Spoiler Alert: We Can Still Knock the “Comet” Off Course. But We Can’t Squander Solutions.

January 26, 2022 | 2:55 pm
Meghan Hassett
Former Contributor

I am far from the only UCS staffer to feel “seen” by Don’t Look Up, a satire that I found to be infuriating and cathartic all at once. You don’t have to like it. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was heavy-handed, too. But we are going to keep talking about it.

As my climate scientist colleagues have pointed out, the comet is a powerful allegory for climate change and the consequences of failing to overcome fossil fuel and corporate interests. But the film was also a powerful reminder that these interests are obstructing clear-cut solutions, such as renewable energy, leaving us with nonsense “solutions” that only serve to maintain the status quo—benefiting the wealthy and powerful at the expense of literally everyone on the planet.

Don’t Look Up’s painful illustration of government failure

We need to talk about the scene where the fictionalized U.S. government had a clear-cut solution in front of them, and just … didn’t do it.

Once the corrupt government in Don’t Look Up finally found it in its self-interest to *do something* about the comet, there was actually a pretty good plan to knock the comet off course with nuclear missiles. The mission had more than an 80 percent chance of success once things were in motion.

In my line of work, we often talk about how reaching 80 percent carbon-free electricity is relatively easy. A recent UC Berkeley analysis found that 80 percent emission reductions in the power sector by 2030 is both technically and economically feasible. It’s the last 10 to 20 percent that gets technologically and economically tricky. “Success” in our case is reaching 100 percent pollution-free electricity, so immediate action to get 80 percent of the way there is a no-brainer. Watching Congress delay passing legislation that would get us to 80 percent emission reductions is like watching the president in Don’t Look Up abandon a planet-saving mission that had an 80 percent chance of success.

We have the technology and the solutions to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate change comet—replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, electrify everything we can—yet our elected officials are still investing in fossil fuel infrastructure and failing to enact straightforward strategies that would promote wind and solar and shut down coal and gas plants. 

The part of Don’t Look Up that gutted me as a clean energy advocate was the fact that the government had all the information and effective solutions at hand (in our case, wind and solar power, battery storage technology, grid management solutions) and stopped mid-mission to cater to corporate interests instead. Sound familiar? (I watched the film in late December, just days after the Senate adjourned for the holidays without passing critical clean energy policies in the Build Back Better Act, thanks to friends of the fossil fuel industry on Capitol Hill).

Beware false solutions designed by and for corporate interests

We know that renewable energy and electrification is the key to reducing fossil fuel emissions that drive climate change. We know all about the problem, and we also have solutions at hand. What are we waiting for?

Instead of implementing clean energy solutions we know can work, some want us to wait on fossil fuel-friendly “innovation” and technologies that have not been proven at scale. (These are the supporters of BASH Cellular’s plan for the comet, and we know how that went for planet Earth).

For example, you may be hearing a lot about “renewable natural gas” and hydrogen technology these days. While there are some practical applications of these technologies to reduce heat-trapping emissions, the Energy and Policy Institute found that utilities are using them to expand fossil fuel infrastructure and further entrench us in the problem. These technologies are far from a replacement for the clear need to deploy renewable energy and electrify everything we can. This is akin to the BASH Cellular CEO (a blatant parody of tech billionaires like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos) in Don’t Look Up proposing a profit-motivated “solution” to the comet problem that isn’t peer-reviewed and ultimately fails.

This giant waste of time leaves humanity with no chance to implement the fundamental solutions (in our case, wind, solar, and other renewable energy technologies). Of course, the billionaires had an escape plan the entire time, abandoning the planet and refusing to use their power and resources for anything other than self-interest. Frankly, reality satirizes itself here: During a year that was one of the warmest on record globally with a pandemic that has killed more than 5.5 million people worldwide, Musk and Bezos used their wealth to shoot rockets into space in a bizarre rivalry.

In Don’t Look Up, the corporate proposal to mine the comet is fundamentally incompatible with the safety of the planet. Similarly, the fossil fuel industry’s profit motives are fundamentally incompatible with reaching zero fossil fuel pollution. When it comes to decarbonization, our interests are not aligned. And yet, fossil fuel interests are often the most powerful voices in conversations about emission reductions. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a climate satire—like, state legislators decided we need more energy storage like batteries to facilitate a shift to 100 percent clean energy, so why am I listening to a utility company presentation on storing methane gas in rocks to burn later in a state agency proceeding on energy storage programs? Is this a joke?

Industry-led “innovation” is not always aligned with science-based solutions—indeed, they are often incompatible. When it comes to energy policy decisionmaking, we must be vigilant about who is “in the room” and their motives. Climate solutions should be rooted in science and the needs of impacted communities, rather than in the fossil fuel industry’s agenda. And we must face the fact that the only way to tackle the climate crisis is head on, by defeating fossil fuel interests. Billionaires like the BASH Cellular CEO won’t save us.

Beyond “looking up”

The final gut punch of Don’t Look Up for someone who works for a science advocacy organization was watching the scientists and activists spend so much time and energy on trying to get people and politicians to acknowledge the bitter reality of impending apocalypse while failing to communicate what anyone could do about it.

The call to action from the benefit concert featuring Ariana Grande’s improvised lyrics is to simply “look up,” not to “call the White House to demand that the president relaunch the nuclear missiles.” When Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters get real in wonderful Network-style truth-rants, the focus is still so doomsday that it’s hard to motivate people to push for action. Saying “This comet is a planet killer, look at it” is accurate, but it would have been more effective to say, “We need to change the comet’s course to save our planet.” Awareness is only the beginning of action.

Climate science, even the scariest, most dire predictions, is not enough to spur action. We also need to push for the clean energy solutions that are already out there. While feeling despair is normal, we need to find ways to channel that despair rather than just sit with it.

Notorious comet-barons like Sen. Joe Manchin are always going to stand in the way, and corporate interests and the wealthy elite (aptly named “Platinum Eagle”-level donors in the film) will continue to have outsized influence on policy. But unlike a comet collision, where everyone faces the same fate, climate change is more harmful to people who are already overburdened by social harms and injustices. Climate change is not only more dangerous in certain parts of the world, such as formerly colonized countries where marginalized people are more likely to live, but it is also disproportionately harmful to marginalized people wherever they live. Climate change impacts are less acute for those with wealth and power due to a whole host of reasons—but they are often the people with the power to advance or obstruct climate action. Instead of simply fighting for the planet as a whole, we must fight environmental racism and the concept of “sacrifice zones.” It’s definitely an uphill battle. But the solutions are right here. What we need is overwhelming political pressure to deploy them. We must do more than “just look up.”