dont look up climate change

3 Lessons Netflix’s “Don’t Look Up” teaches us about climate change

André Gonçalves - Editor & Head Of English Market

After studying and working in HR, André studied sustainability management at Lisbon's School Of Economics & Management. He is responsible for the English speaking market of Youmatter since 2018.

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Is Don’t Look Up based on a true story? Although it feeds and amplifies an event that truly happened – the famous comet that hit the Earth and made dinosaurs go extinct 65 million years ago – Netflix’s movie can be seen as an allegory to the climate crisis.

Similar to the increasingly evident risks climate change is bringing, the movie tells a story of how two scientists discovered that a massive comet was hurtling toward Earth and they couldn’t get anyone’s attention to act on such an important (life or death) event.

But what lessons can we learn from Netflix’s movie in order to do differently regarding the climate crisis which, according to the IPCC, is leading the planet towards environmental – and societal – collapse in the near future?

1 – Scientists need to improve their communication skills and show up more in climate discussions

Otherwise, they risk appearing boring and losing other people’s (very limited these days) attention span.

In Don’t Look Up we saw this happen when Prof. Mindy (DiCaprio) met the US President (Streep) and her son for the first time and told them what was going on using scientific jargon, leaving them feeling bored and quickly losing their attention.

Later on, the same character went on a live broadcast on national TV to tell about the disaster that was coming.

He gave another complicated explanation, only to be – again – interrupted by Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence) who went straight to the point, providing a simpler, more direct answer. Nonetheless, even Dibiasky’s pitch was ineffective for different reasons we will soon discuss.

A number of studies have been recently published suggesting ways in which scientific messaging can be more effectively carried out in order to constructively inform conversations and decision making, including the one from Howarth et al. (2020). Interestingly, a paper on how astronomers (such as Dr Mindy and Dibiasky) can communicate climate change effectively has also been very recently published.

Climate Outreach, one of Europe’s leading specialists in climate change communication focused on bridging the gap between research and practice, has also published an easily digestible report that highlights 8 *principles for effective communication and public engagement on climate change.

2 – Emotional intelligence is key to raise awareness on climate change

Let’s go back to the live TV broadcast where the 2 scientists – Mindy and Dibiasky – shared with the world the terrific news they had discovered of a huge comet coming straight to Earth.

After feeling the reporters were not understanding the urgency of the issues at stake, Dibiasky lost control of her frustration and started shouting everyone should panic.

Since she wasn’t able to handle the interviewers’ idiot observations and instead put herself in a polarised position compared to the one the audience was used to having, she ended up losing the masses she wanted to reach. The public even started doing memes and writing unpleasing comments across social media.

She might have been right on the seriousness of the situation. But by letting her emotions affect her judgment she created a gap with the interviewers and the audience who started thinking she was crazy.

We might think “well, she’s only human” it’s normal she did it.

Well, right. Everyone else is only human as well and their reactions are only the result of a stimulus. In other words, in a world full of biases and different sorts of people with different ways of seeing the world, it can be useful if we learn to camouflage and adjust our posture, language and speech according to the audience we’re standing in front of.

As social beings, we’re constantly looking for people similar to us (because we feel safe close to them) to whom it is easier to convey our message thanks to a sense of trust. Contrarily, if people feel they are too different from others, they won’t trust us and it will be harder to deliver our message and raise awareness on the climate crisis.

Moreover, studies show focusing on solutions rather than on catastrophic consequences of climate change, making complex science-based messages on climate change tangible and more concrete to laypeople by means of images or metaphors is a good strategy to follow. Something we haven’t seen in the movie.

As we’ve discussed, rethinking how the issue of climate change can be framed to resonate with different publics is another good idea.

3 – Technology is only part of the solution to tackle climate change

One of the strengths of Netflix’s Don’t Look Up is the way it draws attention to how unprepared we are to deal with existential risks and how dangerous allowing politicians and businesses to deal with threats to human life, rather than scientists, can be.

In the movie written and directed by Adam McKay, Peter Isherwell – a Silicon Valley tech guru and the “third richer human ever” shows precisely this. Because of his ambition to possibly profit from the minerals a deadly comet would bring, Isherwell convinced the US president to abort a mission that likely would have worked in favour of one that had not been peer-reviewed and ended up failing.

There’s quite a hype today in companies owned by the world’s richest humans whose work has been greatly focused on the race to space. We’ve recently watched Musk’s SpaceX sign a contract with NASA, as well as Besos’ Blue Origin launch four commercial astronauts to space and back and Brandon’s Virgin Galactic fly just above the boundary of space.

This might all sound far-fetched were it not for the fact that Isherwell clearly represents real-world tech billionaires who are very much convinced that saving the human species from extinction might be both noble and lucrative.

Recent studies have been showing the impact – one we’re not often remembered – technology has, including enormous consumption bills, mining and manufacturing impacts and e-waste problems. Not to mention other ethical challenges related to data collection or bioengineering.

While today’s (and future) technologies will likely be part of the solution, the belief we don’t need to reflect on our consumption patterns and change anything in our lifestyles because future technological developments will fix the climate and other environmental problems need to change.

Is Netflix’s Don’t Look Up a climate change allegory or a satire?

Don’t Look Up uses a disaster-movie framework that can be categorised as a metaphor for a reality-based crisis: climate change.

The movie shows a generalised apathy using plenty of humour and exaggeration while making fun and exposing people’s stupidity.

Masses don’t believe the news and decide on what to do based on their political affiliation rather than on facts. Politicians acting late on an impending apocalypse. Media channels are more interested in clickbait and in how guest speakers look rather than in the facts they transmit. Businesses looking to profit from an extinction event.

And so, by capturing and amplifying some of the insanities of our times and the dangers of over politicisation, Don’t Look Up can easily be considered a satire.

Now it’s time we take the 3 main climate change takeaways highlighted above and start acting to help tackle the real threat of our times: climate change!

[Image credits: ScreenRant; Alexander Krivitskiy on Unsplash and VagueVisages]

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