What “Don’t Look Up” really tells us

The movie Don’t Look Up has been getting “two thumbs up” from a certain political segment for speaking to truth in their view. An existential threat from a comet is used metaphorically to describe the resistance to the import of climate change risk. After watching the film I have a somewhat different take away that speaks a different truth to those viewers who found the message resonating most. Instead of blaming our political system, we should have a different take away that we can act on collectively.

Don’t Look Up reveals several errors and blind spots in the scientific and activist communities in communicating with the public and influencing decision making. The first is a mistaken belief that the public is actually interested in scientific study beyond parlor room tricks. The second is believing that people will act solely based on shrill warnings from scientists acting as high priests. The third (which isn’t addressed in the film) is failing to fully acknowledge what people see that they may lose by responding to these calls for change. Instead these communities should reconsider what they focus on and how they communicate.

The movie opens with the first error–the astronomers’ long winded attempt to explain all of the analysis that went into their prediction. Most people don’t see how science has any direct influence on their lives–how is digging up dinosaurs or discovering the outer bounds of the universe relevant to every day living? It’s a failure of our education system, but we can’t correct to help now. Over the last several years the message on climate change has changed to highlight the apparent effects on storms and heat waves, but someone living in Kansas doesn’t see how rising sea levels will affect them. A long explanation about the mechanics and methods just loses John Q. Public (although there is a small cadre that is fascinated) and they tune out. It’s hard to be disciplined with a simple message when you find the deeper complexity interesting, but that’s what it will take.

Shrill warnings have never been well received, no matter the call. We see that today with the resistance to measures to suppress the COVID-19 pandemic. James Hansen at NASA first raised the alarm about climate change in the 1980s but he was largely ignored due to his righteousness and arrogance in public. He made a serious error in stepping well outside of his expertise to assert particular solutions. The public has always looked to who they view as credible, regardless of their credentials, for guidance. Academics have too often assumed that they deserve this respect simply because they have “the” credential. That much of the public views science as mysterious with little more basis than religion does not help the cause. Instead, finding the right messengers is key to being successful.

Finally, and importantly overlooked in the film, a call to action of this magnitude requires widespread changes in behaviors and investments. People generally have worked hard to achieve what they have and are risk averse to such changes that may severely erode their financial well-being. For example, as many as 1 in 5 private sector jobs are tied to automobiles and fossil fuel production. One might extoll the economic benefits of switching to renewable electricity but workers and investors in these sectors are uncertain about their futures with no clear pathways to share in this new prosperity. Without addressing a truly valid means of resolving these risks beyond the tired “retraining” shibboleth, this core and its sympathizers will resist meaningful change.

Effecting these solutions likely require sacrifice from those who benefit from these changes. Pointing to benefit-cost analyses that rely on a “faux” hypothetical transaction to justify these solutions really is no better than the wealthy asserting asserting that they deserve to keep most of their financial gains simply because that’s how the market works. Compensating owners of these assets and making what appears to be inefficient decisions to maintain impacted communities may seem unfair for a variety of reasons, but we need to overcome our biases embedded in our favored solutions to move forward.

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