"Don't Look Up" and the cinema of existential risk
The movie is better and more fun if you don't narrowly read it as about climate change
“Don’t Look Up” is a fascinating cultural document. Adam McKay (who wrote and directed it), David Sirota (the leftist media personality and former Bernie Sanders staffer who shares a story credit with McKay), and star Leonardo DiCaprio all say that it’s a satirical film about climate change. But I’ve rarely seen such distance between the clearly stated intent of the authors and a plain reading of the text itself, which is that it’s a Covid-inspired satire about humanity’s response to risks that — unlike climate change — materialize suddenly and cause massive and rapid harms.
If you insist on listening to the creators and seeing it as about climate, then while you might appreciate a few moments, I think you’ll mostly be annoyed and then start saying “but it’s not even funny” blah blah blah.
But that’s not the only way to read a text.
In policy terms, there’s not some sharp tradeoff between taking steps to minimize the risks of climate catastrophe and taking steps to minimize other kinds of catastrophes, and I don’t love framings that put it that way. But the use of a story about a comet collision as a metaphor for climate change — which I actually think works really well as a direct lesson about the risk of a comet hitting the planet as depicted in the film — struck me as funny. And I really encourage people to watch it with an open mind and see it as part of the cinema of existential risk and not just quibble about climate change.
Meanwhile, I will quibble.
Climate politics involves complicated shifting alliances
McKay turns out to be a carbon removal enthusiast, which I think is great. Slow Boring dedicates 5% of our subscription revenue to carbon removal projects via Stripe Carbon.
And of course, continuing to scale up renewable electricity production is key. The solar panels on my roof produce over 100% of our household electricity usage on average, and I always encourage everyone I know to take advantage of D.C.’s fairly generous incentives to go solar.
I think it would be great if everyone who is fired up about climate change agreed with McKay about this. But of course they don’t. Note that you’ve never seen Joe Biden come out swinging this hard and aggressively for carbon removal. Why is that? Is he in denial about the science of climate change? Is he a pawn of big oil?
No, of course not. The issue is that carbon capture is deeply controversial among environmental groups. As Michael Grunwald reported in May, Biden’s climate plan was denounced by a broad spectrum of environmental organizations on the left for allowing a role for both point-of-source carbon capture and direct air capture of CO2. In late October, Friends of the Earth was part of a coalition of 350 groups that put out a statement denouncing the concept of “net-zero” emissions. This is part of a larger campaign they run against “false climate solutions” including nuclear power, which remains one of the world’s most important sources of zero-carbon electricity.
Unlike those groups, I am in favor of all forms of zero-carbon energy — wind and solar and hydro and nuclear and geothermal too — and I want to remove regulatory barriers to the deployment of all of them as well as subsidize whatever we can. But I also like McKay’s idea for a Manhattan Project-style investment in carbon capture. Beyond pure research, I think this proposal from Susan Athey and others for a large-scale advanced market commitment from the government to actually purchase carbon capture services if they can be made cheaper is smart.
Among others concerned about climate change, there is a sentiment that what we really ought to be doing to reduce climate change is encouraging everyone to have fewer kids — that to me seems as nutty as nuclear power does to Friends of the Earth. Reducing human beings’ negative environmental externalities is good, but it’s not so good that eliminating the humans themselves is a price worth paying. I think I’m right about this and the nukes, and I think that McKay and I are both right about carbon capture.
The point, though, is that contrary to the implication of the film, this isn’t a simple battle between those who want to take action to address the problem and those who don’t. The denialists and the folks on the take are a problem. But there’s also a genuine lack of consensus among very committed people as to what we should do. And that’s because the problem is multifaceted and technically challenging. There isn’t a simple “fix the climate problem” button that we are simply choosing not to press.
The climate problem is hard
The film is really hard on the media, which in turn makes it easy to dismiss hostile media commentary as simply proving the point — we called you out, so of course you’re mad.
But I don’t think the idea that it’s primarily challenging to make progress on climate change because of the media holds any kind of water. Mainstream media sources like CNN and The New York Times normally have special climate verticals. They routinely run stories like “Earth is warming faster than previously thought, scientists say, and the window is closing to avoid catastrophic outcomes” and do things like this lavish multimedia feature on “postcards from a world on fire.” If journalists were the only people to vote in elections, Elizabeth Warren would’ve been the Democratic nominee and easily beaten Donald Trump, and she would be working with large congressional majorities that would have gladly passed $1 trillion or more in climate-related subsidies along with a Clean Energy Payment Plans and lots more climate-related stuff.
The trouble, as always, is a cohort of older, less-educated, less-urbanized voters who have more conservative views across the board, including greater hostility to government spending and regulation and much greater distrust of both academic experts and mainstream media.
From the standpoint of constructing a satirical film, doing biting commentary about vapidity among shallow media celebrities (a real thing!) is much better than punching down at working-class senior citizens. But factually speaking, the views of working-class senior citizens are the reason climate hawks struggle to control the political pivot points in American politics, not the views of elite journalists.
