What if climate change were like a comet?
How "Don't Look Up" would have to go down for its core comparison to be accurate.
Today’s newsletter contains spoilers for the movie Don’t Look Up, streaming now on Netflix.
A few weeks ago, Netflix released Don’t Look Up, a star-studded comedy about a planet-killing comet. The comet is supposed to be a metaphor for climate change.
Many climate experts do not like this comparison. Since the movie’s release on Christmas Eve, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, MSNBC, Quartz, and Foreign Policy have all published pieces essentially “debunking” it. They explain that actually, climate change is more complicated than a comet. And they say that because of this, the movie is bad.
I agree that climate change is more complicated than a comet. But I don’t think this makes the movie bad. Climate change is more complicated than, well, everything. If we required all climate art to make perfect metaphors, we wouldn’t have any climate art at all. We certainly wouldn’t have any ridiculous, absurdist art like Don’t Look Up, which I absolutely loved.
That being said, I totally had the thought while watching the movie that “this metaphor could have been more accurate.” Here’s how I think the movie would have had to play out to paint a clearer picture of the climate crisis we’re living through.
If the creators of Don’t Look Up wanted to make a politically savvy, scientifically accurate satire of America’s handling of climate change, the pilots wouldn’t have turned around.
Instead, after president Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) found out the planet-killing comet hurtling toward Earth contained trillions of dollars of rare earth elements, she would have kept the pilots on course. But instead of following the original plan to deploy dozens of nuclear weapons to blow the comet off course, she would order them to only deploy maybe two or three.
This way, Orlean would reason, the comet would still miss Earth, but also pass by closely enough to be mined by billionaire tech CEO Peter Isherwell’s company. “A safe environment and strong economy can go hand-in-hand,” she’d say.
When the pilots eventually returned from their mission, Orlean and Isherwell (Mark Rylance) would declare it a success. They would tell people to stop worrying about the comet’s danger and celebrate the prosperity it was about to bring.
But scientists Kate Dibiasky and Randall Mindy (Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio) would soon discover the mission was not a total success. Although the comet would no longer destroy the whole planet, it would still graze Earth near the Arabian Sea.
The Grazing would still result in apocalyptic tsunamis, earthquakes, and debris storms. But these things would only really happen in the vicinity of the comet: Africa, the Middle East, Southern Asia, and Oceania.
It would create terrible problems for the United States, Europe, and Northern Asia eventually. Weather patterns would change; the ocean’s tides would shift; debris from the storms would pollute the air. But the immediate effects would mostly center on poor, brown countries.
From there, the movie would depict a political situation much like the one we experience today. Dibiasky and Mindy would try to warn the president and media, but wouldn’t get much traction because rich, white countries seemed to be fine.
At the same time, Orlean and Isherwell would launch a joint public relations campaign to keep the comet on course. This deceptive campaign would include:
Downplaying the harmful effects of the grazing.
Overplaying rich countries’ ability to adapt.
Hyping the comet as the key to all future prosperity.
Arguing that the comet-vulnerable countries actually need the comet because they are poor. (“Anyone who opposes the comet hates the poor.”)
Pledging to use the comet’s resources to create new technologies that will solve all problems caused by the comet. (“We are investing heavily in comet dust capture technology.”)
Taking no responsibility for the grazing. (America moved the comet a little already—if you want to move it so bad you do it.”
Despite the scientists’ efforts to counter this campaign, the comet would hit. Instead of killing everyone on Earth, it would only kill some. Because those people were mostly poor and brown, the media wouldn’t cover it very often—and when they did, they would not mention the comet as the cause.
The comet would then be mined for its resources. And as the world’s air filled with comet dust smoke, Isherwell and his investors would prosper. Their profits, however, would not trickle down. The miracle technology they promised would also fail.
The harmful effects of the grazing would worsen, and chaos would gradually overtake America. Facing outrage, the comet profiteers would flee—probably to somewhere in Northern Minnesota.
There, behind an impenetrable wall, they would start their own society powered by outsiders desperate for safety. On every wall, it would read: “A safe environment and strong economy can go hand in hand.”
The movie would end not with the scientists’ deaths, but with them watching in horror as the world burned around them. Finally, Orlean would get eaten by Big Foot. Run credits.
This is how Don’t Look Up would have had to play out if it wanted the comet comparison to illuminate more hard truths. But I don’t think Don’t Look Up was supposed to be clarifying. I think it was supposed to be absurd and cathartic. Adam McKay isn’t Stanley Kubrick. He’s the guy who made Anchorman and Talledega Nights. McKay makes funny movies about stupid things, and how we’ve handled climate change is one of the most stupid things on Earth. The fact that he made it funny is a masterful feat. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Want to hear more of my thoughts on Don’t Look Up, and talk with a dedicated climate community about it? I’ll be sending out a discussion thread containing more of my analysis on Friday. The discussion is limited to paid subscribers only, as this work is 100 percent funded by readers. To join the fun, sign up here:
Catch of the Day:
Some fabulous news: Fish has his own Instagram page now! He’d love if you followed him.
Fish would also love it if you said hello to Wallace and Burnham, who live with reader Emily in Minnesota.
Wallace (left) barks at Amazon delivery trucks “because he hates climate hypocrisy even more than he hates having his nails trimmed.” Burnham is afraid of thunder “and doesn’t understand why storms seem to be getting more severe and frequent.” Who’s going to tell him?
Not me. See you next time!
I love your revisions. One note would be have the comet first noticed around 300 years ago, then once again every 40 years, and in 1980 they realize the warble in the orbit has brought it into a collision course. The movie starts there, in 1980, and shows the 40 year montage of excuses and bald-faced lies we've been fed... and the rich western countries can take it from there...
"Climate change is more complicated then, well, everything. If we required all climate art to make perfect metaphors, we wouldn’t have any climate art at all. We certainly wouldn’t have any ridiculous, absurdist art like Don’t Look Up, which I absolutely loved." Exactly.