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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  McKay’s ‘Don’t Look Up’ offers a lesson on climate messaging
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McKay’s ‘Don’t Look Up’ offers a lesson on climate messaging

The film means well but falls into too many communication traps

This DiCaprio-starrer’s a hit but it’s unclear if it can help galvanize climate actionPremium
This DiCaprio-starrer’s a hit but it’s unclear if it can help galvanize climate action

Director Adam McKay’s climate satire Don’t Look Up isn’t subtle. The hair is big, the parody obvious, the targets as plentiful as its star-studded cast—and the planet is about to explode. The whole enterprise is a monument to frustration, which may explain why environmental scientists have warmed to the film more than film critics. Whether through the missteps of the protagonists or the filmmaker, it also offers a lesson on the real challenge of spreading the word about a need for urgent global action against climate change.

The storyline of this Netflix dark comedy is simple enough: A PhD student (Jennifer Lawrence) and a timid astronomy professor (Leonardo DiCaprio) have spotted a giant comet that is going to hit Earth within little more than six months. Everyone will die. Yet, they can’t convince anyone, least of all the populist US president, played by Meryl Streep, to take the right course of action. The media is too distracted and [business] just wants to make money once the rock is found to contain rare earths and minerals.

The movie does get some things right. It captures the difficulty of expressing a message so overwhelming for our imaginations that it often triggers not action, but indifference or despair—just as it does onscreen. The exasperation so palpable in the film is a daily reality for those working in climate policy. People really do hear only what they want to hear, as when Streep’s president hangs on to the news that the comet’s certainty is just below 100%—“call it 70% and let’s move on"—ignoring the scientists sitting in the room. The film portrays the siren call of unproven ‘win-win’ technology and the toxicity of bothsideism. As in real life, the fight between researchers and political and economic interests is asymmetric.

There’s also much to criticize in a movie that spends so much time being outraged. For one, the metaphor is too simplistic. Global warming is not a single, driverless comet hurtling at us. The threat of global warming is diffuse, and worrying for its very unpredictability; also, entire industries are accelerating it. Climate disaster also isn’t an equal-opportunity killer.

When it comes to climate messaging, the protagonists fall into plenty of traps. At one point, the movie suggests that the scientists’ failure on a light-hearted chat show is proof of society’s ignorance—but it’s just as much a question of understanding audiences and human biases. No one fails to accept climate change because they are more worried about celebrity breakups, as portrayed. We struggle to understand climate realities that feel distant in time or space, or are simply impossible to envisage. Overcoming that cognitive hurdle doesn’t necessarily mean simply following the advice that DiCaprio’s scientist is given—“not too much math"—but it does mean making the message relevant, delivering it through a trusted voice and framing it in local terms. We know that making communication local is crucial, and there’s ample evidence that familiar messengers, be it community leaders or weather casters connecting extreme weather to global warming, can change mind, but those trying to convey the message in this movie do none of that.

The film also never grants the general population—and even other nations—agency. People respond better to events they can hope to influence, and if solutions are available. When it comes to global warming, that means outlining the problem but then telling your audience they have a role to play—as consumers, for example, and, most importantly, as voters. It’s what turns awareness into action.

McKay’s Don’t Look Up won’t convince anyone on the fence, not least because of its lack of empathy. With its black-and-white villains, the story treats naysayers and doubters with condescension, whether it’s the masses distracted by social media, journalists chasing net clicks or Lawrence’s parents in Michigan, who say they are “for the jobs the comet will create", but get no sympathy. Hectoring is rarely effective when it comes to changing minds.

But that wasn’t really the point. There is certainly something farcical about the public reaction to global warming. People are engaging with the film as a result, and that matters, as Tom Brookes at the Global Strategic Communications Council, a network of public relations experts focused on climate, told me. It may touch only those already concerned, but as he put it, that’s now the overwhelming majority of the world’s population—and a vast and varied group in need of galvanizing.

There’s far better climate fiction. There’s better satire and better comedy, some of it directed by McKay himself. But Don’t Look Up has got millions talking about our climate and is now the most-watched Netflix film in dozens of countries. Can A-listers be trusted messengers and bridge the gap between awareness and action? That is another question entirely.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues.

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Published: 13 Jan 2022, 09:57 PM IST
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