climate change

Don’t Look Up Doesn’t Get the Climate Crisis

Photo: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Don’t Look Up is an obscenely overlong, occasionally funny satire of American media and politics. But it aspires to be something more.

As he has emphasized in interviews, director Adam McKay conceived of the film as an allegory for 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 Up portrays a United States so intoxicated by decadent consumerism, and so corrupted by polarized, plutocratic politics, that it cannot make deflecting a doomsday rock a national priority. Even as the Dibiasky comet bears down on Earth, media outlets carry on spotlighting frivolities and fomenting culture wars, while politicians keep privileging the whims of billionaire donors over the needs of humanity writ large.

The film strikes plenty of true notes. Although written before the pandemic, many of its social criticisms feel sharper in 2022 than they would have in 2019. 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 is a narrative fit for winning the retweets of middle-class American liberals but not for understanding the world we live in or the forces threatening to end it.

To elucidate 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. So Dibiasky and Mindy take their story to the media, which promptly vilifies the former as a mentally unstable worrywart while celebrating the latter mostly for being handsome (unlike many other films that cast beautiful men as nebbish professors, Don’t Look Up is refreshingly forthright about the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio is hot even with a beard and a bunch of nervous tics). President Orlean proceeds to change her tune. The U.S. launches a bunch of nuclear weapons at the comet, and the mission is poised for total success when Orlean abruptly calls it off.

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. And it co-opts Mindy by making him the national science adviser.

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, he betrays his fealty to the truth to maintain White House clout and forsakes his adoring midwestern family for a hot, rich talk-show host who is openly incapable of 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 then flees the corruption of the big city for the wholesome heartland, hoping to reconcile with his wife. At about this time, the comet becomes visible 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 mount a last-minute effort to deflect the comet themselves (after the U.S. denies them an opportunity to get in on mining 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 a lot of reasons why this is a poor allegory for the climate crisis. We’ll focus on four big ones:

1. Climate change provides no do-or-die deadline.

Most 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 hit upon this analogy in a conversation with the left-wing journalist David Sirota. 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. Unlike climate change, however, a comet operates in a manner and timescale conducive to a Hollywood narrative. Whereas the former threatens a diffuse, nonlinear, and gradual worsening of ecological conditions, the latter presents a clear-cut ticking-time-bomb scenario: Knock the space rock off its path and all is saved; act too late and a fiery apocalypse destroys everything in an instant.

Climate change is not remotely like this. Contrary to rhetoric popular with some progressive politicians and social-media users, climate change provides us with neither a hard deadline nor a clean binary between success and failure. Environmentalists cannot promise that if we act now, everything will be fine, since we have already burned an unsafe amount of carbon and nothing we do now from here on out is likely to prevent the climate from growing ever more inhospitable for the rest of our lives. Nor can Greens warn that if we don’t act soon, all will be lost. We do not know exactly how much carbon we can burn without tripping over a globally catastrophic tipping point. The United Nations’ 1.5- and two-degree warming targets are informed by science but still inescapably arbitrary. All we really know is that the more we limit warming, the less suffering climate change is likely to produce. 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 to yield three degrees of temperature rise, a scenario that few scientists consider an existential threat to the human species.

If climate change does not threaten to end the world at a predictable date, it also does not threaten all Earth dwellers 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 relatively comfortably in a two- (or perhaps even three-) degree-warmer world. Thus, different regions and class strata each have their own discrete (albeit uniformly unknowable) deadlines for action.

2. The technology necessary for eliminating climate change — at no cost to human flourishing — isn’t fully developed.

In Don’t Look Up, the tech required for diverting the Dibiasky comet is already fully operational. And the only economic incentive to delay action is a previously unanticipated commodity-extraction opportunity, which the film suggests will mostly serve to increase the profitability of predatory tech firms.

It is true that fossil-fuel interests have stymied the full deployment of existing 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, is just sitting 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. To remove fossil fuels from heavy industry, we need cost-efficient electrified cement and hydrogen-powered steel plants. To maintain global travel in a zero-emissions world, we need electric airplanes.

Until these and other technologies are developed, the costs of rapid decarbonization will be neither negligible nor exclusive to the rich. In Don’t Look Up, Isherwell argues that mining the comet will facilitate the abolition of poverty. This is portrayed as the specious rationalization of a self-interested villain. But in the real world, there is a genuine trade-off between minimizing climate risk and maximizing near-term human welfare. Don’t Look Up’s obsession with America’s decadent consumerism is, in some respects, narcissistic. The United States has contributed more to the climate crisis than any other nation. But it will likely account for only about 5 percent of global emissions over the coming century. The battle for a sustainable planet will be won or lost in the global South, where carbon-intensive growth is still needed for much more than improved smartphones. More than 700 million humans still don’t have electricity in their homes. In China and India, carbon-powered growth has been steadily liberating the global poor from grievous deprivations. Technological breakthroughs should eventually make it possible to reconcile the competing goods of mitigating climate risk and lifting global living standards. But they aren’t here yet.

3. Rapid decarbonization will require Americans to tolerate real changes to their ways of life. And some have good reason to resist those changes.

