‘Don’t Look Up’ Peddles Climate Catastrophism as a Morality Tale

Adam McKay’s allegory of climate change revels in a misguided understanding of science.

By , the deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in “Don't Look Up”
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in “Don't Look Up”
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence star in “Don't Look Up.” Netflix

Don’t Look Up is the latest film from polemicist Adam McKay, director of Vice and, most famously, The Big Short, an Oscar-winning dramatization of the 2008 financial crisis. It’s McKay’s attempt to tell, as he describes it, “the biggest story in 66 million years”—the story of climate change, science denial, and the dynamics that prevent societies from confronting existential challenges. If McKay and co-scriptwriter David Sirota intended to flatter the sensibilities of their fellow green progressives, it appears they hit their mark. The film has received glowing reviews from the climate commentariat.

Unfortunately, for a film that highlights the issue of science denial around climate change, the movie so radically warps the basic science of climate risk that it ceases to make any credible commentary on climate change at all. It offers catharsis for its mainly Western, privileged audience by letting its heroes scream their frustrations into the camera and doling out brutal punishment to science-denying villains. But the film makes no attempt to interrogate why the challenge of climate change is so befuddling to human societies—or why people who aren’t like McKay or Sirota might legitimately think differently about the very real but complex risks of climate change and the contested technological, economic, and social solutions.

The film takes its title from the political slogan of its fictional U.S. president, Janie Orlean. Portrayed by Meryl Streep, the character is clearly meant to caricature Donald Trump. Orlean personifies the denialist, bidding her supporters not to look up at the comet hurtling toward Earth and threatening to extinguish all life on the planet. By this point, she has sidelined scientists Kate Dibiasky and Randall Mindy (played by Jennifer Lawrence and real-life climate advocate Leonardo DiCaprio), who discovered the comet and spend the film desperately trying to get people to take the danger seriously. Orlean has chosen a strategy of “comet denial” at the prodding of Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), a tech industry plutocrat who hopes to mine the comet’s precious minerals for his company’s mobile phone production.

Don’t Look Up is the latest film from polemicist Adam McKay, director of Vice and, most famously, The Big Short, an Oscar-winning dramatization of the 2008 financial crisis. It’s McKay’s attempt to tell, as he describes it, “the biggest story in 66 million years”—the story of climate change, science denial, and the dynamics that prevent societies from confronting existential challenges. If McKay and co-scriptwriter David Sirota intended to flatter the sensibilities of their fellow green progressives, it appears they hit their mark. The film has received glowing reviews from the climate commentariat.

Unfortunately, for a film that highlights the issue of science denial around climate change, the movie so radically warps the basic science of climate risk that it ceases to make any credible commentary on climate change at all. It offers catharsis for its mainly Western, privileged audience by letting its heroes scream their frustrations into the camera and doling out brutal punishment to science-denying villains. But the film makes no attempt to interrogate why the challenge of climate change is so befuddling to human societies—or why people who aren’t like McKay or Sirota might legitimately think differently about the very real but complex risks of climate change and the contested technological, economic, and social solutions.

The film takes its title from the political slogan of its fictional U.S. president, Janie Orlean. Portrayed by Meryl Streep, the character is clearly meant to caricature Donald Trump. Orlean personifies the denialist, bidding her supporters not to look up at the comet hurtling toward Earth and threatening to extinguish all life on the planet. By this point, she has sidelined scientists Kate Dibiasky and Randall Mindy (played by Jennifer Lawrence and real-life climate advocate Leonardo DiCaprio), who discovered the comet and spend the film desperately trying to get people to take the danger seriously. Orlean has chosen a strategy of “comet denial” at the prodding of Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), a tech industry plutocrat who hopes to mine the comet’s precious minerals for his company’s mobile phone production.

McKay’s message is unmistakable: The comet is climate change. Mindy and Dibiasky are the credentialed, heroic scientists warning society of impending catastrophe. Orlean and Isherwell are the dastardly forces of denial.

The film makes no attempt to interrogate why the challenge of climate change is so befuddling to human societies.

One can understand why McKay was drawn to the comet allegory. Sirota recently told Vanity Fair the pair were trying to tell a story about “the rejection of science and facts embedded in the climate discourse.” The comparison is sure to ring true for every liberal and climate hawk who believes in a simple narrative of climate change: Scientists have been warning us for a generation; their caution has been thwarted by oil-industry-funded climate-change denialists in government and business; were it not for these villains, we could have solved climate change by now. Instead, the world is headed toward certain catastrophe.

