Don’t Look Up is a satirical movie that skewers those who say that climate change is a hoax, a passing fad, a fiction cooked up by an hysterical teenager from Sweden, or nothing more than normal climactic changes that occur on Earth all the time. The brain child of Adam McKay, the movie features an all-star cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Meryl Streep, along with a host of other Hollywood A-list actors.
The movie is simplistic in the extreme. An astronomer discovers an enormous asteroid heading straight toward Earth. She and her colleague try to warn the world that there is a 99.7% chance that when it hits, the Earth will be destroyed. You would have to have the intellect of a sea slug not to make the connection that 99.7% happens to be the same percentage of scientists who agree that climate change is happening and is caused in large measure by human activity.
In fact, only a sea slug would miss the point of the movie, which is that the asteroid is a metaphor for climate change. The movie beats the viewer over the head with that message and some viewers may find the message more heavy handed than necessary. They have a point. There is nothing subtle about what the producers and the actors want us to take away from watching Don’t Look Up. Below is an interview with the cast in which they expound on their commitment to the Don’t Look Up project, which began in 2019.
Satire can be a useful tool. Gilbert and Sullivan, Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Tom Lehrer, and many, many others have used it as a device to dismantle audience preconceptions and look more deeply into what is happening in the world around us. Even Jerry Seinfeld did a better job of explaining the assassination of JFK than Oliver Stone and the Warren Commission in an episode known as The Magic Loogie.
There are some gems in this movie, especially Meryl Streep playing a female version of Donald Trump. There are Don’t Look Up hats that parody the stupid MAGA hats that Trump supporters are so fond of, little suspecting that those hats have a higher intelligence quotient that the people wearing them.
Critics have judged the film harshly, arguing that it makes light of a serious situation. Yet those who have taken the topic seriously have been laughed at, vilified, imprisoned, stalked, and humiliated. A major US news network has dedicated much of its programming to denying the seriousness of the threat to humanity associated with a hotter planet.
The majority of so-called Republicans in Congress support the “climate change is a hoax” idea and there is a dispiriting similarity between those who refuse to get vaccinated or wear a mask in public and those who deny that global overheating is happening. If Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth; Greta Thunberg calling out of world leaders at Davos, Glasgow, and the UN; the Extinction Rebellion; and the writings of Bill McKibben and Michael Mann haven’t gotten the point across, maybe it’s time to drag out the heavy artillery, which this movie does in spades?
If you have a chance, watch it for yourself and tell us what you think of it in your comments.
A Climate Scientist Speaks
There are over 15,000 comments on YouTube about the movie. Suffice to say, some people love it, some people loathe it. Few have no opinion. One person who does have an opinion, though, is Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He tells The Guardian that Don’t Look Up is “the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen.”
Kalmus says it is,
“… a film about how humanity is responding to planet-killing climate breakdown. We live in a society in which, despite extraordinarily clear, present, and worsening climate danger, more than half of Republican members of Congress still say climate change is a hoax and many more wish to block action, and in which the official Democratic party platform still enshrines massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry; in which the current president ran on a promise that “nothing will fundamentally change”, and the speaker of the House dismissed even a modest climate plan as “the green dream or whatever”; in which the largest delegation to Cop26 was the fossil fuel industry, and the White House sold drilling rights to a huge tract of the Gulf of Mexico after the summit; in which world leaders say that climate is an “existential threat to humanity” while simultaneously expanding fossil fuel production; in which major newspapers still run fossil fuel ads, and climate news is routinely overshadowed by sports; in which entrepreneurs push incredibly risky tech solutions and billionaires sell the absurdist fantasy that humanity can just move to Mars.”
Wow. Don’ hold back, Peter. And he has more to say. Much more.
“World leaders underestimate how rapid, serious and permanent ecological breakdown will be if humanity fails to mobilize. After 15 years of working to raise climate urgency, I’ve concluded that the public in general, and world leaders in particular, underestimate how rapid, serious and permanent climate and ecological breakdown will be if humanity fails to mobilize. There may only be five years left before humanity expends the remaining “carbon budget” to stay under 1.5C of global heating at today’s emissions rates – a level of heating I am not confident will be compatible with civilization as we know it. And there may only be five years before the Amazon rainforest and a large Antarctic ice sheet pass irreversible tipping points.
“The Earth system is breaking down now with breathtaking speed. And climate scientists have faced an even more insurmountable public communication task than the astronomers in Don’t Look Up, since climate destruction unfolds over decades – lightning fast as far as the planet is concerned, but glacially slow as far as the news cycle is concerned – and isn’t as immediate and visible as a comet in the sky.”
“Given all this, dismissing Don’t Look Up as too obvious might say more about the critic than the film,” Kalmus writes.
“It’s funny and terrifying because it conveys a certain cold truth that climate scientists and others who understand the full depth of the climate emergency are living every day. I hope that this movie, which comically depicts how hard it is to break through prevailing norms, actually helps break through those norms in real life.
“We need stories that highlight the many absurdities that arise from knowing what’s coming while failing to act. I also hope Hollywood is learning how to tell climate stories that matter. Instead of stories that create comforting distance from the grave danger we are in via unrealistic techno fixes for unrealistic disaster scenarios, humanity needs stories that highlight the many absurdities that arise from collectively knowing what’s coming while collectively failing to act.
“We also need stories that show humanity responding rationally to the crisis. A lack of technology isn’t what’s blocking action. Instead, humanity needs to confront the fossil fuel industry head on, accept that we need to consume less energy, and switch into full-on emergency mode. The sense of solidarity and relief we’d feel once this happens — if it happens — would be game changing for our species. More and better facts will not catalyze this socio-cultural tipping point, but more and better stories might.”
Personally, I am conflicted by all this. I have been privileged to write for CleanTechnica for over a decade and I often find myself caught between the euphoria that accompanies stories about new clean energy technology and the soul-destroying ignorance of people like Jim Inhofe, the monumental jackass who brought a snowball into the Senate to prove that climate change is a hoax. The FUD that never ends from the fossil fuel companies rankles me, and seeing good people like Bill McKibben being led away in handcuffs while fossil fuel evildoers like Charles Koch continue to distort the tax laws to spread their message of denialism and hate is painful.
Sometimes my comments are over the top and I get called on it by people who insist they can’t share my articles with some people because they are too strident.The irony is these people with such tender sensibilities are the same people who gobble up the horseshit spewing constantly from Faux News and applaud the treasonous hordes who attack the US Capitol and call them freedom fighters. Am I really supposed to care what those nutcases think of my writing?
We have about 8 years — maybe — before the Earth tips over into an irreversible warming trend that will threaten the very existence of the majority of humans and most other life on Earth. Our leaders are talking about maybe, possibly, doing something, they’re not sure what, 40 years or more from now. That’s like telling someone drowning in a pool to hang in there, the rescue squad is being trained right now this very minute and will be ready to respond in six months or so.
What will it take to break through the public consciousness to convince people the need to act is urgent? Information hasn’t done it, demonstrations haven’t done it, satirical bludgeons like Don’t Look Up are not likely to do it. The only conclusion from the observable evidence is that nothing is going to succeed — not in time, anyway. We have bequeathed our progeny a legacy of death and destruction. Kinda makes you proud to be a human, doesn’t it? Lions, tigers, and bears can’t destroy the Earth, but people can. Such power is to be savored — apparently.
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