If Dr. Randall Mindy, the astrophysicist played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the new Netflix movie Don’t Look Up, sounds a bit like Sen. Bernie Sanders when he makes a fed-up speech during an on-air interview, there’s a good reason why.
David Sirota, Sanders’ former speechwriter, co-wrote the movie with director Adam McKay. That’s not the only instance of the film relying on the expertise of others. The science relating to the comet at the heart of the movie was informed by the astronomer Dr. Amy Mainzer, a leading scientist working in comet and asteroid detection and planetary defense. Among other things, she advised them on a believable size for the comet.
It’s no secret that Don’t Look Up is an allegory for the climate crisis. A huge comet (climate change) is barreling toward Earth and nobody except the scientists seems to care.
But just how good of an extended metaphor is the movie? What does it get right and what does it get wrong about the climate crisis? (Warning: There are some general spoilers in here.)
What Don’t Look Up Gets Right About the Climate Crisis
1. The science is clear about both the comet and climate change.
Over and over in the movie, scientists run the numbers of the comet — its size, its trajectory, its speed — and come up with the grim conclusion that it’s going to slam directly into Earth.
Scientists have been doing the same thing with climate change — regarding greenhouse gas emissions, ocean acidity, ice melt — for decades now, and each year the consensus remains the same: The crisis is getting worse at an exponential rate.
2. Politicians have failed to act.
Even though the threat of the comet is clear, the movie’s US President Janie Orlean (played by Meryl Streep) elects to downplay its severity and argue that action can be taken in the future. What’s the rush? She then runs headlong into comet denialism and coins the phrase “Don’t Look Up” during a political rally.
In reality, politicians have failed to take the threat of climate change seriously by indefinitely delaying climate action. They’ve also obstructed tangible efforts to mitigate the crisis, and have actively denied its existence.
3. The media has failed to meaningfully inform the public.
The news anchors in Don’t Look Up are more interested in Riley Bina’s (Ariana Grande’s) relationship than the comet that’s hurtling toward Earth. Whenever Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) or Dr. Mindy attempt to explain the science of the comet and the urgent need for action, they’re turned into memes and laughed away. The major newspapers, meanwhile, seem more interested in maintaining ties with people in power than discussing the comet at length. In the end, social media becomes the primary mode of information or (more often) misinformation about the comet.
Media coverage of the climate crisis has been notoriously minimal and incomplete. Even as wildfires worsen, droughts intensify, storms become more extreme, and temperatures rise, the media as a whole has largely failed to inform and engage the public on the subject. As a result, many people get their information and misinformation about climate change through social media, whether it's infographics or punchy videos.
4. Sensible solutions have given way to unproven technologies.
At one point, it seems like the threat of the comet will be neutralized by a missile. But then the operation is called off because the tech billionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) sees an opportunity to make money by mining the space rock for resources.
That’s a lot like the current situation we’re in, where the most sensible solutions (phasing out fossil fuels and harmful industries, investing in a just transition) have been sidelined in policy discussions by unproven technologies (in particular, carbon dioxide removal technologies) that largely allow the status quo to remain intact.
What Don’t Look Up Gets Wrong About the Climate Crisis
1. That the climate crisis is just one thing.
You can’t really knock the filmmakers for this one, but it’s important to point out that the climate and biodiversity crisis is being caused by many things that need to be addressed simultaneously. The reliance on fossil fuels, deforestation, industries that overexploit the natural world, pollution of ecosystems, and much more all need to be addressed together. Similarly, the climate crisis is due in part to extreme power imbalances around the world. Any meaningful climate action must also address poverty, racism, and misogyny.
2. That only the scientists care.
Granted, the movie’s premise takes place over six months, unlike the many decades that we’ve been able to understand the climate crisis. Even still, the movie seems to suggest that only scientists are demanding climate action. In reality, huge, youth-led movements have emerged around the world calling for an entirely new status quo that centers the health of the natural world.
If you’re one of the millions of people who care about climate change and want to do something about it, there’s countless ways to get involved — and 2022 is a critical year to do it. The community-focused climate action coalition Count Us In, in partnership with Netflix and the makers of Don’t Look Up, launched a new platform and campaign that helps viewers take practical steps to address the crisis.
You can also make changes in your personal life, urge your friends and family to get involved, join community organizations and enact change in your workplace, and take action on platforms like Global Citizen to defend the planet and call on leaders to invest in a just transition.