Meanwhile, even in the blue states, we do not consistently prioritize climate change. This is not just in terms of controversial-among-environmentalist ideas like carbon capture and nuclear energy but also in conflicts like “people who want to put solar panels on their roofs vs. historic preservationists” or “people who want to build utility-scale solar plants vs. people who want to preserve open space” or “people who want to allow denser housing construction vs. people who worry about how that will impact traffic and their parking.” And there’s no state that’s so blue that big increases in gasoline taxes or creating a carbon tax are crushing it at the polls.
The fundamental problem of climate change is that it involves asking people to make changes now for the sake of preventing harms that occur largely in the future to people living in other countries. It’s a genuine problem from hell, and it’s not actually solved by understanding the science or believing the factual information. This is exactly why ideas like McKay’s Manhattan Project are so important. While there is a lot we can do to improve the situation with more aggressive deployment of the technology we have, we also really do need more technological breakthroughs that will make lots of tradeoffs less painful and make progress easier.
There are all these other risks
In contrast to climate change, the real-world problem of comet risk actually does have the structural features of the comet scenario posited in the film.
Toby Ord studies existential risk at Oxford, and on Robert Wilbin’s podcast he says that humanity has made a great deal of progress in tracking asteroids since the days of Deep Impact and Armageddon, but “a lot of things are worse with comets.” Comets move faster, they are larger on average, our current methods are not very good at finding them, and because of the angle of attack, they are harder to deflect. The official line from NASA is we shouldn’t worry too much about this because comets are much rarer than asteroids. But because they’re also bigger, Ord says the number of comets big enough to wipe out humanity is roughly equal to the number of asteroids big enough to wipe out humanity.
There are no complicated and multifaceted tradeoffs involved in tackling the comet risk. What we’d need to do is give NASA an explicit mandate to track comets better and a bigger budget to do it. It probably wouldn’t hurt to encourage every salty leftist in America to try to get 15% less scoldy about “space billionaires” and acknowledge that it’s actually pretty good to have multiple aggressive companies investing in better rocket technology.
Yet there is more to life than comets. Ord says the existential risk from a supervolcano is even higher than from a comet.
Also note that while true existential risk is Ord’s thing, it would be pretty sad to see “only” 20% of the world’s population wiped out by a supervolcano (or for that matter, by a comet), which might be considerably more likely.
And here’s why I think the media satire really does work. I don’t want to tell you that there has never been a story in the mainstream press about supervolcanoes, but there really aren’t very many. There’s no mainstream constituency at all to fund a larger scientific effort to understand supervolcano risk and how to mitigate it. And a candidate for office who goes on “Meet The Press” to say one of his top priorities in Congress is improving U.S. efforts to tackle supervolcanoes would be roundly mocked.
I don’t think this is because journalists are bad people who want us all to die in a spectacular accident. But we’re a bunch of apes who’ve evolved to be very attuned to the machinations of high-status apes so that we can navigate the factional landscape effectively. The reporters and the editors and producers they report to are apes, programming for an audience of apes. So you get a lot of stories about who is fighting whom and through what means. Climate coverage could be better than it is, but it does okay in this landscape because there is a lot of ape-warfare on the climate topic.
By contrast, on something like Covid-19’s origins, we’ve had a decent amount of coverage of the lab leak controversy but essentially no coverage of what is being done to prevent future lab leaks (basically nothing) or to prevent future zoonotic crossover events (again, nothing). But the reason these are our two contenders is that as far as we know, these are the routes through which new viruses emerge. Omicron, the experts seem to think, emerged thanks to some kind of animal reservoir that then crossed back over into humans. I should probably defer to the experts, but this Jonatan Pallesen thread positing lab involvement also seemed plausible to me. But again, either way, we’re not doing anything to counter either route for transmission, and that (shocking! alarming! insane!) fact gets way less attention than the latest round of “who’s yelling at whom about masks?”
Do look up
So I commend the film and despite my quibbles with the McKay-Sirota theory of climate politics, I endorse McKay’s policy prescription. Let’s do it.
But I think that art can sometimes get away from artists, and in this case the message is much bigger than climate change. There is a range of often goofy-sounding threats to humanity that don’t track well onto our partisan cleavages or culture war battles other than that addressing them invariably involves some form of concerted action of the sort that conservatives tend to disparage. And this isn’t a coincidence. If existential threats were materializing all the time, we’d be dead and not streaming satirical films on Netflix. So the threats tend to sound “weird,” and if you talk a lot about them you’ll be “weird.” They don’t fit well into the grooves of ordinary political conflict because ordinary political conflict is about stuff that happens all the time.
So read Ord’s book “The Precipice” and find out all about it. Did you know that the Biological Weapons Convention has just four employees? I do because it’s in the book. Let’s maybe give them six?
