits. It is also very important that fossil-fuel interests were able to impede timely action in 1990.
But in 2022, it just isn’t the case that the only major obstacles to responsible climate policy are big-dollar political donors and morally bankrupt media outlets. In reality, there are many. a lotThis is billionaireAnd millionaire moneyThe American climate movement. And in any case, thanks to small-dollar online fundraising, the 2020 campaign’s leading champion of a Green New Deal, Sanders, had an easier time raising campaign fundsHe was more moderate than his adversaries.
McKay’s conception of the news media’s role, meanwhile, seems slightly deranged. One Recent interview he suggested that careerism prevents reporters from conveying the alarming truths of climate change, telling Space.com, “It takes a lot of guts to raise your hand at that newspaper meeting and go, ‘Why don’t we have a giant headline that says, ‘Oh my God, we’re all going to die!’” But I can assure you this takes no guts at all (assuming McKay was speaking figuratively). This magazine did a Climate-change series for a weekLast year. And we’re doing it again later this month. The New York TimesPublications Large alarming packages about climate change Every few weeks. The majority of mainstream-media outlets’ staff are left-of-center college students who care more about climate change that the average American. And the subject’s prominence in major media reflects this ideological commitment more than it does any business imperative; as McKay’s film suggests, climate change is not surefire clickbait.
In the modern United States, a prudent and just response to climate change requires more than keeping global warming on the news or evicting billionaire donors. It requires ordinary Americans make significant ideological and material sacrifices. Prudence demands rapid decarbonization. Rapid decarbonization requires disruption of natural landscapes and economic relations. Justice demands reparations for those whose lives are already in danger due to past emissions and fiscal transfers to countries that want to industrialize sustainably. These demands are met with resistance that goes beyond MSNBC greenrooms and high-dollar fundraisers. Nearly no one in the country has yet shown the required urgency or solidarity.
We can still try to change policy to address climate change if a just and prudent response is not possible. Liberals will have to stop telling themselves self-deprecating fairytales about the crisis they want to end.