Netflix’s ‘Don’t Look Up’ is a lesson in climate messaging

Director Adam McKay’s climate satire “Don’t Look Up” isn’t exactly subtle. The hair is big, the parody obvious, the targets as plentiful as the star-studded cast competing for space — and the planet is about to explode.

The whole enterprise is a monument to anger and frustration, which may explain why environmental scientists have warmed to the film more than film critics. Whether through the missteps of the protagonists or those of the filmmaker, it also offers a valuable lesson on the all-too-real challenges of spreading the word about the need for urgent global action against climate change.

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The storyline of this Netflix Inc. dark comedy is simple enough: A Ph.D. student (Jennifer Lawrence) and a timid astronomy professor (Leonardo DiCaprio) have discovered a giant comet that is going to hit Earth within little more than six months. Everyone will die. Yet they can’t convince anyone, least of all the populist, chain-smoking U.S. president, played by Meryl Streep, to take the right course of action. The media is too distracted and everyone else just wants to make money, once the asteroid is found to contain rare earths and minerals.

The movie does get some important things right. It captures the difficulty of expressing a message so overwhelming for our narrow imaginations that it very often triggers not action, but indifference or despair — just as it does on the screen. The exasperation so palpable through the film is a daily reality for those working in climate policy. People really do hear only what they want to hear, as when Streep’s president hangs on to the news that the comet’s certainty is just below 100% — “call it 70% and let’s move on” — ignoring the scientists sitting in front of her. The film portrays the siren call of unproven “win-win” technology and the toxicity of bothsideism. As in real life, the fight between the researchers and political and economic interests is asymmetric.

There’s also much to criticize in a movie that spends so much time being outraged. For one, the metaphor is too simplistic. Global warming is not a single, driverless comet hurtling, unprovoked, toward the Earth. The threat of global warming is diffuse, and worrying for its very unpredictability; moreover, entire industries are accelerating it. Climate disaster also isn’t, in the real world, an equal-opportunity killer.

When it comes to climate messaging, the protagonists fall into plenty of traps. At one point, the movie suggests that the scientists’ failure on a lighthearted chat show is proof of society’s ignorance — but it’s just as much a question of understanding the audience and human biases. No one fails to accept climate change because they are too worried, as they are here, about celebrity breakups. We struggle to understand climate realities that feel distant in time or space, or that are simply impossible to envisage in the context of what we have experienced. Overcoming that cognitive hurdle doesn’t necessarily mean simply following the advice that DiCaprio’s scientist is given — “not too much math” — but it does mean making the message relevant, delivering it through a trusted familiar voice and framing it in local terms.

We know that making communication local is crucial, and there’s ample evidence that trusted messengers, whether community leaders or weathercasters connecting extreme weather to global warming, can change minds — but those trying to convey the message in this film do none of that.

The film also never grants the general population — and even other nations — agency. People respond better to events they can hope to influence, and where solutions are available. When it comes to global warming, that means outlining the problem but then telling your audience they have a role to play — as consumers, for example, and, most importantly, as voters. It’s what turns awareness into action.

“Don’t Look Up” won’t convince anyone who was on the fence, not least because of the lack of empathy. With its black-and-white villains, the story treats naysayers and doubters with condescension, whether it’s the unwashed masses distracted by social media, journalists chasing clicks or Lawrence’s parents in Michigan, who say they are “for the jobs the comet will create” — but get no sympathy or explanation. Hectoring is rarely effective when it comes to changing minds.

But that wasn’t really the point. There is certainly something farcical about the nature of reaction to global warming. People are engaging with the film as a result, and that matters, as Tom Brookes at the Global Strategic Communications Council, a network of public relations experts focused on climate, said to me. It may touch only those already concerned, but as he put it that’s now the overwhelming majority of the world’s population — and a vast and varied group in need of galvanizing.There’s far better climate fiction. There’s better satire and better comedy, some of it directed by McKay himself. But this film has got millions talking about global warming and is now the most-watched Netflix film in dozens of countries.

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Can A-listers be trusted messengers and bridge the gap between awareness and action? That is another question entirely.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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