It is not too late to look up

The world can, and should, learn lessons from Adam McKay’s popular doomsday flick.

The cast of Netflix movie Don't Look Up is seen together in a promotional image.
Director Adam McKay has said that his movie, Don't Look Up, is really about climate change, and the lack of political will to address it. [Netflix]

In just three weeks, Adam McKay’s new film, Don’t Look Up, became Netflix’s second most popular movie of all time. The story is simple. Astronomy PhD student Kate Dibiasky, played by Jennifer Lawrence, and her adviser Dr Randall Mindy, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, discover a comet that will hit Earth, and wipe out most life on it, in 6 months and 14 days. So they try to warn the world. At every step, however, they face hurdles from the political, media, and tech establishments. Those in positions of power repeatedly fail to take effective action to deflect the comet and save the planet.

Don’t Look Up is a hilarious satire, but it is also a serious indictment of the failure of the Western world’s political and media classes to use their positions to try and solve global problems.

McKay has said that the movie is really about climate change, and the lack of political will to address it. And the doomsday flick has been quite popular with climate scientists and activists.

For example, Penn State University Atmospheric Science Professor Michael Mann applauded the film for its use of humour to convey information and encourage climate action in the age of disinformation and science denial, while NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus and environmental activist George Monbiot said the film reminded them of their own frustrating experiences of “trying to explain the horror of the climate crisis to those who wield power and do nothing”.

The film, however, is not a perfect analogy for the climate emergency and humanity’s response to it, for several reasons.

First, the film does not reflect a global experience. It is focused mostly on the US and how the extreme political polarisation in that country hinders efforts to save the world from a catastrophe. In the film, Dibiasky and Mindy quickly find out that the facts and scientific explanations they present about the immediate threat to the planet fail to transcend the American ideological divide and that in the US, the news of a deadly comet heading towards Earth – just like the climate emergency – can be swiftly politicised.

This, for example, does not reflect our experiences as climate scientists in France. Because in France, climate change is not as divisive and politicised a subject as it is in the US. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, there is a 59 point difference between the ideological left and right in the United States in their concern about personal harm from climate change. In France, that difference is only 12 points.

Furthermore, in the film, it is implied that, if it acts in time, the US on its own can save the world. Indeed, in Don’t Look Up, the world’s other major powers like China, India, and Russia are only seen as side players, and the European Union is barely mentioned. While it somehow works in this movie, such a US-centric view does not make much sense when it comes to the fight against climate change. Indeed, the CO2 released by humans into the atmosphere stays there for a long time, leading to an increased number of droughts and wildfires, sea level rise, and the intensification of certain extreme weather events. Whether a molecule of CO2 is emitted in Washington, DC, Paris, or the middle of the Pacific is inconsequential to its effect on our planet’s climate. A single country with a strong space programme – perhaps even a single corporation – may save the world from a comet on its own. But climate change cannot be solved by any single action or actor; there is a need for a truly global effort to address it.

Second, as pointed out by other scientists, like American Museum of Natural History astrophysicist Rebecca Oppenheimer, the effects of climate change are not instantaneous like those of comets, but manifest over a long timescale.

Also, any effort to lessen the effects will not be felt immediately. In the movie, if the US president had successfully deflected the comet, she would have been declared a global hero almost overnight. Climate action has no such immediate reward for politicians focused on the next election cycle, or for corporations focused on short-term shareholder value. Even if we manage to reduce CO2 emissions quickly, we will only see the benefits 20 to 30 years later.

This is due to the natural variability of the climate system. The greenhouse gasses humans emitted over the years unequivocally resulted in a global warming trend. But the exchange of energy between the various components of the climate system – especially the atmosphere and the ocean – obscures the clear relationship between global warming and CO2 emissions. A warm year or a warm decade is sometimes followed by a colder year or decade due to this natural variability. In short time scales, this natural variability may prevent people from seeing the bigger picture. Hence, unlike diverting a comet, taking climate action may not provide immediately visible benefits – so it should be done not to save the world “today”, but to help future generations.

All this, of course, does not mean that Don’t Look Up does not drive home some hard truths about our ongoing fight against climate change and especially about the US political classes’ unwillingness and apparent inability to effectively respond to a global threat.

It is our belief that because rich countries like the US and those of the EU have contributed almost half of the cumulative CO2 emissions, they bear the primary responsibility to mitigate climate change and to contribute funds for poorer countries to adapt as well. While the US and the EU foster some of the best climate research in the world, they have so far not succeeded on the political front – in the exact same way that the world failed to take action against the comet in Don’t Look Up. The most recent example of this failure is the US Senate’s inability to pass Build Back Better, President Joe Biden’s signature climate legislation, despite the obvious need for such legislation for the US to meet its international climate commitments and obligations.

That said, we also believe it is important not to overlook some of humanity’s successes in the fight against climate change. Indeed, there is more hope than portrayed in the movie. As stated in the foreword of the IPCC special report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, “every bit of warming matters, every year matters, every choice matters.” Even if the progress made so far is not enough, we are undoubtedly moving in the right direction. Just a few years ago, many climate scientists thought that the world was on track for a 4°C to 5°C of warming by 2100. However, because of actions that have been taken and pledges that have been made, this is no longer the case. The outcomes of last November’s United Nations Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow suggest that current policies will lead to a best-estimate of about 2.6°C to 2.7°C warming by 2100; and if individual countries meet their long-term net-zero promises, global warming could even be limited to about 1.8°C.

At the end of Don’t Look Up, the main characters share one last dinner while they wait for the comet to hit, and Dr Mindy says “We really did have everything, didn’t we.” This is the line that stayed with us after the movie ended. Indeed, Earth does have everything needed for life. And it is our duty to continue the ongoing fight to keep it that way for creatures we will never see and people we will never meet.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.