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Politics & Policy

The Failure of Don’t Look Up

Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio in Don’t Look Up. (Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

Adam McKay’s terrible Netflix movie about the end of the world, Don’t Look Up, has been praised in some quarters, including by Kevin. I tore it apart here, but I didn’t even get to the central failure of the film, which is that it spectacularly mangles its intended metaphor. (Matt Yglesias brings this up in a thoughtful post on his Substack.)

McKay and his cowriter David Sirota and star Leonardo DiCaprio have all been going around telling us the movie is a metaphor for climate change. But that makes no sense whatsoever. You might as well make a movie about a car-crash victim who serves as a metaphor for the perils of Type II diabetes. Let’s break it down.

Climate change has been happening for many years. In the movie, a comet suddenly appears out of the blue.

Climate change is not widely considered an existential threat to humanity. Far more likely is that it will cause disruptive effects such as mass migration and render some areas uninhabitable. It won’t kill everyone, and even if it did, that would not happen all at once. In the movie, the comet is more than 99.9 percent likely to smash into the earth and kill everyone instantly.

Climate change has lots of angles to it. How bad is it going to be? At what pace will it occur? There is a lot of scientific and lay discussion about this. In the movie, there is not really any debate, at least among those who follow the issue closely or the scientific community. The comet will certainly destroy all of us in six months.

Climate change is something the West, especially the U.S., has been taking seriously and tackling for many years. Which is why this chart shows our carbon emissions have fallen over the past 20 years and fallen dramatically per capita. The U.S. is emitting almost 50 percent less carbon per capita than we did in 1970. In the movie, no one takes the comet seriously, especially the media. Which brings me to:

Climate change is an extremely popular media topic; doomsayers are treated to huge grants, awarded Oscars and Emmys, given huge book deals, and welcomed on talk shows. When people such as Leonardo DiCaprio the actor warn us about climate change, they are celebrated and given seven- and eight-figure budgets to create projects about it. When people such as the physicist he plays in the movie warn about climate change, other characters mock him, ignore him, and marginalize him. He and his colleague, played by Jennifer Lawrence, keep getting kidnapped by U.S. intelligence agencies. Social-media types mercilessly mock the Lawrence character and ignore her accurate prophecies. Al Gore is going to be a billionaire.

Climate change is mainly a problem emanating from China, which is by far the world’s leading carbon emitter, with India coming up quickly behind it. This discrepancy will grow worse and worse because China keeps building more coal plants as the U.S. shuts them down. Few in the West or anywhere else show interest in raising the topic because we all know China is touchy about the subject. In the movie, other countries are more or less irrelevant to the comet problem. It basically falls to the U.S. president to decide what to do about the comet because the U.S. has the most sophisticated space program and is capable of shooting down the comet.

Climate change is a slow, complicated, gradually developing problem that can not be solved by any kind of silver bullet. In the movie, the U.S. can simply end the threat by shooting down the comet.

Climate change has some benefits as well as costs (wine grapes are being grown in England!) but humanity is very focused on the costs, especially elites such as tech moguls. In the movie, the comet carries a potential treasure cargo of rare minerals, and so a tech titan (!) leads the argument that we should try to break up the comet rather than send it off course.

Climate change is something we will adapt to. In the movie, the only option once the political classes mess up the mission to destroy the comet is to move to another planet.


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