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The climate will continue to change, rapidly or slowly, punctuated by critical tipping points, depending on what we do today, then tomorrow, then the next day. (Photo: Getty/Stock photo/Christoph Burgstedt/Science Photo Library)

Take It From Climate Scientists: "Don't Look Up" Is Damning—But Not Nearly Damning Enough

I come from a team of climate scientists, analysts and advocates. For us, “Don’t Look Up” was both like pulling teeth to watch and air-punchingly validating.

**Spoiler alert.** "Don't Look Up" is a flawed movie about everything my climate colleagues and I hate about the world, and then the world ENDS.

It's great.

On cue, pundits from all corners showed up in near-perfect embodiment of the movie's various villainous stereotypes and began their pecking. It's inaccurate! It's simplistic! It's despairing! All true. (It's also/ˈsaˌtī(ə)r/.)

We have most of what we need to solve the climate crisis— except the political will. So push hard toward a social and political tipping point, toward the politics—and policies, like the critical Build Back Better Act—we need.

I come from a team of climate scientists, analysts and advocates. For us, "Don't Look Up" was both like pulling teeth to watch and air-punchingly validating. We felt desolate and seen. (JLaw, if you're listening, this 90% female team is here for Kate Dibiasky.) We saw the futility of our work reflected, and its necessity. We feel hopeful some people can be moved to action. And more than ever we want to gnaw the bones of the obstructionists. (Legal says to be clear that's humor.) So basically, another day at the office.

Except all of you were holding this with us. Thank you. Don't let go. Here are some reasons why.

It's inaccurate, not wrong

Satire is inaccurate. It can still be spot on. But how do reality and the film actually differ?

Climate change is not like a comet strike. You probably knew that. Sticking with the metaphor, it's more like having smaller meteorites hit your town every day, getting bigger and more frequent all the time. Eventually this place is going to be a total disaster and you really need them to stop.

Unlike the comet's impact, climate change isn't about annihilation in, e.g., 2030. To use another metaphor (courtesy of Adam Levy), it's more like getting punched in the face. You're going to have to live with the bruises of the beating already underway, it would be good to adapt to all the punching and shield your face, but hey guys, enough with all the punching.

So then, are climate solutions like averting a comet strike? No again. Unlike nuking the comet to stop its impact, we don't have any time left to stop climate change. It's here. We've already forfeited the climate we have; we already live in a "new normal." So just as we don't face a choice between stopping the threat or getting annihilated, we also don't have a date beyond which all is lost. The climate will continue to change, rapidly or slowly, punctuated by critical tipping points, depending on what we do today, then tomorrow, then the next day. Every 10th of a degree of warming seen or avoided matters and actions now matter most for avoiding that warming.

I believe we're smarter than this but lack proof

And there—will we act?—is the rub and one of the more difficult but on-the-nose aspects of the film. If we quit fossil fuels quickly, making big, economy-wide shifts as rapidly as possible, we'll avert the more catastrophic climate impacts. If we're unwilling to disentangle society from our fossil-fuel dependence, we'll face those impacts.

But like the public in the film, to date, we can't seem to pay attention close enough or long enough to see what's really at stake and act on it. Polls say we get it. But we're still walking trance-like toward an end to the world as we know it because… what? It looks too hard to change direction? We're distracted? We're comfortable?

To be fair, in 2021, COVID-19. And to be fair, too many people barely have the means to get through the day this or any year; they're not in a trance but a fight for survival. But too many of the rest of us are busy earning our generations a damning epitaph: They could have saved the world but it was inconvenient.

I've read reviews of the movie that complained they didn't like the ending, to which I can only say, no kidding? Well then, pitter patter, let's get at 'er.

It's damning. But not enough.

The comet analogy and the movie don't give the fossil fuel industry, its political lackeys and their decades of obstructing climate action their scathing due. In the movie, the political machinery is so bent on power and the capitalist's appetite is so insatiable, they'll risk all of humanity to get them. It's both mind-boggling and terrifyingly familiar. In reality, fossil fuel interests bent on keeping the coal, oil and gas flowing have, for decades, directed U.S. politicians, distorted science, misled the public and quashed policy action. Those were the decades in which we urgently needed to act and even now, when the risk to all of humanity is clear and acute, they double down.

