The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Disaster flicks like ‘Don’t Look Up’ won’t spur climate change action. Here’s why.

It all goes back to the 1980s and the fight over nuclear weapons

Protest placards in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin in April 2020. (Michael Sohn/AP)
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“The real-life story of the climate crisis makes even the wildest, biggest-budget film like Don’t Look Up seem like a charming EM Forster adaptation. But does this story-of-all-stories get wall-to-wall news coverage? Nope. Not by a long shot.”

So observed director Adam McKay and marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson in their recent Guardian opinion article calling for new messaging on the climate crisis.

Yet if you are in search of such new messaging in McKay’s blockbuster Netflix film “Don’t Look Up” — well, don’t look there.

Like other dramatizations about climate or planetary catastrophe, the film tackles trying to deal with a comet on a collision course with Earth. It is a humorous addition to the climate catastrophe genre, featuring a world where only scientists can save the planet — and only if they can persuade those in power to be reasonable. If that doesn’t work, kaboom!

“Don’t Look Up” inadvertently shows us the pitfalls of a common trope of fictional work on the risks of climate disruption. Since depictions connecting nuclear weapons and global catastrophe emerged in the 1980s, extraterrestrial interlopers such as comets and asteroids have often been used to evoke the climate crisis. But such portrayals haven’t been particularly successful in spurring action — because the metaphor doesn’t work. Stopping the climate crisis requires collective political action, not scientific approaches alone.

In 1980, a team of geologists and nuclear chemists detected a bizarre stratum of the rare element iridium in the geological record around the same time as the disappearance of the dinosaurs. They hypothesized that an asteroid impact — which would have sent enough dust aerosols into the atmosphere to alter Earth’s albedo and begin a cooling feedback loop — probably triggered an extinction event. Two years later, the atmospheric chemists Paul Crutzen and Paul W. Birks stumbled upon the possibility that ground fires in the aftermath of a nuclear conflagration could cause enough soot to enter the stratosphere to lower Earth’s temperature and potentially trigger an Ice Age.

These twin discoveries fueled research into the question of whether nuclear weapons could be an asteroid of human design. Would a nuclear war risk a repeat of the catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs? Atmospheric scientists began to apply their increasingly sophisticated computer models to the potential environmental effects of nuclear war. The prospect of a “nuclear winter” soon spurred new fears.

The idea wasn’t new — government and military scientists had been studying the possibility since the 1950s — but now household names were discussing the issue on prime-time television.

The famed astrobiologist Carl Sagan perceived nuclear winter as the perfect symbol for all the existential issues of the day — nuclear holocaust, aerosol pollution, mass extinction and greenhouse gas warming. Sagan was part of a group of planetary scientists including NASA’s Jim Hansen whose gaze had turned from space back to Earth. They evoked nightmarish visions of our future in Venus’s hellish thermosphere and Mars’s dust-shrouded desolation.

Sagan collaborated with a group of scientists to test Crutzen’s hypothesis with their own models, which confirmed the theory. They published a famous paper that explicitly — and unusually for a scientific paper — aimed to boost the international disarmament movement. It thrust the scientists to the center of the most important policy debate of the era.

Press coverage initially took the scientists’ claims at face value. Nuclear war would cause “Climatic Disaster” by triggering a “New Ice Age” that would bring about “A Cold, Dark Apocalypse” that was “Beyond Armageddon.” The idea of nuclear winter allowed people to grasp the dangers of nuclear war while simultaneously calling attention to the new threat of rapid climate change. Sagan soon found himself testifying before Congress in front of grisly artistic depictions of nuclear holocaust.

The publicity given to fears about nuclear winter worked wonders for the anti-nuclear movement. By the late 1980s it was a cultural phenomenon. Heavy-metal songs, children’s movies and, yes, even absurdist satires about comets destroying Earth — all of these cultural touchstones made nuclear winter a visceral symbol of planetary catastrophe, one that helped convince close to 75 percent of the American public of the urgent need for nuclear de-escalation.

For the future politics of global warming, however, the concept was far less successful.

The connection between nuclear winter and global warming had real problems that prevented it from being a tool for convincing the public of the dangers of climate change. First, it framed climate change in the cultural imagination as a prospect of immediate “total extinction,” exposing scientists to charges of being “Chicken Littles.” Second, by mobilizing atmospheric models in the political arena, scientists left their models susceptible to politicization at the precise moment when the scientific consensus on global warming — and the public will to do something about it — seemed to be solidifying.

The Reagan administration saw the claims about nuclear winter as an existential threat to its rearmament strategy. When the craze did not fade away on its own, Fred Singer, the chief scientist at the Transportation Department and a proponent of contrarian views that benefited industries under scrutiny, became the administration‘s most vocal critic of the idea. Singer accused Sagan of making sensationalist claims based on flawed modeling.

And while the opposition could impugn Singer’s objectivity, even some allies questioned Sagan’s pronouncements. Climate modeling pioneers Stephen Schneider and Starley Thompson downgraded the prospects to a “nuclear autumn,” though they emphasized that it was cold comfort if the most encouraging news was not all life on Earth was going to die.

Accusations soon abounded that scientists warning about nuclear winter were playing too fast and loose with predictive capabilities for political ends. This charge, in turn, started to bleed into disputes over environmental modeling writ large. In 1989, MIT Technology Review published a story “about an imperfect computer model for managing national forests.” To the surprise of the publication’s editors, all of the responses were on the nuclear-winter debate. “Sagan’s big chill has been exorcised,” bemoaned letter-writer and Harvard geophysicist Russell Seitz, “but the greenhouse effect is not just a ghost in the machine.”

The nuclear-winter controversy inadvertently bloodied climate science right when the politics of global warming were heating up. Exxon’s establishment of the Global Climate Coalition in 1989 launched a whole industry devoted to “debunking” claims about the dire prospect of a rapidly warming atmosphere. Scientists such as Singer conflated the fight against the “nuclear winterists” with the global-warming debate, undermining faith in atmospheric experts’ ability to predict future climate change and discouraging people from listening to their policy advice. Rampant disinformation transformed climate “skeptics” into outright denialists supporting the fossil fuel lobby’s efforts to block government regulation and sabotage international agreements.

While the political will for action on global warming weakened, asteroid disaster flicks such as “Deep Impact” (1998) and “Armageddon” (1998) provided people an escapist fantasy of planetary catastrophes averted (for the most part) through scientific expertise and international cooperation. Climate catastrophe films kept the memory of nuclear winter alive but discouraged civic engagement in the process. Whether the mechanism was terrestrial (“The Day After Tomorrow,” 2004), extraterrestrial (“Earthstorm,” 2006) or of human design (“Snowpiercer,” 2013), the disaster was always an instantaneous cataclysm triggering a Snowball Earth. The movies presented audiences with the options of total extinction or technological salvation — options that rendered people powerless to join in mass mobilization to effect systemic change.

Yet, the climate crisis is very different from an errant asteroid. Stopping it demands far more than listening to scientists and trusting their technical solutions. For fiction to have an influence on the climate debate, it needs stories that highlight the ways climate change is disrupting everyday life, stories about its impacts — visible and submerged — on health and psychology, family and community, inequality and justice. This, far more than films about sudden Earth-killer comets or nefarious geo-engineering schemes, could help galvanize people to confront the dangers they face in their communities here, now, today.