It’s the Comet, Stupid!

The Problem with Don’t Look Up and a Call for Climate Pragmatism

By Carter Phipps

“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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

Notes:

1. https://screenrant.com/dont-look-up-neil-degrasse-tyson-documentary-response/

2. https://www.carterphipps.com/2020/09/15/robert-bryce-how-electricity-explains-the-world/

Showing 22 comments
  • Justin McSharry
    Reply

    Amen, Carter!

    • Carter Phipps
      Reply

      Hey Justin! Nice to see you on here. You still in SF?

  • John Bunzl
    Reply

    Great article, Carter! Climate deniers may be a problem, but climate activists’ denial of political-economic realities – such as every nation’s need to maintain its economic competitiveness; a need that makes it impossible for governments to act decisively on climate – is a much bigger problem!

    • Carter Phipps
      Reply

      Thx John! Great to hear from you. How r u doing? How’s Simpol doing these days?

  • Bill Argus
    Reply

    Well said. Excellent integral framing of the climate crisis

    • Carter Phipps
      Reply

      Appreciate it Bill

  • Steve Richardson
    Reply

    Thanks, Carter, for your very thoughtful appeal to reason. As a former petroleum engineer, I was put off by the falling sky crowd when the issue surfaced back in the ’90s. I never joined the deniers but kept waiting for sensible solutions from the zealots, who never seemed to consider the points you make here.

    • Carter Phipps
      Reply

      Yes, I hope as the impact of the energy shift gets more apparent, it will force more realism, and inspire more honest discussions that go beyond denial/acceptance.

  • Steve Greenleaf
    Reply

    My response to Carter’s terrific essay goes well beyond 2000 characters, so I posted it here: https://sngthoughts.blogspot.com/2022/02/responding-to-carter-phipps-about.html. Suffice to say here that I wrote by way of a “concurring opinion.” If you haven’t read the essay above carefully and thoroughly already, please do so. Now. And then my response if you get around to it.

    • Carter Phipps
      Reply

      Look forward to reading that Steve, glad I inspired some reflections!

  • Maria Baes
    Reply

    Always love your grand scope. Thank you

    • Carter Phipps
      Reply

      Thx Maria!

  • Jaki Scarcello
    Reply

    Fantastic article! I was going to introduce you to Simpol Carter, but I see you know John Bunzl and Simpol where the economic and political realities of dealing with issues like climate change are all too well acknowledged but also part of the strategy.
    I have you seen this short, it sums up the economic and political reality quite succinctly
    https://youtu.be/aQuLExIinBE

  • John Reed
    Reply

    The movie it seems to me is about much more than “climate change”. It parodies “civilization overshoot”, human exceptionalism, modernity’s primary “religion” of growth, progress and technology. The movie points to a “problem” that can no longer be solved but a “predicament” to adapt to. And no….accepting reality does not mean giving up. There is a rich, fertile, sacred ground beyond doom. (Post-doom definition from M. Dowd
    1. What opens up when we remember who we are, accept the inevitable, honor our grief, and prioritize what is pro-future and soul-nourishing.

    2. A fierce and fearless reverence for life and relative equanimity even in the midst of abrupt climate mayhem, a global pandemic, and collapse of both the health of the biosphere and business as usual.

    3. Living meaningfully, compassionately, and courageously no matter what)

    Yes! there’s no one to blame, we all are responsible, we need to “bend” not “break” as Nate Hagens says, and lets do all we can to that end.(see http://www.thegreatsimplification.com) I for one am not waiting for “a God to save us” AND that includes what seems to be the Integral Gods of “growth, technology, progress”

    • Carter Phipps
      Reply

      Thx John. I don’t know Nate Hagens, but thx for sharing his work. And while Michael D and I may not see eye to eye on everything, I’m a friend and fan of him and Connie, and I’m sure they’re doing great work.

  • Gerard Bruitzman
    Reply

    ‘Don’t Look Up’ is provocative, funny, upsetting, at times, but seriously inadequate.
    ‘Don’t Look Up’ provides its own curious treatment of techno-optimism.
    Beyond various techno-optimisms, however, there is, according to systems transformation catalyst at r3.0 Bill Baue, either ESG (more blah! blah! blah!) or Sustainability: You Choose.
    Whoops! Notice that sustainability (living within ecological limits and with fair social allocations) receives no attention in ‘Don’t Look Up’.
    Instead, the movie makes a naïve stand for science, without any awareness of the ways science turns into scientism, which, some say, is another crucial factor in our climate-ecological crises.
    Some philosophers of science, ignored for decades, continue to warn us about the dangers of Cartesian bifurcation, which results in the drastic reduction of reality into abstract mathematical terms.
    Such drastic reduction of reality ends with all of us waging our stupid, all-consuming war on nature.
    So, we need to work altogether to change our current degenerative ways of living into truly regenerative ways of living.
    We must stop waging our stupid, currently escalating, degenerative war on nature.
    See https://independent.academia.edu/GerardBruitzman.

