Don’t Look Up, Netflix’s new climate change satire, received mixed reviews from critics but it is well on its way to becoming a cultural phenomenon. The film recorded the biggest week of views in Netflix history with more than 152 million hours streamed.
The story features Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio as astronomers who embark on a media tour to convince an indifferent culture, and a craven president played by Meryl Streep and her son and Chief of Staff played by Jonah Hill, about the threat of an incoming planet-killer comet. It’s full of ambitious and sometimes profound social commentary on science, politics, unserious media and even faith, courtesy of an endearing character played by Timothée Chalamet.
The film is better than its average critical score suggests but it would have been stronger if director Adam McKay had done more to spread the mockery to both sides. McKay takes a fair shot at intellectual dishonesty in government in a key – and hilarious – scene when Streep and Hill seize on DiCaprio’s 99.78 percent prediction of impact as evidence for uncertainty which is quickly and arbitrarily downgraded to 70 percent and something merely “potentially significant.”
While McKay skewers “climate deniers” he spares climate hypocrites and opportunists – politicians who express alarm and flail their arms but oppose obvious and existing solutions like nuclear energy and make meaningful action contingent upon unrelated goals like enacting government-run health care, free college and universal pre-school. Politicians who want to take a detour from the comet diverting mission to create an ideological utopia are fertile ground for satire and a Team America-style send up.
Hollywood – and congressional – progressives tend to be pyromaniacs in a field of “climate denier” strawmen but they should be happy about how the debate is trending. Republicans by and large are not in the denial camp. Two thirds of Republicans believe that human activity is changing the climate, according to Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions. And back in 2019, Pew found that 53 percent of conservatives believe the same. Instead of merely ridiculing Republicans, Hollywood satirists should realize they have potential allies on the right and be honest about the unseriousness of some of their friends on the left.
Don’t listen to me on that point. Listen to the climate scientists. In a recent interview, I conducted with MIT’s Kerry Emanuel he offered these insights:
“This is what frustrates people like me. There’s a whole set of people who don’t think it’s a problem, there’s another set of people who see it as a valuable tool to advance agendas that may have nothing to do with climate. So, neither side, in some sense, is serious about it and that’s why nothing really has happened. There’s a lack of seriousness.”
“On the Left, I’m frustrated because they’ve taken off the table the most promising tool to address [climate change], which is nuclear power.”
In a terrific essay, Nuclear Salvation, Emanuel describes how countries could significantly reduce the risks of climate change by transitioning to nuclear power at a net cost of about $100 billion annually through 2040. Incidentally, the Biden Administration’s budget request for the Department of Education is $100 billion. Sacrificing the federal Department of Education to save the planet is one way for progressives to gain credibility.
To be clear, scientists aren’t describing the threat of climate change as an imminent extinction-level event, but artists have broad license to engage in exaggeration and satire to make a point. Still, in interviews they need to be responsible and more precise with their language and, if they are serious about the issue, be part of the solution rather than the problem. In numerous interviews about the film, DiCaprio repeats the claim that we have “nine years” to act, which is a misrepresentation of the IPCC report. Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler gave John Kerry Two Pinocchios when he made the same claim.
Kessler quotes one of the report’s lead authors, Myles Allen of the University of Oxford:
“Please stop saying something globally bad is going to happen in 2030,” Allen said. “Bad stuff is already happening and every half a degree of warming matters, but the IPCC does not draw a ‘planetary boundary’ at 1.5°C beyond which lie climate dragons.”
Climate scientists instead use the language of risk assessment and use risk distribution tables to suggest possible risk scenarios. The scary scenario – the low probability but highly adverse outcome – is in what is called tail risk. No one is going to make a film called “Actuarial Analysis” about the not-so-riveting drama of risk assessment but that is precisely the conversation the film should provoke. Just as people buy fire insurance to guard against the 1 in 3,000 chance of their house burning down, it’s prudent to take action now to minimize the odds of a catastrophic tail risk scenario as well as more likely but less severe outcomes.
In a debate about solutions and what to do about this risk it’s important to think not just in terms of “the science” but all the sciences – plural – especially economics and math (free economies are clean economies). And in the spirit of the film’s wonderful “Last Supper” scene, that’s a conversation that all sides should approach with honesty and grace.