It’s the Comet, Stupid!
The Problem with Don’t Look Up and a Call for Climate Pragmatism
“If only it were so simple,” I thought to myself as the credits rolled on the movie du jour, Don’t Look Up, courtesy of Netflix. For the past few weeks, my messages and social media feeds have been filled with references to the film. Many have praised it as powerful and relevant to our moment. The movie, written by David Sirota (editor of Jacobin) and directed by Adam McKay (accomplished director of The Big Short, among other films, and a fellow denizen of Denver) has progressives buzzing and the media chattering. Finally, they suggest, someone has captured the profound disconnect that characterizes our historical and political moment. The movie’s premise—a young scientist discovers a comet headed for an extinction-level collision with Earth . . . and nobody cares—is intended as a dramatic allegory for climate change politics.
Like many a good satire, Don’t Look Up is easy to watch. Funny, well-acted, and graced with a truly star-studded cast. It calls to mind a high-budget Idiocracy, as it cleverly lampoons some of the real dynamics of America’s polarized media and politics. In an era when just about anything at all, factual or fictional, that is strongly held by one political faction will elicit a counter-narrative intensely argued by the other, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that the exhortation to “Look Up” and witness the actual comet visible in the sky starts a counter political narrative in the opposite camp—”Don’t Look Up!” Moreover, the movie’s many villains—a narcissist President, a creepy tech billionaire, a weird General, a politically motivated science community, an economically focused crowd of deniers (“I’m for the jobs the comet will create,” says one), will appeal to progressives in search of political catharsis. Praise for the film is widespread. It’s more a documentary than a movie, according to one of the country’s leading public scientists, Neil deGrasse Tyson.1 I’m sure it’s no accident that the only rational people in the movie seem to be the hard-working, long-suffering scientists and civil servants.
Don’t Look Up is not a work of subtlety. Existential disaster is upon us—are you for the truth or against it? And here’s how stupid you look if you somehow choose the latter, even if only by not choosing the former. As one tweet about the movie put it, “if you don’t like the movie, it’s about you.” Moral clarity never felt so good—or had such a big budget.
My concern about the movie’s message is not that it’s poorly delivered. It’s quite brilliant in that regard. The problem, despite the rousing “amen” from the choir, is that it’s aiming at the wrong target. Climate Change denialism is an admittedly difficult and vexing problem, but despite what activists might tell you, it has improved quite a bit over the years. And here’s the dirty little secret—denialism is not what’s really holding back progress on Climate Change. Don’t Look Up wants to convince you that everything depends on more people recognizing the arresting existential reality of the climate crisis. It’s the comet, stupid! And in that reckoning, we can find liberating truth and perhaps redemption. The implication of this message, and of much messaging in the global climate community, is that the denial of the comet, or climate, is the heart of what ails us. Everything depends on awakening to the reality of this unassailable urgency. After that, it would seem, clarity reigns, and the transformation of our society can truly begin.
In Don’t Look Up, the point is simply to realize this truth revealed by science with an appropriate level of urgency, as if every relevant moral and ethical vector in this conversation could subsequently be lined up to point in one direction.
Here’s the thing about Climate Change: the science, in many respects, may indeed be relatively straightforward (I’m looking up! I see the comet!). But that’s the easy part. The hard part is, inconveniently, all the things this movie’s allegory sidesteps and directs our attention away from—the actual challenge of responses and solutions. Climate change is a complex, entrenched, multi-faceted, and incredibly difficult-to-solve problem, with the potential for massive unintended consequences every way we turn. In Don’t Look Up, the point is simply to realize this truth revealed by science with an appropriate level of urgency, as if every relevant moral and ethical vector in this conversation could subsequently be lined up to point in one direction. As if urgency and necessity alone is a universal retort to every doubt or question. Realize we’re all going to die, then pivot to save the world. What could be less ethically ambiguous, in art or in life? Thus the utter contempt on the face of climate icon Greta Thunberg, as she rips the world’s leaders a new one at the UN. I mean, how could these people be so stupid? Using this calculus, the reason for inaction would have to be simple greed or massive psychological delusion and avoidance. And so, we must call out those in our global community who are to blame for perpetrating both. In a moral universe of absolutes, villains always abound.
In the actual moral universe, however, conundrums abound. And better and worse mean a lot more than black and white. Fossil fuels and modernism are joined at the hip, and we’re going to have to decouple that link over time. And that’s a delicate surgery. We must take care not to damage the tremendous fruits of modernism even as we de-link its bounty from the carbon byproduct of fossil fuel usage. Demonizing fossil fuels doesn’t help; nor does indulging in the revisionist magical thinking that there was always some easier, painless way. There isn’t and there wasn’t. Climate Change is a multi-decade wicked problem that we must mitigate, through consistent and sustained effort, for the next several generations. We’ll need to be constantly working to balance the massive, multi-layered trade-offs between reducing carbon in the atmosphere and providing energy for a thriving global civilization. We must develop both the resources to adapt to a changing climate as well as the intelligence, mindset, and technology to ultimately transcend the problem itself (which, by the way, involves our entire energy system, our entire transportation system, and our entire food system.) In other words, acknowledging the problem is just the table stakes.