For all that, though, I am genuinely shocked that the actual real-world emergence of SARS-Cov-2 has not caused more people to care about pandemic risk. The havoc that this pandemic has wreaked just in terms of economic harm and annoyance has been devastating. We can’t even begin to tally up the long-term price of patients who’ve fully recovered from Covid-19 but are dealing with lung damage and other physical consequences. We also have a bunch of people suffering from “long Covid,” which I think is the latest manifestation of the larger set of post-viral chronic fatigue syndromes of which our medical understanding is terrible. Millions of people have died without a clear end in sight. And for all that, Covid-19 isn’t that deadly in the scheme of things. The next virus could be worse. Heck, the next variant could be worse. There’s a nice cosmic justice in the fact that Omicron seems less deadly despite its high transmissibility and breakthrough potential, but as it infects billions of people it could mutate again in more malign directions.
And we’re doing very little about this. There’s an expert-written, Biden-endorsed $60 billion biodefense plan and it couldn’t find its way into a nearly trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill, a nearly $800 billion bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act, or seemingly the $1.5 trillion (or maybe $0) Build Back Better plan.
What’s particularly frustrating about this is that we have a clear success story in Operation Warp Speed. Instead of treating that as a one-off, it should be a foundation for continued, ongoing research into super vaccines targeting whole virus families, new generations of antiviral drugs, a better understanding of air filters, designing new iterations of masks, the whole deal. If you went on TV to talk about comets, people would laugh at you. But people on TV are talking about the pandemic all the time. So why can’t we talk about forward-looking pandemic policy?
There are rumors in D.C. of an effort to put together an Omicron-focused supplemental appropriation.
That’s a perfectly reasonable idea. But it’s crucial for policymakers to see that the Omicron problem isn’t just — or even necessarily primarily — about Omicron. It’s about variants and mutation in general. We have a variant right now that pairs breakthrough capability with high transmissibility, but doesn’t seem to attack the lungs nearly as aggressively as Delta did. There’s no guarantee we’ll get so lucky with the next variant, and we need to be improving our capabilities and tackling the pandemic issue in a much more serious way.
"Biden’s climate plan was denounced by a broad spectrum of environmental organizations on the left for allowing a role for both point-of-source carbon capture and direct air capture of CO2. In late October, Friends of the Earth was part of a coalition of 350 groups that put out a statement denouncing the concept of “net-zero” emissions. This is part of a larger campaign they run against “false climate solutions” including nuclear power, which remains one of the world’s most important sources of zero-carbon electricity. "
This is because such organizations aren't really about climate change or improving the environment. They see it as a wedge issue to insert unpopular ideas such as eco-asceticism or anticapitalism. According to many people like them, the real problem is capitalism and we need to upend our economic system in favor of *handwave*.
I used to be part of an international dev organization that focused heavily on environmental issues (i.e. cleaning impure water sources, microgrids etc) until I was driven out because I objected to spending $ on DEI bullshit rather than the mission. I watched a shift from "well, this won't solve climate issues but it helps people now, so let's set up a microgrid in this village" to "that's a bandaid solution, we need to organize these people to protest coal plants". Coal plants are undoubtedly bad, but they are better than telling people to just do without power and it's especially galling to see people who cry when their power goes out for 1h during a storm say that it's fine for people to only have 3h of power a day.
To first order, the same methods are used to search for asteroids and comets, and the government has funded efforts to find both for many years. The next big advance in our ability to detect such objects will come from Rubin Observatory, which is under construction and will begin operations in a few years. Otherwise, if one wishes special protection against comet impacts, one would need to develop missions to divert a comet and have them ready to launch on only a few months notice, which would probably cost hundreds of billions of dollars. So the question is whether one can justify spending that amount of money for a threat that happens once every ~20 million years.
A problem with Don't Look Up is that its depiction of the response of astronomers, journalists, and politicians is completely unrealistic, whereas satire should be based on some elements of truth. For instance, if an astronomer detected a new comet (including one on a collision course), they would post their measurements in a public database, and within weeks, other astronomers would could confirm its orbit. And if it indeed was a threat to Earth, every major astronomical organization would issue press releases about it and publicly/privately exhort government officials to take necessary steps to deal with it. Also, it's very unlikely that any government official could keep the existence of a dangerous comet a secret since multiple surveys can detect comets, many of those data are publicly available, and few, if any, astronomers would go along with an effort to keep it a secret.
I think that the movie also has the reaction of media backwards. In the movie, the media underplays the danger from the comet, whereas in reality, both astronomers and journalists have a tendency to exaggerate and sensationalize scientific discoveries/threats. Any time a journalist gets a whiff of a study or discovery related to aliens, dangerous asteroids, etc., they jump on it. A more realistic setup for the movie would be a world in which there have been frequent media stories of dangerous comets/asteroids for many years that turned out to be false alarms, so when a real threat is discovered, the public doesn't believe it.
Also, the satire for a movie like this would be more realistic and relevant to current events if the main obstacle in thwarting the comet is an FDA-like regulatory review.