January 28, 2022

What ‘Don’t Look Up’ Got Right And Wrong On Climate Change

By: Kelvey Vander Hart

Since being released, the Netflix hit, Don’t Look Up, has everyone taking a stab at environmental commentary. From Twitter to The New York Times, people around the globe are discussing the film’s not-so-subtle climate change message. Is the message accurate? Let’s break down what the film got right and what it got wrong. Warning: Spoilers ahead!

A Summary For Those Who Have Not Watched The Film 

Awkward astronomers (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a planet-destroying comet that is on collision course with Earth and set out to raise the alarm. Dismissed by the White House and the media, their concern and the data backing it is ignored. But when President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) needs a boost in the polls before midterms, the threats are taken seriously and a plan is put into action to keep the comet from striking the planet.  

However, the plan is halted by a high-level presidential campaign donor who believes that the comet has trillions of dollars worth of minerals that can be mined. The administration pivots and partners with the donor’s company to launch questionable technology that would theoretically break the comet into safe, smaller pieces, allowing it to land on the planet without much fuss—allowing mining afterward. To the horror of the scientific community, the nation quickly splits into those who are for the comet and the “jobs it will create,” and those who still demand that action be taken to stop it from hitting earth altogether. 

This is not a feel-good film ending. Even after the comet is close enough to earth to be seen (initiating a divide between the ‘look up’ and ‘don’t look up’ communities), it is not stopped. The donor technology fails to do what it set out to do, and the film ends with the destruction of the planet. 

What Went Right

I believe that the film’s strongest point was illustrating the very real divide when it comes to climate change. While there is certainly a spectrum, there are two climate change camps that take attention away from everyone in the middle: climate alarmists and climate deniers. In other words, the ‘look up’ and ‘don’t look up’ camps. 

Another problem illustrated by the film is the difficulty of getting the public to care about the nitty gritty of climate change. Anyone working in science or policy can attest to this fact. Detailed research and data are very important, but unless you can tell a convincing story that the public wants to hear, it can be extremely difficult to gain traction or move toward a solution to the problem you have identified. 

Finally, “Don’t Look Up” did a good job illustrating (albeit in an extremely dramatized fashion) our tendency to drag our feet on issues until they become huge, insurmountable problems. Look at essentially any policy area (criminal justice being a great non-environmental example) and you will see the compounded result from decades of indifference and inaction. Kicking the can down the road serves no one in the end. 

What Went Wrong

While the film certainly drove a couple good points home, it made huge problematic assertions that outweighed the good. The greatest problem of the film was in comparing climate change to a planet-killer via a comet. Climate change is certainly a problem, one that requires significant solutions and deserves our attention right now. But if we want to solve climate change, we need to beat climate anxiety. Quill Robinson with the American Conservation Coalition said it well:

“Rather than educating and empowering the first generation confronting the effects of climate change, some climate activists have crippled them with fear and anxiety. By sowing unscientific fear mongering that reaps apathy, climate alarmism hastens the arrival of that which it claims to oppose most: a climate catastrophe. So how do we educate young people about the threat of climate change without robbing them of hope? The answer starts with common sense. Teaching young children that our evil society is killing the planet is as inappropriate as showing them violent or sexual content. When they are of an age that they can grasp climate science and policy, teenagers should be provided with nuanced, fact-based information. Crucially, this information should not come with a political agenda or partisan messaging. Above all, young people should be taught that, as the science tells us, climate change is a serious but surmountable challenge.” 

Another key issue with the film was its implied assertion that we must depend on the government for solutions. In reality, it will be market-based innovation, not government action, that solves our greatest climate challenges. The free market will always move faster than sleepy officials and bureaucrats, and has the capability of bringing solutions without increasing the size of government or demonizing humankind. Government action may certainly be needed to address specific climate challenges, but it should be a last resort, not our entire plan. 

Would I recommend this film? In short, maybe. While I found it to be grossly exaggerated, hopeless, and promoting the demonization of large swaths of the population, it did cause me to spend time thinking about the impact of climate change. It will certainly vary from person to person whether the pro of having some food for thought outweighs all the cons this film presents.