  • Michael Zimmerman
    Reply

    Carter, thank you for posting this important, thoughtful essay. Germany is trying to lead the way on weening itself from fossil fuel, but windmills and solar are insufficient, so not only is Germany using more coal than it has for several years, but it now has the highest electricity rates in the developed world. As you point out, we do not have the scalable technology needed to arrive at Net Zero for decades to come. Moreover, cost estimates for Net Zero are woefully and perhaps deliberately understated. In the meantime, Germany has covered it wonderful landscape with 50,000 massive windmills and proposes to cut 1000 year old forests and massive portions of the Black Forest, all with the “environmental” aim of lowering carbon emissions. As we in the US start to buy lots of Tesla, is anyone asking where the electricity will come from to power them? And do you know what it costs to replace a Tesla battery when it wears out?? Finally, I would argue that there is nothing “settled” about climate science, despite claims to the contrary. If one studies the peer reviewed climate articles on thoughtful but skeptical website, one discovers that there remains much uncertainty about our understanding of climate, including the fact that we don’t know how much cloud cover is responsible for atmospheric heating. It may be that we have overestimated the role played by anthropogenic CO2 in recent warming, and that we have overlooked the fact that the Earth was warmer in various epochs durig the past 5000 years with very little anthropogenic CO2. Yes, let’s move toward decarbonization, and yes let’s do so wisely, as your essay so cogently reminds us!

    • Carter Phipps
      Reply

      Thx Michael! Great to see the Integral Ecologist himself here. 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the article.

  • Robert Heinzman
    Reply

    Hi Carter, thanks for this, really clear thinking, totally helpful – and great writing. A delight to read. I agree pretty much across the board. Yet, here’s just a small defense of Greta and Co. During my years working in tropical forest conservation, I started by picketing with a bullhorn outside the World Bank, got arrested, etc. But as I sought pragmatic solutions, I (as you know) ended up running an economic development program for rural poor farmers in Central America – the ones with the chainsaws – with money from those same bankers! That solution path was possible because the activism gave politicians the clearing in which to act. When we young activists called for a total boycott on tropical timber, we did it with some inkling of intention. We frightened the wood products industry. This made room for others to create Certified Sustainable Forest Products labelling. There’s a parallel with the climate crisis. Larry Fink is not demanding that $10t of Blackrock investments across 1000s of companies use climate accounting because Greta forced him. He’s doing it because, as he said recently, ‘it’s capitalism.’ And it’s capitalism because that’s where money is going – mirroring how values are evolving. In a recent Harvard seminar on climate economics, the scientists who run government agencies from all over the world, the hedge fund managers, the corporate sustainability officers and others in attendance were there because society screamed to wake up. So, yeah, the religious fervor is annoying, and the thinking is laden with more than a blindspot or two; it’s neo-luddite crap animated by pixie dust and unicorns in an echo chamber of unexamined dogmas. But in my experience all that dogma, which you beautifully describe the hazards of, is essential for creating the opening for the innovation of pragmatic solutions.

    • Carter Phipps
      Reply

      Thanks Robert. I know how much experience you have in this area. This issue/question of the role of more radical activism in these movements, and where it helps and where it hinders, where is it essential and where is it counterproductive, is such a great one. Not sure myself where I come down on some of this, but maybe fodder for a future article. The animal rights/animal ethics world is another area where I often ask myself this question. Appreciate you bringing it up. It’s really important. Oh, and speaking of good writing. This is pretty awesome “the religious fervor is annoying, and the thinking is laden with more than a blindspot or two; it’s neo-luddite crap animated by pixie dust and unicorns in an echo chamber of unexamined dogmas”. Ha!

  • Gideon Rosenblatt
    Reply

    Really interesting, Carter. I found this via Twitter, btw. I’m going to have to come back to this for one more read, just to make sure I’m agreeing with each step in the logic chain. For example, what if the only way we can actually avoid true catastrophe is some very hard pumps on the brakes?

    But I will say that it’s resonating with me on this first read.

    We need to find ways to harmonize the polarity here. I used to be in the environmental movement, and every time an ice shelf would drop, some part of me would think, “finally, this one will make people overcome their apathy and understand!” But no. It didn’t. We’re not talking about rationality here, but emotions. We are dealing with a powerful emotional magnet with each side resisting the other.

    And, yes, we need to find the actual solutions to navigate our current economic and political realities. The conversations need to include a fully-burdened,risk-adjusted cost analysis of catastrophe applied to current solutions. I think they also need to include a full cost and risk analysis of each proposed solution (as part of a budgeting process).

    None of this will be perfect, of course. But we have to start putting ourselves into the shoes of more segments of the population, not just for marketing, but for listening and collaborating too.

  • LaWanna
    Reply

    Thanks for the succinct summary of these far-reaching issues. I really like the term “pragmatic urgency.” Also, I would second Robert Heinzman’s remarks re: the screamers who bellow “wake up!” Every societal movement needs its radicals, its shrill-ers, its loud and/or persevering trumpeters signaling to the rest of the world that something is afoot and there is a need for change. They’re usually early in the game, and garner a lot of media attention which helps put whatever issue they’re trumpeting front and center, and ultimately force a deeper dive into the issues by interested others.

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