Climate and Comets and (Di)Caprio, Oh My!

Since its release in December, Netflix’s “Don’t Look Up” has had its fair share in the spotlight with streams that are, dare I say it, out of this world. The satirical drama has broken records for the most weekly streams ever on the platform, a shocking 152 million within the last week of 2021. In the film, two astronomers try to convince the world that a comet is going to crash land in the Pacific Ocean, wiping out the entire human population. The only issue is that no one wants to listen to them. While it may simply seem like another action filled, day-of-reckoning film, it’s actually a critique of something just as grave but much more real: climate change. 

The star-studded doomsday film features big names like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and the one-and-only Meryl Streep as President Orlean to address the time sensitive, universally pressing climate crisis and hone in on the lack of attention from people, politicians, and pop icons alike. The movie does have its limitations — some cite its lack of humanity and its susceptibility to blame everyday American individuals and not the people on top. Nonetheless, the film’s characters and indifferent government reflect some of the worst aspects of America’s own democracy. The film also compares the fictional government, especially the seemingly self-serving president who is only troubled by midterm elections, to America’s own existent government. Through the lens of the film, we can examine the Biden administration’s approach to the climate crisis, and reflect on a more urgent question: how can we prepare a plan of action for our own inevitable comet? 

The main premise of “Don’t Look Up” reveals that some Americans, specifically the followers of Streep’s President Orlean, refuse to accept that the impending comet is even real and claim that it’s a hoax. Non-believers shout “Don’t Look Up” in the streets, trying to convince others that there is no problem. They even sport red, white, and blue political signs that sport the same type of slogans we’ve already seen before. In the film, a tech billionaire uses his monetary influence to persuade President Orlean away from action, causing non-believers to spout claims that destroying the comet would erase working-class jobs — just like claims that turning away from fossil fuels would do the same in our real world. Moreover, news channels in the film ignore the reality of the comet, similar to “climate silence” we sometimes see on TV today. The show’s portrayal of the regular civilians’ disbelief seems potentially realistic in comparison to a modern American audience; however, some critics complain that the show’s portrayal of American citizens places the blame for the crisis squarely on their shoulders rather than the shoulders of those in power.

In “You’re allowed to hate Netflix’s Don’t Look Up and still believe in climate change,” Andy Meeks writes, “…the movie is basically a primal scream from adherents to a cause who look down on the people they ostensibly want to save.” Simply put, even though the film emphasizes the destruction of humanity, it apparently blames common folk for not caring enough. It seems ill fitted for Hollywood’s finest to preach about the downfalls of climate change (or, rather, an earth-destroying comet) from a position of seeming superiority. Reiterating this point, Jim McDermott explains that, “…more than anything, “Don’t Look Up” really is just another shouting voice, mistaking its high volume for a service…in the end, what undermines “Don’t Look Up” is exactly what it condemns: a lack of humanity.” We can all talk about the detrimental effects of the climate crisis, but what is being done besides talk?

Sure, cutting back on plastic straws and switching to a vegan diet can help, but not on the level we need to be operating right now. Climate change is in part caused by greenhouse gasses, which occur when compounds like carbon dioxide are emitted into the atmosphere. CO2, when trapped by the greenhouse effect, warms the planet, which in turn causes ice caps to melt, oceans to rise, and an increase in detrimental weather events. An even bigger issue, though, is that only 100 companies and corporations are responsible for a whopping 71% of CO2 emissions. This striking statistic should alarm us all because it means that our collective future is literally in the hands of these 100 companies and their decisions to help alleviate or ignore climate change. 

If we really want to tackle the crisis before it is too late — which could be as soon as the next few decades — corporations need to be held accountable. This could take the form of legislation limiting carbon emissions or pushing for more wind and solar farms, which are renewable and don’t result in nearly as much of a greenhouse effect. Moreover, in the film, President Orlean pushes for the comet not to be destroyed at all in hopes that it would help to both save the company of one of the richest men alive and benefit the country, as they would possess a rare resource that the rest of the world doesn’t have. 

