An as Adam McKay loyalist who thought The Big Short was excellent, I decided to overcome my misgivings and watch Don’t Look Up. Alas, while there were some amusing segments — especially involving the Mark Rylance character — the thing was so heavy-handed and such a weak analogy for the political difficulties posed by climate change it was as if David Sirota was involved in the writing. [Taps earpiece] oh. Eric Levitz gets at the problem as well as any review I’ve seen so far:
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.
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.
The biggest problem with the movie is that it’s basically an exemplification of that inane talking point about how 100 companies are the source of 70% of carbon emissions, as if it wouldn’t affect anybody else’s life if fossil fuel production just shut down tomorrow. Stopping a comet, if the technology exists, doesn’t require meaningful sacrifice from anybody. At least given existing technology, climate change isn’t like that:
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.
As Levitz says, when the rubber hits the road even progressives aware of the threat posed by climate change and theoretically in favor of substantial mitigation often prioritize other issues — i.e. environmental groups opposing a hydropower transmission line in Maine, Bernie supporting shutting down Indian Point, rampant left-NIMBYism, etc. (I would also cite the failure of two carbon tax initiatives in Washington state.) It would be nice to think that only a few corrupt politicians and tech moguls stand in the way of easy, popular, win-win solutions to climate change, but the real problems are a lot more difficult. Getting collective action to make immediate substantial sacrifices for long-term benefits was always going to be extremely difficult.