But there’s a reason McKay and Sirota chose to tell the story of a comet, not the gradual accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere: An approaching comet offers the script-worthy certainties that climate change lacks. Climate risks are real and costly—and becoming more so every decade. But there is no hard deadline, no precise moment it will strike, beyond which human society and other life on Earth becomes impossible. No matter what activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion try to tell us, climate risk is a matter of degrees and prolonged shifts, not thresholds and sudden death.

Many people would contend McKay has a good excuse to take liberties: Artists exaggerate all the time to make a point, and they should be forgiven a little hyperbole—especially if the purpose is to rattle people awake in the face of a dangerous threat. Unfortunately, McKay’s asteroid metaphor reveals just how misguided his understanding of the science and politics of climate change really is.

Consider the many, many differences between McKay’s fictional world and our own.

In the film, “comet denial” is rampant and effective. In real life, climate change denial on public platforms such as the news media is rare and getting rarer, while a majority of the U.S. public has been worried about climate change for several decades. McKay is whipping a dead horse.

In the film, there is a clear and simple technological solution to the comet threat: Deflect it with nuclear weapons before it collides with Earth. In real life, there is no clear, easily implementable answer to climate change. Technological alternatives to fossil fuels are partial and immature at best.

In the film, the scientists are fully behind the technological alternative. In real life, many climate advocates and experts reject obvious technological solutions like zero-carbon nuclear power, not to mention technologies that would allow humanity to modify or adapt to a warmer climate. Instead, they have overwhelmingly urged bureaucratic solutions with limited effectiveness: government pledges and international treaties setting unenforceable targets for faraway decades.

In the film, the government and other institutions do almost nothing to deal with the comet. In real life, both public agencies and private entities have greatly increased their investments in low-carbon energy sources, especially solar panels and wind turbines. It is largely thanks to the spread of new energy technologies that carbon emissions, instead of racing ahead like an asteroid, appear at or near a historic peak.

McKay clearly wants to tell a morality tale about a simple problem with an obvious solution, where good people are stymied by corrupt villains. It’s a tale that flatters green progressives while lambasting denialist politicians and their corporate overlords. And as long as there is genuine rejection of climate science by powerful and dangerous figures like Trump, it is easy to see why viewers might gravitate toward McKay’s diagnosis of the problem.

McKay’s film is an excellent distillation of how many in his social and political circles approach the issue of climate change.

But climate change is not a simple scientific problem. It is the textbook example of a wicked problem. It is not a rock zooming toward Earth, but the complex interplay of human well-being and prosperity still largely provided by an energy infrastructure based on fossil fuels, the dire risks emergent from decades of accumulating greenhouse gases, and the highly unequal distribution of energy access and climate resilience on a planet still marred by significant poverty.

Against this complex background, the preferred responses to climate change among activists and climate policy advocates have been far from unimpeachable. For decades, they have treated carbon emissions like conventional pollutants: problems that could be regulated away. But carbon is a lot more fundamental to human existence than lead in the water or sulfur dioxide in the air. Transitioning away from fossil fuels requires nothing less than the wholesale reinvention and reconstruction of the planet’s entire infrastructure—while still managing to lift the living standards (and hence, energy use) of the large majority of the world’s people still living in poverty. Easy, black-and-white narratives about how to solve this messy problem are as false in real life as they are in a movie. The risks of climate change can’t just be wished away—and neither can the carbon economy.

McKay’s film contains no reflection on any of these complexities, contradictions, and hypocrisies. In that sense, his work is an excellent distillation of how many in his social and political circles approach the issue. But that’s what make the movie troubling: By indulging the fantasy that a few corrupt politicians and plutocrats are the principal forces blocking action on climate change, these stories—whether on or off the screen—distort the way the public thinks about the problem. It ignores the gaps in our technological capability to decarbonize the global economy, pretending that the prosperity and comfort enabled by fossil fuels could easily and quickly be provided by low-carbon technologies. As usual, the world’s poor, who are vulnerably dependent on cheap energy (and desperately need more of it), will bear the brunt of these fictions. Already, the climate catastrophism of McKay and his kind—who see warming as a hurtling comet—has given Western politicians an excuse to cut off critical development aid for the world’s poorest countries.

McKay scolds his comet-denying characters for refusing to listen to the heroic scientists and heed their warning. But if he—or those whose views the film channels—bothered to look around, they’d see that climate change is a much more complex and wicked problem than they’d like to admit.

Alex Trembath is the deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute. Twitter: @atrembath

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