Don’t Look Up Is More Than Your Standard Climate Cautionary Tale

You can follow the climate change conversation in public. Have You’ve probably heard of Don’t Look Up. Netflix’s Disaster Movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Randall Mindy, who play the roles of ignored scientists Randall Mindy, and Kate Dibiasky. It uses an impending Comet Strike as a warning for climate change. Leaders in business, government and media fail to respond when scientists announce the potential civilization-ending comet.
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Anyone who is following climate change action will recognize that it sounds familiar. However, I did find something that was interesting. Don’t Look Up was less the big picture allegory—using a comet as a metaphor for climate isn’t exactly subtle—but the myriad ways the film highlighted the frustrations, debates and controversies that have defined very real discussions around climate change in recent years. The film leaves you feeling dreadful and has some very pointed observations. Warning: Spoilers are ahead

One of dynamics the movie hits hardest is in its absolute skewering of the mainstream media’s approach to covering climate change, which for years has been a frustration of climate activists and scientists. It is the film’s second act that highlights the importance of the New York Herald—A stand-in to the New York Times down to the font in its logo—is well intentioned and set on breaking the news of the impending disaster. But, when the story turns out to be a web traffic snooze and the White House denies some of the story’s particulars, the HeraldYou must stop using it.

Even worse is the way they portray them. The Daily RipA morning program that seems to be on channel Morning JoeAgain, you can rely on the similar logo. Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry and Tyler Perry are boring and indifferent hosts. After the scientists are advised to keep it light during their appearance on the show, Lawrence declares on camera that “no one said the end of the world is supposed to be fun.” It’s a frustration shared by climate scientists—and journalists—who have been told at various points to make the grim facts of climate change light and accessible.

Don’t Look UpThe private sector’s efforts to combat climate change is also portrayed harshly in this article. The U.S. federal government has struggled to put in big climate programs. These same officials turned to the private sector to find success and praised climate-programs promoted by businesses as proof of their ability to do so. As the Biden White House battles to pass ambitious climate legislation, this was also the case during the Obama Administration.

The film contains the following: President Janie Orlean, played by Meryl Streep, abandons plans for the government to address the fast-approaching comet to instead work in partnership with a political donor’s company. Averting catastrophe is the goal, which is a strategy that makes money while also addressing climate change. This approach has been embraced by Washingtonians and Wall Street alike.

I could go on and on with these examples—the portrayal of space travel as a potential savior for humanity and the depiction of science deniers, to name a few—But I wanted to share the moment that I thought about the most for the next few days. At a quiet dinner with the scientists’ family and friends, moments before the planet faces certain destruction, DiCaprio’s character offers a simple yet cutting statement: “We really did have everything didn’t we, when you think about it.”

It is not likely that climate change will end all human civilization as quickly as it did for the comet. the line—and the movie more broadly—nonetheless offers a critical reminder that our civilization cannot be taken for granted. Right now, we may “have everything” but there are no guarantees about the future, and we may look back one day and say the same.

Scientists, academics and journalists make this point over and over: to inspire action on climate change people need to understand that a different world—for better or worse—is both possible and possibly imminent. It’s an ideaThis has been until recent times largely missing from popular culture. That is why it’s important to remember that Don’t Look UpThe corrective is valuable: it shows how climate change can be integrated into cultural stories in entertaining ways while still saying something.


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