I can hear the objections. But . . . Exxon buried the research . . . Trump said it was a Chinese conspiracy . . . “drill, baby, drill” . . . It’s true that denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. And I also want to throw up my hands when people who should know better want to claim this isn’t an issue of real concern. But my point is that the obsession with and focus on that entire “denial” conversation can also be its own form of avoidance. Let’s stop scoring easy moral points and focus on crafting hard solutions. Let’s turn our attention to the actual challenges of building a carbon-lite or carbon-free economy. And if we could lean into that long-term challenge without the apocalyptic rhetoric (and the too-often-attendant magical thinking) we might inspire more people to join us in the project. Isn’t that what we ultimately have to do, regardless? I often reflect on a remark I heard Bill Gates make a few years ago. We have two problems when it comes to Climate Change, he said—the people who are denying the problem exists and the people who think it’s easy to solve. Don’t Look Up, as enjoyable as it may be, has little hope of influencing the former, and is ideological candy for the latter.
Let’s break the issue down a bit more. It seems to me that there are at least three critical domains of engagement when it comes to making progress on climate change. None of them can be avoided, and they are somewhat sequential but ultimately interrelated.
- Science and Awareness. This is the domain in which so much of the global climate conversation plays out. In this respect, activists have been quite successful. Awareness of the climate crisis had increased significantly, and our scientific acknowledge continues to develop. Most recent polls show climate awareness and concern is increasing in the American public. A 2021 poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute found that only 10 percent of Americans don’t believe in the reality of Climate Change (15% are unsure). That’s less than believe in Q’Anon.
- Politics and Economics. Science is not politics. In fact, politics by nature must consider a lot more than the science—it must consider the short- and long-term, as well as the oft-conflicting interests of numerous groups with their own needs, desires, problems, and dreams—including, ideally, non-human life and planetary ecosystems. Translating scientific truth into political policy inevitably involves running this gauntlet. The idea that science translates easily into politics is an unfortunate notion that, again, encourages the false idea that we already have the political solutions because we already have the science. But there are important, consequential trade-offs involved in politics and economics that have nothing to do with the science. Acknowledging this truth leads to better policy. Avoiding this truth leads to less ideal solutions with unintended consequences.
- Technology and Engineering. This is where the carbon-free rubber meets the societal road. It’s where the real challenge of decarbonizing an entire industrial system in mid-flight happens. It’s where we make choices about what we can do today, what we can tomorrow, and what we can’t do yet at all. How far can renewables be scaled? What do we do about base load power and storage? What other new energy tech might bear fruit? It’s where we have honest conversations about the upsides and downsides, capacities, and limitations of energy technology.
There’s a popular principle in retail that goes something like this: “Rule number one: The customer is always right. Rule number two:- If the customer is wrong, see rule number one.” Too often, the climate movement has their own version of this principle. Rule number one: The science is always right. Rule number two: If anyone brings up political realities, economic trade-offs, or technological challenges, see rule one. I worry that the implied message of Don’t Look Up doubles down on this principle. Indeed, it borders on being dismissive and contemptuous of considerations outside of domain one, as if the truth of the science could by itself transcend the enormous complexity involved in politics, economics, technology, and engineering. Are you trying to consider the trade-offs between making developing economies more resilient to Climate Change and carbon reduction itself? Screw you, the comet is coming! Are you trying to figure out the right mix of energy solutions, given the economic consequences of each and the short-, mid- and long-term technological possibilities? Screw you, the comet is coming! Are you trying to preserve the best of modernism while helping it evolve beyond its limitations? Do you not see the giant ball of fire in the sky?! Apocalypse is truly a one-size-fits-all answer.
