Don’t Look Up is a wonderful talking point, but will it unify people into acting on climate change?
The Netflix blockbuster has been a well-deserving hit, watched by millions. Climate advocates should use its meteoric success to build deeper public engagement.
Say what you like about its artistic merits, Don’t Look Up has got the climate movement talking. The uber-American disaster flick about two scientists discovering an earthwards-hurtling comet that no one will take seriously comes with an outsized dollop of climate parable.
‘But what will the film actually do for climate engagement?’, we at Climate Outreach asked ourselves. Will it get new groups of people interested? Will it reach across the (cinema) aisle of partisan politics? Will it leave anyone feeling empowered to act? So we reviewed the film according to these three criteria which, full disclosure, are lifted from our theory of change. Spoilers to follow.
Kudos to the film-makers, Don’t Look Up has been a box office hit like no other piece of climate communication. And deservingly so. Its blunt satire and dark humour, not to mention its starry cast, have drawn in more people than even the best Climate Outreach webinar could hope to. The fact that one of the most widely-watched climate films to date is not explicitly about climate change is instructive. Using the comet as a stand-in makes it dramatic and easily understood. It creates distance from the climate crisis which allows it to be funny, while not pulling any analytical punches. Of course, the metaphor falls down at some point: climate change isn’t an all-or-nothing event. It is caused by humans. Its violent impacts aren’t immediate, but gradual. And crucially, they are not suffered equally.
The film does a stellar job illuminating the role of media gatekeepers in shaping discourse on climate/comets. Presenters are unable or interested in covering the story properly, scientists are dismissed or misunderstood, and women and people of colour are particularly sidelined. We can hope the film gives the news media pause for thought, as well as offering the film industry the confidence to make stories about climate change.
Don’t Look Up nails its political colours to the mast, at least in the US context. Meryl Streeps’ American president is a thinly-veiled Trump allegory; her supporters’ chants of “don’t look up” are deliberately eerie echoes of “lock her up” and “build the wall”. They are presented to us as brainwashed fanatics, self-destructively averting their eyes from the celestial threat. Will this caricature really help unify societal climate action and allow people across the political spectrum to get on board?
Of course, it would hardly be the first piece of climate communication to alienate more people than it converts – an infamous British advert in which the heads of carbon-lovers are exploded comes to mind – but it would almost certainly be the most widely-watched.
If the film has less to say about political polarisation beyond the US, that is perhaps because it has little to say about anything beyond the US. The rest of the world features largely as a hapless afterthought, reliant on the Americans for salvation. The global south, where the most severe impacts of climate change will be felt, is basically absent.
Translating concern into action
The film perfectly illustrates why we need a massive and state-led response to climate change and cannot rely on incremental lifestyle changes alone. (Sorry, Allegra Stratton, but not rinsing the dishes before you put them in the dishwasher isn’t quite going to cut it.) There is nothing people can really do about the comet, except wait for the US government or a sinister Silicon Valley billionaire amalgam to sort it out. We see the protagonists (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) campaign in the media for action, and towards the end they form an organised movement. But they are functionally powerless. Eventually, they sit back to serenely await incineration.
Is this the message we want to send? After all, people often have a degree of political influence when they act collectively and should be encouraged to use it. Likewise, there is a role for lifestyle change in tackling the climate crisis – particularly for the richest people and the global north – which obviously does not work with the comet metaphor. Will this film make people more likely to act on their climate concern, or less?
Of course, a film can’t do everything and we shouldn’t expect it to. We need more stories about climate change, fictional or otherwise, and it is great to see the subject matter addressed in such a big-name production. It will set alarm bells ringing in the heads of many, even if not all will translate that concern into action.
Concern about climate change is not linear, it rises and falls with current events. Films like this one offer an opportunity to reach out and (re-)engage people with the issue. But it is up to the climate movement to think about how we deepen that engagement across all facets of society when these moments occur.
An important element in this will be to normalise empowering climate conversations, so it’s fantastic that the Don’t Look Up website references our Talking Climate Handbook. We’ll need this kind of integrated approach if such media moments are to become more than shooting stars that pique public interest but then subside.
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The asteroid analogy works very well with regard to the escalating Ecological collapse. In the case of the ecological asteroid this actually hit over 50 years ago when we went into ecological overshoot. Environmental Scientists have been warning about the escalating Sixth Mass Extinction and yet most people are unaware or prefer to see that Climate change is the main threat. In fact Climate change is just a symptom of the ecological overshoot that has been going on for over 50 years. This recent article should help to put priorities into perspective. https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/940509
I would like to see Climate Outreach fill in the gap in our education. We need to be teaching about ecological overshoot in schools, the first rule of survival has to be ‘Don’t exceed the biocapacity of your environment’.