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The Netflix satire Don’t Look Up has a lot going for it: An all-star cast — including Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio — and celebrated director Adam McKay deliver a razor sharp critique of America’s empty-headed political and media culture, while also deriding the dangerous, delusional prescriptions of a Big Tech billionaire. (Former In These Times senior editor David Sirota is a co-creator of the film.) The film’s animating crisis — a massive comet headed for Earth — aptly stands in for our own climate emergency. And the failure to confront a mass extinction event by wishing it away (with a Don’t Look Up movement akin to our own climate denial disinformation machine) hits close to home.
So what’s to be done about creating a more hopeful ending here in the real world? The filmmakers understand that viewers will be moved to act, so it’s worth considering their prescriptions.
For many of us sounding the climate alarm, the parallels between the film and reality are too real. Climate scientist Peter Kalmus calls it “the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen.” And he makes an even more important point: The issue is not how we might fail to respond to this crisis in the future, it’s that we’re in the midst of the crisis already, and we are failing. The comet is already here.
Of course, it would be dangerous to expect a film — even one that is, by any standards, a huge hit — to turn the course of international climate policy. But Don’t Look Up can offer a moment of opportunity for action, just as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth did 16 years ago.
And that comparison invites serious concern. One of the main critiques of Gore’s film was that, while it aptly documented the seriousness of the climate crisis, it failed to provide motivated viewers a path to taking the political action to match. The upshot was that change could come by viewers buying more efficient light bulbs and hybrid cars or supporting carbon pricing and meager cap-and-trade legislation. The overarching message was that properly unleashing the power of personal behavior via consumer choices could deliver real results.
Gore has since changed his prescriptions significantly, and Don’t Look Up lands in a very different moment than An Inconvenient Truth. The magnitude of the climate crisis is all around us, as are the global grassroots movements pushing for substantive action to dismantle the fossil fuel industry. To their credit, the Don’t Look Up filmmakers encourage viewers to join the fight. “So there’s no comet. But the climate crisis is hurtling towards us,” says the Count Us In site, which advises that “you can have a hand in solving it with simple steps.”
Unfortunately, the “simple steps” are similarly hollow to Al Gore’s advice 15 years ago. The film’s website suggests things like: Talk to Friends and Eat More Veggies. (An early version included tips like Insulate Your Home; Save With LED Lights; and Reduce and Recycle.) And almost comically, the Get Around Greener section advises that “All you need to start walking is a pair of comfortable shoes.” That’s all well and good, but it will take an incredible amount more to avert a future of inconceivable climate catastrophe. The message should not be that we are, as individuals, failing to make the right choices. As the film itself argues, we are being failed by a political system.
The site does give viewers an opportunity to engage in political action under the heading ‘Keep Politicians Accountable,” which stresses the need to urge leaders to “do more to speed up global change.” As with the other issue areas, the site advises readers: “Try it for a month to see how you do.” But this fails to match a reality dominated by out-of-season Colorado wildfires, the December tornados that ripped through the Midwest, or a terrifying new assessment of the “doomsday glacier” in Antarctica. And it goes without saying that giving climate activism a 30-day free trial period is unlikely to create political change, or a long-term commitment to fighting for what is necessary.
Climate movements around the world are confronting polluters and their political enablers by stressing, above all else, the need to shut down new sources of planet-destroying emissions. We have rallied by the thousands to stop pipelines and power plants and fight for the big picture agenda that prioritizes environmental justice and rejects industry-friendly gimmicks like carbon capture, which is a heavily hyped and totally failed technology that aims to catch emissions before they enter the atmosphere. This is the fossil fuel industry’s favorite “solution” — a version of it was once known as “clean coal” — and one that director Adam McKay endorses.
In contrast to the hollow action steps recommended by the Count Us In site, climate campaigners should put their energies into effective grassroots campaigns that are forcing the shift away from fossil fuels. In New York City, environmental justice activists have effectively shut down dirty “peaker” power plants, and passed a strong ban on gas hookups in new construction. And more broadly, hundreds of groups formed the Build Back Fossil Free coalition to prioritize the kind of climate agenda that the Biden White House must pursue.
The climate movement needs to grow, and Don’t Look Up can certainly help motivate people to join the campaign for climate justice. Let’s hope it can also inspire viewers to take meaningful action, not just replace their old lightbulbs.
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Mitch Jones is the Managing Director of Policy at Food & Water Watch.