by Judith Curry
Some reflections on the movie Don’t Look Up.
If you haven’t seen the movie, it is worth watching (available on Netflix).
The movie is a satirical black comedy, with a large number of A-list actors. It’s about scientists giving 6 months warning of a comet striking Earth and mass extinction. The story is about how politicians, the media, scientists, the public and space entrepreneurs react to this. The Director, screen writers and lead actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) all say that it is a satirical film about climate change.
If you ignore for the moment that this movie is supposed to be about climate change, you can enjoy it for what it is. The style is reminiscent of Dr Strangelove (but not nearly as good). The A-list actors give entertaining performances, but I wouldn’t expect any of them to be nominated for awards (the most likely award will be for the theme song, sung by Ariana Grande). The movie is fast paced, plays into amusing stereotypes, and is good fun.
However, if you are looking for some grand allegory for climate change, its communication, our failure to act, and a subsequent existential crisis, you will be sorely disappointed and may not even think that the film is funny. The movie is about an existential risk on a time-scale of a few months, that you can actually see happening. In spite of the rhetoric and declarations that every severe weather is caused by climate change, at the end of the day very few lives are being lost by extreme weather (let alone by manmade climate change).
There has been substantial discussion on twitter of the movie, with climate scientists saying that finally they feel heard, and feel vindicated by this attention that is provided to their plight of effectively trying to communicate the risk of climate change and effect their desired policies to prevent climate change. They seem to think that the moral of the movie is Believe Experts.
There is no scientific debate over whether the comet will actually strike Earth, when it will strike, or the catastrophic consequences. However, throughout the movie, every scientific institution ends up lying about the risk – the head of NASA, big tech CEO, government officials, and eventually the protagonist professor (Leonardo DiCaprio). The only scientist who maintains their integrity is the female graduate student (Jennifer Lawrence), who ends up bagging groceries. Trusting the experts doesn’t end up being such a good idea, when the end result is extinction.
The issue is what should be done about the comet strike. Here is where we find some meaningful analogies with climate change. The more pragmatic choice is to use rockets to deflect the path of the comet away from collision with the earth; there is some confidence this can work based on experience with asteroids. By analogy, the pragmatic climate change solution is to adapt, hang on to your nuclear power and develop better technologies. The competing solution for the comet gets wrapped in the economic opportunity associated with rare metals in the comet, job creation and presidential politics. The analogous climate solution wraps in all sorts of additional objectives such as environmental justice, job creation, anti-nuclear sentiments, anti-capitalist governance, punishing fossil fuel companies. The problem is that the complexity of the competing solutions fails to address the original problem and causes new (and even worse) problems.
The movie isn’t about a simple battle between those who want to take action to address the problem and those who don’t. There’s a genuine lack of consensus scientists, government, etc. as to what should actually be done about the problem. This is invariably the case when the the problem is multifaceted and the solutions are technically challenging.
The fundamental policy challenge of climate change is that it involves making changes now for the sake of preventing harms that occur largely in the future to people living in other countries. This challenge can be addressed by producing technological breakthroughs that make these tradeoffs less painful and progress easier.
It’s far more interesting to interpret this movie as part of the cinema of existential risk, rather than climate change. Comets are a great topic for this, especially since they are much more difficult to deflect than asteroids. Deflecting comets would be a great endeavor for the billionaire space cowboys (Bezos, Musk, Branson) to take on.
And what about supervolcanoes? Does anyone have a plan for this? These genuine existential risks fall outside of ordinary political conflicts. Instead, we focus on the faux existential risk of climate change, with solutions that focus on first-world perceptions of environmental justice and punishing fossil fuel companies.