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What “Don’t Look Up” gets wrong about climate change — Quartz
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What “Don’t Look Up” gets wrong about climate change — Quartz

Poster for Netflix's "Don't Look Up"


Climate change is often referred to as a slow motion catastrophe. This is because it feels vague, intangible, and a problem that will only get worse in the future. That perception can change quickly, of course, once it’s your house that burns down or gets washed away. But could society rise to the challenge if climate changes were clearly visible and actually hurtling towards the planet? Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t seem to think so.

That’s the premise of Don’t Look UpAdam McKay is the writer/director of ‘The New Adam McKay Film’. He uses snarky humor to explore other complex socio-political issues in films like ‘The Secret Life of Bees’. ViceRead more about Dick Cheney and The Big ShortThe financial crisis. Ostensibly a comedy (although viewers should expect more exasperated sighs than laughs), the movie stars DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as anxiety-riddled astronomers who stumble on a giant “planet-killer” comet making a bee-line for Earth. It’s essentially a reboot of the 1998 Bruce Willis masterpiece “Armageddon,” except no one can agree on what to do about the comet—or whether it even exists. No more spoilers, I promise, but let’s just say it’s not a typical feel-good holiday flick.

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DiCaprio is a long-standing advocate for action. Climate Change, and as his character screams about data and pounds the table on network news talk shows, stupefied that no one grasps the gravity of the problem, Leo doesn’t seem to be acting as much as leveraging his stardom to plead directly with his audience. It’s easy to be cynical about celebrity activists, but DiCaprio is one of the only people on Earth who could turn a diatribe about climate change into the Number-one streaming movie worldwide.

This is a way to raise awareness. Don’t Look UpIt is evident that it was a success. It makes a few important points about the climate crisis. However, there are limitations to HollywoodScreenwriting and the choice to use a comet metaphor as a metaphor tends to obscure the true nature the problem. Here’s what Don’t Look UpClimate change is a complex topic that can be both right and wrong.

Right: Science is screaming at us

In one scene, DiCaprio’s scientist quibbles with Meryl Streep, playing a TrumpThe debate was centered around whether or not the comet will strike the earth. The debate reminds us that the comet will hit the earth over 100 percent. scientificThere is no consensus on climate change. Now, more than 99% of supportof the hypothesis that human-produced greenhouse gasses are dangerously warming the planet. The August report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was Unambiguous on this pointWith 4,000 pages of evidenceTo back it up. But, as Sociological research has shown, scientific facts don’t tend to be very effective in changing the minds of climate (or, apparently, comet) skeptics.

Right: Critical minerals will be the next gold rush

Mark Rylance has a delightfully creepy turn as a Musk/Jobs/Zuckerberg-esque eccentric tech billionaire, who discovers that the comet is rich in rare earthsand other essential minerals for electronics, batteries and clean energy hardware. This is the perfect twist: These minerals are in great demandThe demand for these essential components is growing rapidly, and there is a gold rush mentality. Mining investors have been gripped by this.In China, central AfricaThese minerals are found in South America, Africa, and other countries. It’s very likely that trillion-dollar fortunes will soon be made in critical mineral mining, in spite of the ubiquity of labor and environmental concerns at such mines. This paradox is captured in the movie: The solution to the climate crisis comes with a high risk of inciting other forms of environmental disaster.

Wrong: Technology alone can solve the problem

On TwitterMcKay on Dec. 28 NotedCorrectly, that is the majority of the TechnologyWe need to slow down climate change. It takes a lot of innovation to blow up a comet. But the deeper flaw in the comet metaphor is that technology, existing or not, is only part of what’s needed to address climate change. The earth system is already permanently altered, and there will never be a button someone can push that will “fix” climate change and return nature to a pre-warming state. Climate change will force communities and corporations to adapt and reevaluate their economic and political norms, in order to adapt to changing environmental conditions and constraints on natural resource. It is because of the complexity of this collective action challenge that progress on climate change has been slow. It would be simple to just blow up a comet.

Wrong: The US can/will resolve the problem independently

One of the movie’s stranger plot choices is that geopolitics are almost totally absent. While we see glimpses of global news audiences following updates on the comet’s progress, the movie frames it as the exclusive domain of the White House until the very end. Climate change requires more global buy in; it cannot be addressed by collective action. The comet metaphor also dodges the question of responsibility, of who caused the crisis (God, maybe, according to Timothée Chalamet’s character in the movie; USEuropean fossil fuel companies (mainly, in the instance of climate change), and how they should share their collective response.

However, the comet metaphor might be useful for thinking about the ethical implications geoengineering. For example, in the face of a catastrophe, does one nation have the right to do anything that could affect the entire globe, like spraying aerosols onto the atmosphere? Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent sci-fi novel The Ministry for the FutureThis question is also addressed.

By the end, there’s one point Don’t Look UpThis applies equally to climate change as well as the nails pandemic: Sometimes, in times of crisis, it is the best thing to do is to turn off your phone and share a glass of wine with your friends and enjoy a meal together.


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