This approach has enormous repercussions. Like many obsessions with purity, it creates a strange marriage of imaginal optimism and real-world cynicism. These are, as Breakthrough Institute founder Ted Nordhaus writes in the Economist, “two sides of the apocalyptic coin.” And both involve retreating to the comparatively safer ground of science and awareness (it’s the comet, stupid!), where our inner ethical algorithms can fly painlessly above the unpleasant trade-offs that come with domains two and three. Sometimes it seems that if activists just say the word “renewables” loudly enough, it will act as some form of magic pixie dust that can be sprinkled on any question or concern and make it disappear. I’m all for scaling up solar and wind energy and investing in other renewables, and of course, we desperately need to continue to improve batteries and other storage technologies. But these cannot yet provide the energy we need right now, and they all naturally come with their own downsides and trade-offs. They aren’t untainted. And what about nuclear? Of course, safety is always paramount when it comes to nuclear, but is there any greater monument to the foolishness of a purity-focused ideology than the strange relationship that the global climate change community has with nuclear? If you really think we had twelve years to avoid a catastrophe, as the IPCC stated, surely you would never shut down a safe, successful, carbon-free nuclear plant, even given the risks of the technology. Not now, not yet! Not without carbon-free alternatives waiting in the wings. And yet we see it consistently. “Nuclear must go, and renewables must replace it,” we hear again and again in the imaginal, ideal world of climate activism. Back in the real world, natural gas, coal, oil, or something similarly carbon-intensive is inevitably employed to fill the gap. Perhaps this message is finally getting through to European leaders who are in the process of declaring nuclear a sustainable energy source after a winter of discontent in power markets, and despite significant opposition.
In war, it is often said, the first casualty is truth. Similarly, in ideology, the first casualty is pragmatism. If we fall too far into the realm of the ideal, however well-intentioned, we lose track of the real.
In war, it is often said, the first casualty is truth. Similarly, in ideology, the first casualty is pragmatism. If we fall too far into the realm of the ideal, however well-intentioned, we lose track of the real. And we need both, to make progress. But for the idealists of the climate community, such talk, with its compromises and trade-offs, is often seen as a form of “soft-denialism,” merely moving deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s seen as an excuse to delay the more radical sacrifices needed to forestall the comet. This argument reminds me of certain churches of my youth, where all talk of sex education was seen as merely giving succor to dangerous forces of compromise. No pragmatism allowed. It’s all abstinence; all the time. God is watching. Just look up.
You can call for sacrifice and transformation from now until the cows come home (as they say where I grew up) but people and governments will do what they need to do in order to obtain energy and electricity to power and empower their lives and livelihoods. Plus, we’re going to need more electricity, not less, if we truly want to decarbonize our transportation sector while continuing to raise standards of living around the planet. Yes, an individual might forego an extra flight, or spend money to better insulate their home, or put solar on their roof, or reduce their meat consumption, or make a hundred other positive, climate-conscious choices. And some countries may be even able afford to allow energy to get more expensive if it means a reduction in carbon. But how far can we really take such a calculation? As journalist and author Robert Bryce told me in a recent podcast interview, “Darkness kills human potential.”2 Should a mother in a developing country forgo the electricity that can free her from the drudgery of manual housework, or that can provide light so her daughter can study and go to college, just because its source is carbon-intensive? Should we expect her to? And if the answer is no, then do we have legitimate alternatives? And how soon will they be available?
If you want to make a long-term, dramatic impact on carbon in the atmosphere, the primary goal today shouldn’t be to convince or shame the chattering classes of the developed world. Believe me, they are well-shamed. The goal should be to find, invest in, encourage, deploy, and scale actual alternatives to carbon-intensive fossil fuels. Contrary to what a thousand Instagram influencers might believe, we don’t have those answers yet–not in all the areas we need them, not across the energy landscape, and not in ways that can truly replace industrial activities. Give people real carbon-lite or carbon-free options, with close to price-parity, and watch them flourish. The will is there; we need the way.
All of this is an argument for urgency but also for reasoned pragmatism in the climate movement. In part, because I think that’s where we’re going to end up eventually, whatever happens. It’s not clear to me there are other options, at least not without a fundamentally anti-democratic, economically backward re-engineering of society that would create its own massive, unpredictable, and dangerous consequences, adding another, different form of human suffering on top of a warming planet. The question is, how many enemies and villains must we create, how much ideological handwringing are we going to go through, in the process? How much extra fear and consternation are we going to stoke in future generations? How many potential allies will we alienate? Pragmatic urgency should allow us to cut through some of the utopian and dystopian fantasies of societal revolution that tempt, tantalize, and ultimately distract the climate movement. It should allow us to see past the rhetoric of abstinence-only climate activism and focus on the everyday challenge of making tangible, practical progress on reducing carbon in the atmosphere—project by project, year by year, country by country, government by government, technology by technology, decade by decade.
To do so, we will need to admit that the politics and economics of Climate Change are not as clear-cut as the science. Neither are the technological and engineering challenges we need to solve. There are no perfect solutions, only imperfect but hopefully positive choices to be made–as individuals, as companies, as governments, and as a society. Making those choices means walking a path that rejects both the imaginal optimism of the “renewables only” crowd and the resigned (and sometimes righteous) cynicism of the doomers. Instead, we can courageously lean into the real-world consequences of policy, and work to improve things on the ground. Obsession with apocalypse, among its many sins, saps that energy to move forward and make progress. And if we’re not careful, that path will lead us into that other unfortunate byproduct of apocalyptic thinking—waiting for a God to save us.