Towards the end of 2018, movie director Adam McKay was talking to journalist David Sirota about the relative lack of media coverage for what they saw as the biggest issue of the time: climate change. An IPCC report had just come out, predicting widespread upheaval even at 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming—global food shortages, ecosystems ravaged by rising temperatures—and McKay was “absolutely freaking out.”
“It’s like an asteroid is going to devastate the planet and no one cares,” Sirota told him. That spark became the idea for a movie, Don’t Look Up, which arrives on Netflix this week following a short theatrical run. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play astronomers Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiasky, who stumble upon a comet that’s on a collision course with Earth, but then have trouble getting anyone to take the threat seriously. Instead, the public, politicians, and press in his movie are just like us—like a guy in a burning restaurant who wants to finish his steak.
For scientists working in the field, Don’t Look Up’s thinly veiled allegory for the climate crisis strikes painfully close to home. For decades, they have been sounding alarms about global warming, and it’s only in the last few years that governments have really started to listen. “I certainly identified with Leonardo DiCaprio’s tweed-wearing academic character as being often confused why people don’t get the scientific evidence staring them in the face,” says Piers Forster, a professor of climate physics at the University of Leeds. “And especially baffled by where people are coming from and all their different agendas.”
Although the film aims most of its barbs at the government and the media, the scientists don’t come across particularly well either—when DiCaprio’s character is in the Oval Office explaining the situation to the president (played by Meryl Streep), he starts off by talking about orbital dynamics and the Oort cloud, and ends up obfuscating the headline news: that a giant comet is going to destroy Earth. Journalists call this burying the lede.
“It’s quite frustrating,” says Joanna Haigh, who was a professor of atmospheric physics at Imperial College London until she retired in 2019. Haigh saw attitudes toward climate change go from skepticism to acceptance during her career—but it took much longer than it should have. “I think part of the problem is the scientists themselves write these huge great reports which are hundreds of pages long,” she says. “You can’t expect the ordinary person to have the time or the energy to read that sort of thing.”
There are echoes in the movie of how serious messages get diluted due to the uncertainty inherent in the scientific process—experts are never 100 percent sure, they speak in confidence intervals and p-values. “We are particularly bad with uncertainty and love to jump straight in with what we don’t know,” says Forster. “We are also bad at not telling people what they should do about it. We should start by saying what we know and give solution options.”
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Climate scientists are slowly getting better at communicating their message, though—helped by the fact that climate change is no longer some abstract problem happening miles above the Earth; it’s floods in Northern England, wildfires raging in California, the slow creep of the Sahara.
Over the past few decades, the language we use to discuss this problem has changed from the fairly sedate (global warming) to the maddeningly vague (climate change) to the suitably alarming (climate crisis)—but tangible action still lags behind. “It is probably the fault of the scientists, really,” Haigh says. “They could have made it much clearer, but then of course you don’t want to be crying wolf. You have to be careful in what you say.”
But that prevarication becomes a chink in the armor for motivated skeptics to jam their crowbars into. It happened with the climate crisis, and it’s happening now during the Covid-19 pandemic. “You do err on the side of caution,” Haigh says. “That may have been a mistake.”
But McKay—whose previous directorial work includes The Big Short and Vice, as well as Anchorman and Talladega Nights—is reluctant to blame the scientists for the state we’re in. “I don’t think that’s their job,” he says. “I think the deal has always been that scientists go and observe and experiment. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, and they’re supposed to go to leaders who care about the collective good.”
Instead, he points the finger elsewhere. “There’s a system that’s supposed to communicate these findings, but a lot of our system and our media has been so ‘profitized’ and twisted, bent and geared towards engagement.”
The question—and really it’s the question for any number of issues—is how we fix the flow of information; how we untangle the connection between science and pop culture so that the facts can stand on their own. If there’s a theme linking McKay’s recent work, it’s “information warfare,” he says, ”the science of persuasion, marketing, the manipulation of behavior for profit,” or, “I think the common thread is, ‘What the fuck is going on?’”
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The latest advice to scientists is to stop talking in such abstract terms. Forget numbers and far-off dates, 2050 targets, and parts per million. For some people, talk of a green “revolution” might be scary, says Katrine Petersen, campaign manager for climate change narratives at the Grantham Institute. So, she says, scientists need to target those groups with messaging about preserving the natural world. “We should be connecting issues to people’s everyday lives, and creating an emotional connection,” she says. The problem with that approach is that it’s a game that both sides can play. There’s a great mock political commercial in Don’t Look Up where a woman (soft focus, cradling a hot drink in her kitchen) looks at the camera and says she’s in favor of the “jobs the comet will bring.” We’ve become so polarized that basic facts—like whether there is a giant comet in the sky headed toward Earth—have morphed into pillars of identity, articles of faith. People wear them like clothing.
Without giving too much of the plot away, humanity deals with the apocalyptic crisis of Don’t Look Up in exactly the way you’d expect—with apathy, inaction, organized disbelief, and attempts to profit from the catastrophe while billions face death. Amazingly, McKay wrote the script—which predicts everything from the rise of the antivax movement to the weird fetishization of Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US and a 2020 nominee for People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive—before the coronavirus pandemic. When Covid-19 hit, he had reservations about moving forward. “I wasn’t sure if we should still make the movie,” McKay says. “The movie had just happened.”
Yet Covid has also shown that the kind of concerted, international action needed to fight climate change is possible in the face of a serious threat, argues Petersen. Maybe if the danger is big enough and visible enough, a catastrophe of the type that plays out in Don’t Look Up could be averted.
But the issue with climate change is that it is, and always has been, a trickier thing to pin down. Don’t Look Up is the first feature film from McKay’s production company, which he named Hyperobject Industries, after a term coined by the philosopher Timothy Morton to describe something too big for people to comprehend. That’s what climate scientists have been grappling with all these years—and their enduring sense of frustration is what Don’t Look Up captures so well.
“It’s very easy to picture a comet. The larger it is the more it’s going to hurt,” says Haigh. “It’s much more difficult to envisage how a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas is going to affect your life.”
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