Look at the Build Back Better Act, the nation's best shot at deep, timely emissions reductions, which has been rejected by every single Republican in Congress and held hostage by coal-baron democrat, Joe Manchin. Right now, they're risking our very future (and theirs) for their continued profit and power.

Why do they still have a social license to operate? Why on Earth do we take it?

It's despairing and infuriating. Be furious.

In panning the movie, Rolling Stone complains that the film "can't crawl out of the tarpits of its own despair."  Again, SO SEEN. On my team, everyone sits in their respective tarpit of despair. We zoom into meetings from our tarpits. They're like our sweatpants; we're like "Astrid, move your camera, your tarpit's showing." What can we say, much is lost and despair is appropriate.

But look, we're also furious. We have despair for what's lost and fury for those standing in the way of saving what's left.

The cheerleaders of the status quo, many of them with histories of denying or downplaying climate change, are, of course, defensive about "Don't Look Up." They claim it insults people's intelligence, as if satire weren't a thing. They urge pragmatism through climate adaptation, as if shielding your face was more pragmatic than stopping the punching. They say stopping a comet is easier (what?) than transitioning off of dirty fossil fuels, as if we shouldn't do something existentially non-negotiable because it's hard. (And let's be clear, a lot of it is easy and well underway.)

But you've seen the movie. Remember the first talk show interview where Kate Dibiasky appropriately loses it? Climate science has had that moment, several of them. Late in 2018, for instance, scientists of the world outlined the unbearable price we would pay by not deeply cutting emissions and keeping global temperature increases below 1.5 or, God help us, 2 degrees Celsius. 2030 emerged as a timeframe in which massive progress must be made for those goals to be in reach.

Since then, we've used up more than 1/4 of those years with little to show and issued a new report with even less bearable findings. Here in 2022, anyone telling you that you don't need to fight hard for climate solutions is essentially telling you "Don't look up."

Yes, we feel seen. It's not about us.

With the superstars playing the ignored scientists, a lot has been said about climate experts feeling "seen." Sure, that's true, but much more important is the massive, still-growing viewership: we feel some relief watching it tick upward and knowing, again, that people are holding this concern in ways they don't every day but, pardon me, should.

Climate scientists aren't heroes. But most of us are trying to save the things we love and the odds are thinning so a rational, bone-deep worry just goes with the work. A Thwaite's-sized glacier of worry. And it feels a little like a hundred million people are holding their chunk of that, at least for a moment, like, hey, we've got this. So, thanks. We're not heroes, we're pretty tired, and I slept like a baby that night.

Now what?

The 2020s are arguably the most consequential decade for humanity yet, we're 2 years in with little to show for it, but we do have a small window of opportunity.  

"Don't Look Up" lands squarely in that window, a popular-culture moment for the climate, however fleeting, and possibly a chance for more people to feel the absurdity of our heads-down march toward climate chaos and just…. Stop…. Look up. Turn it around.

We have most of what we need to solve the climate crisis— except the political will. So push hard toward a social and political tipping point, toward the politics—and policies, like the critical Build Back Better Act—we need.

One of the many frustrating aspects of the movie was the way the female scientist, in speaking the desperate truth with the passion it warrants, was tuned out and ignored. It's terrifying but we can't tune it out. And as activists, we can't let ourselves be tuned out. Innovate, try new messages, be heard, be unstoppable, throw everything at this. Something's going to stick. Something could still tip it all for good.

People made climate change political but the climate doesn't care. It's hurting us and as DiCaprio's character says, "sometimes we need to just be able to say things to one another." Things like, "it's bad," and "we don't have much time." But also, "why are we living like this?" We could have a better world.


© 2022 Union of Concerned Scientists
Erika Spanger-Siegfried

Erika Spanger-Siegfried

Erika Spanger-Siegfried is a senior analyst in the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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