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Opinion What ‘Don’t Look Up’ gets wrong about climate change

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from the Netflix film “Don't Look Up.” (Niko Tavernise/Netflix via AP)

Why don’t Americans care about climate change? That’s the question behind the star-studded political satire “Don’t Look Up.”

Rather than directly address the climate crisis, the movie uses an analogous disaster: a world-destroying comet. The action begins when two astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover that a giant comet is headed toward Earth, and the film then follows their increasingly desperate struggle to convince a Trump-like White House, a vapid media and a distracted public that the world is on the brink of destruction.

Their characters’ growing frustration captures the frustration of the real-world scientific community. Climate scientist Peter Kalmus writes that it’s “the most accurate film about society’s terrifying nonresponse to climate breakdown I’ve seen,” and his colleagues seem to agree.

In scene after scene, the movie offers several explanations for our nonresponse: because we’re obsessed with celebrity culture and distrustful of science, because the news media is actually in the entertainment business, because politicians prioritize reelection over problem-solving, and because billionaire geniuses choose profit over everything.

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To those, I would add — and this is crucial, I think — because climate change isn’t a comet speeding toward Earth.

Yes, I know, no analogy is perfect. But if writer and director Adam McKay (“The Big Short,” “Vice”) wants to persuade people to “make the climate crisis the No. 1 priority,” as he has said, then the metaphor he chose is perfectly wrong.

DiCaprio told the Chicago Sun-Times, “The brilliance of this screenplay is the analogy of making it a comet that is going to wipe out mankind within a six-month time frame created this massive sense of urgency, rather than some slow-moving climate behemoth narrative.”

Exactly! What the climate crisis lacks, what our response lacks, is a massive sense of urgency. By giving us a plot with a thrilling, terrifying countdown — six months to total planetary annihilation — McKay obscures rather than illuminates the issue that’s holding us back.

Contrary to the movie’s implication, most Americans already believe the science on climate change. The ones who don’t — science deniers represented in the film rallying under the cry of “Don’t Look Up!” — aren’t really the core problem. The problem is that those of us who believe climate scientists don’t feel that sense of urgency that we would if, say, a planet-killing comet were headed our way. When we don’t feel the urgency, we don’t act.

Oh, sure: I do all the basic things. I recycle. I drive a hybrid. I hang my laundry out to dry. But I don’t go to climate protests, and I don’t harangue my friends, and I don’t think of climate as my top political cause.

On some level, though, I know that it should be. “The alarm bells are deafening,” said U.N. Secretary General António Guterres in August when the Intergenerational Panel on Climate Change Working Group 1 issued its latest, most dire report, which he described as “code red for humanity.”

“Why aren’t people terrified?” DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy frets. “What do we have to say, what do we have to do?”

What might help is a movie that inspires (or shames) me and other well-meaning people to change our behavior even though we will never see the benefits in our lifetimes, much less this year, and even though the “extinction-level event” is slow-moving and complex. Which might mean giving up meat or traveling by air. And definitely means becoming single-issue voters, for whom the issue is saving the planet.

Don’t Look Up” is not that movie. Instead, it is an example of the very phenomenon that it seeks to critique: making an urgent but complicated scientific message more simplistic so that it is more palatable to the public. Its villains are so villainous and its science deniers are so dumb — literally refusing to look at the thing that is literally about to kill them — that I can safely think, it’s those bozos. Don’t look at me!

Fine — movies don’t have to change lives. They can just make rueful jokes about the current state of our society and poke fun at the worst of us. I just wish that “Don’t Look Up,” with such good intentions and such a great cast, hadn’t let me off the hook quite so completely.