Decarbonizing the American economy is a vital endeavor. But drastically cutting our nation’s exceptionally high per capita emissions will require Americans to accept policy changes that impinge on our lives a lot more than a nuclear-missile launch. Minimizing agricultural emissions requires people to eat less (non-lab-grown) meat. Reducing household emissions requires municipalities to tolerate the construction of high-rise housing developments near mass transit. Dramatically increasing public investment in the green transition will require higher taxes or, in the short run, higher inflation.

And for certain U.S. communities, the costs of a rapid transition would be especially profound. Late in Don’t Look Up, Dibiasky returns to her blue-collar hometown, where her parents promptly 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. And it casts that opposition as 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 to a green transition is often quite rational. In many parts of the U.S., the fossil-fuel industry is the primary, if not only, source of middle-class employment available to non–college graduates. The average annual wage in West Virginia’s coal industry far outstrips that of any other private industry in the state. Over the past decade, shale booms brought high-paying jobs to places long forsaken by industrial capital. At present, green energy does not promise comparable gains. In 2019, the median annual wage for a solar-photovoltaic installer in the U.S. was $44,890, while that of a wind-turbine technician was $52,910. Median wages in the fossil-fuel power sector, by contrast, paid between $70,310 and $81,460. Meanwhile, fossil-fuel construction projects tend to be higher paid and more labor intensive than renewable ones.

There is no reason in principle why green-energy jobs cannot be good jobs. And all workers stand to benefit from cleaner air and a stabler climate. 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.

4. Vapid news anchors and billionaire political donors are not the primary obstacles to climate action.

Taken individually, none of the aforementioned problems with 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.

In our world, the actual proposition offered by American proponents of rapid decarbonization goes something like this:

No matter what we do, the natural disasters are going to keep getting worse and more frequent. 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). But the longer we wait, (1) the more vulnerable people in climate-sensitive regions we will effectively kill and (2) the higher the risk that we ourselves will suffer 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 to forswear NIMBYism and tolerate the construction of massive solar farms, high-voltage transmission lines, giant lithium mines, and dense housing developments. Workers in the fossil-fuel sector will need to accept the sudden devaluation of skills they spent years developing. 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. But ultimately, the economic benefits of transition (let alone, the public health and ecological ones) are extremely likely to outweigh the costs. So, this is the most responsible, collectively rational course of action.

When you lay out the case for a swift green transition like this, it becomes apparent that mass delusion is scarcely necessary to impede responsible action. Even if American voters were universally well informed and deeply concerned about climate change, they would not necessarily support the measures required to minimize it. After all, those measures have some genuine costs. And the benefit of any individual measure is highly speculative (if not objectively negligible). No one solar farm, or ultrahigh-voltage transmission line, or multifamily housing development is going to make or break the green transition. 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. In 2019, a 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 truth, even the subset of Americans who are most aware of climate change (and ostensibly committed to mitigating it) routinely refuse to prioritize the problem over other concerns. Last year, Maine held a referendum on whether to approve a high-voltage transmission line that would carry hydropower down from Canada. If Mainers voted yes on the ballot measure, the project would be rejected — and any future high-voltage transmission line would require two-thirds majority support in the state legislature to be approved. If Mainers voted no, the project would go forward and greenhouse-gas emissions would likely decline by about 3 million metric tons a year, the equivalent of removing 700,000 cars 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 campaigned in support of shutting down Indian Point, a nuclear-power plant in New York. Last year, that source of zero-carbon energy closed, and gas-fired power plants took its place. In 2020, meanwhile, a local chapter of the Sunrise Movement protested the upzoning of 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 equally responsible for our current plight. 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. And fossil-fuel interests bear great responsibility for impeding timely action in the 1990s.

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 is a lot of billionaire and millionaire money behind the 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 funds than his more moderate adversaries.

McKay’s conception of the news media’s role, meanwhile, seems slightly deranged. In one recent interview, he suggested that careerism prevents reporters from conveying the alarming truths of climate change, telling, “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 weeklong climate-change series last year. And we’re doing it again later this month. The New York Times publishes large alarming packages on climate change every few weeks. Generally speaking, the left-of-center college graduates who staff mainstream-media outlets care more about climate change than 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.

The reality is that, in the contemporary United States, a just and prudent response to climate change demands a lot more than keeping global warming in the headlines or evicting billionaire donors from the White House. It requires ordinary Americans to make real ideological and material sacrifices. Prudence demands rapid decarbonization. And rapid decarbonization demands the disruption of economic relations and natural landscapes. Justice requires reparations for those whose worlds are already ending due to our past emissions, and fiscal transfers to poorer countries that wish to industrialize sustainably. Resistance to these demands extends well beyond high-dollar fundraisers and MSNBC greenrooms. Almost no one in this country has yet summoned the requisite urgency and solidarity.

If a truly just and prudent response to climate change is therefore unattainable, we can still strive to bend policy in its direction. But to do so, liberals will probably need to stop telling themselves self-flattering fairy tales about the crisis they wish to resolve.

Don’t Look Up Doesn’t Get the Climate Crisis