The richest men here in the real world also play a role in the climate crisis; some of the 1% have vowed to donate billions of dollars to slow the effects of climate change. Hooray! Except for one small hiccup: despite billionaires like Jeff Bezos pledging $10 billion to fight the climate crisis, the money is really provided on his own terms — money will be allocated to scientists and nonprofits in the form of grants, but Amazon’s own carbon footprint won’t be limited at all (in fact, it’s growing). Bezos’ donation comes at the same time that, “Amazon, the source of his wealth, has been aggressively courting oil and gas companies with its cloud computing services and threatened workers who campaigned for stronger climate action with dismissal.” Author Anand Giridharadas explains that Bezos and other rich people try “…to maintain the system that causes many of the problems they try to fix — and their helpfulness is part of how they pull it off. Thus their do-gooding is an accomplice to greater, if more invisible, harm.” Therefore, the prioritization of corporations is one of the most realistic parts of the film. 

“Don’t Look Up” especially emphasizes the politics of the comet. The issue of the comet hitting earth becomes equally as political as climate change is for us. Although President Biden has promised to work on America’s role in the climate crisis, he has, for all intents and purposes, failed so far. His famous Build Back Better Act would have allocated over $500 million to his ambitious climate plan, including, “$320 billion in tax incentives for producers and purchasers of wind, solar and nuclear power.” By incentivizing renewable energy, there would be more opportunity for carbon-neutral actions. Instead, the Build Back Better Act has failed to pass in Congress due to partisan differences. Even worse, Biden had promised to pause new oil and gas leases but was shut down by a federal court. Now, corporations are legally allowed to keep drilling for fossil fuels, a major detriment to the fight against the greenhouse effect. Of course, partisanship becomes a huge detriment for executives — as much as we want change to happen, it cannot occur without Congress, which is currently the brewing ground for disputes between Democrats and Republicans, and the courts, which vow to uphold constitutionality. While the Democrats still hold control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, Congress should focus on alleviating the devastations of climate change by cooperating, whether through bipartisanship or within the Democratic party, to pass comprehensive legislation that will not only reduce greenhouse emissions but also hold those responsible accountable.

Despite the Biden administration’s failures, there are still a couple points for optimism. For example, we can celebrate the rejoining of the Paris Climate Agreement, a worldwide promise to decrease emissions. Moreover, Biden made a plan to have zero emissions in the U.S. by 2050. However, one question remains: how do we maintain positive progress if we need to worry about the next president repealing all of the old policies? Again, solutions to the climate crisis become victims of partisanship. Although the U.S. is having immense domestic struggles to get comprehensive climate action in place, the United Nations is working to provide solutions. Addressing climate change from a global perspective may be exactly what we need. If the United Nations can unite all major countries to find a solution, we may have hope. Nevertheless, the current net balance of the Biden administration and humanity’s efforts as a whole look negative. Without a doubt, climate change is getting worse by the minute. 2021 carried record breaking statistics that are extremely alarming, and at this rate, 2022 may be even worse

Ultimately, we can talk about the role that people, politicians, and corporations play in the fight against climate change all day, but what about the role climate change plays for the people? Regardless of what “Don’t Look Up” insinuates, people do care about climate change. Low income people are most at risk of climate related catastrophes. When oceans rise, island countries with more people living in poverty will suffer. When wildfires burn down houses and record breaking ice storms knock out the power, lower class individuals will have the most trouble picking themselves back up again. Moreover, people of all classes are at risk of anxiety and other mental crises. According to Healthline, “25 to 50 percent of people exposed to an extreme weather disaster are at risk of an adverse mental health effect.” We also can see that young people especially have fear revolving around the future; growing up in the 2020s means accepting that they will have to reckon with problems older generations won’t necessarily go through. Although “Don’t Look Up” has its weak spots, it is correct that climate change will likely cause destruction and misery if we don’t do anything about it. 

What exactly will happen if there is no significant change within the next few decades? The comet — spoiler alert — destroys Earth and most of its lifeforms at the end of the film, and our own climate crisis could do just the same. Until we find out for sure, we need to push our legislatures, not just filmmakers and Leonardo DiCaprio, to address the climate change crisis. At the end of the day, we need substantial advancements in American and global climate measures, even in the face of political and corporate obstructions, to stop the comet of climate change.

1 reply »

  1. Yes, only 100 companies and corporations are responsible for a whopping 71% of CO2 emissions, but we are all buying their products! That’s where our participation comes in. We, the citizens of the world, must buy more locally-sourced, in season items and reuse, recycle and share. Parting like it’s 1999 is no longer an option…

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