“Don’t Look Up,” a satirical movie about a massive comet hurtling toward Earth, is anxiety-inducing — and it doesn’t end well. Some climate scientists are giving two thumbs up, including University of Washington professor Lisa Graumlich.
The premise: Two astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a “planet killer” scheduled to pulverize Earth in less than seven months, but no one seems to care. Adam McKay’s climate change allegory broke Netflix’s record for most viewing hours in a week in December, despite mixed reviews from critics.
Graumlich, president-elect of the American Geophysical Union and dean emeritus at UW’s College of the Environment, has studied the causes and impacts of climate change throughout her career. She applauded the film as an eye-opening analogy.
The Seattle Times spoke with Graumlich about aspects of “Don’t Look Up” that resonated with her, and how hit movies can start a conversation about climate change.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your initial reaction to “Don’t Look Up”?
As a scientist, anytime we hear there’s going to be a movie that’s going to feature climate change, we have this kind of delight and dread because we’re always trying to get a really strong message out to the public, and then we’re always like, oh, my gosh, will it get mangled? … I’m also a mom of a teenager who cares a lot about these issues. I was watching the news of the movie coming in from my science social media, and she was watching from a much more youth-activist-oriented social media. We were watching it within seconds after it was released on streaming.
In what ways was the movie an accurate analogy for the climate crisis? In what ways was it not?
What fascinated me so much was that we’ve got a prediction, we have a forecast of a force, an event, that is going to fundamentally change and damage the earth as a whole. And we know what’s going to happen, in the case of climate change. If you give scientists enough caffeine or other kinds of beverages, you can split hairs about, was that the perfect metaphor? Well, maybe yes, maybe not. But the part that resonated for me was the scientific certainty and the global impact. … So it was very realistic and compelling.
The encounters with the sitting president and the way executive branch decision making was portrayed — yeah, that was over the top and was done to create humor and satire. But that’s what humor is. It’s something that, in taking a situation or a way we speak to each other, to an almost absurd level, it makes us back up and say, well, there are grains of truth here.
What do you hope is the lesson the average person takes from viewing this film?
Delay makes the problem worse. … They’ve got a timeline of when the impact is going to happen, and meetings are put off … and you watch the portrayal of the science characters, their anxiety just heightens. And part of the movie that really struck me is Professor Mindy, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, is driving down the street, and he sees the comet. He stops the car, and other people stop their car, and they can see it. … And I feel like we’re at that point, which is that, once again, decades ago, I would talk about these impacts, like we were going to have really bad wildfires in the West. We’ve seen them now. … Or the flooding in the Midwest and in Germany and in the southeast part of the United States. Or the terrible storm damage in the Caribbean. We’ve all seen it. We’re at the point where we’re looking up, and we can see it. And the more we delay, the harder the solutions will be.
Why is it beneficial to look at climate change through a digestible lens?
It gets people talking. And what is crazy is we’ve got this situation where climate change, arguably the climate emergency, has become so politicized that if we gather with — COVID permitting — with family and friends at holidays, we might make these rules, like, OK, we’re not going to talk about climate change because it’s polarizing. It used humor and satire to get people talking. … It broke some ice that had developed around this.
In the movie, the astronomers are not taken seriously by media or government officials. Is this representative of your experience as a scientist?
The relationship with the broadcast news media seems almost silly in its over-the-top-ness. At the same time, while I haven’t personally experienced that, I know that has happened. … I’ve been doing this kind of work seriously since the 1980s, and I would characterize the relationship between climate scientists and the media as we were often talking past each other. … I recounted the story myself of having my science, as a young faculty member, being reported very credibly in The New York Times and within 24 hours having it picked up and mocked by Rush Limbaugh on his radio show as to why would you ever look at the rings of trees to try to understand this silly thing called climate change. … The other piece that I want to shine a bright light on is that scientists are smart; we realize that we need to do a better job learning how to communicate simply and directly and develop relationships with the media … and to much more effectively communicate, not just with media but also with policymakers and the public more generally.
With respect to government, it waxes and wanes with politics. There were periods of time where research that we were doing funded by the U.S. Forest Service [and other large natural resource management agencies] — we couldn’t use the word “climate change.” … And there’s other times in the government where our insights into what is changing and what are the impacts going to be, for our nation’s natural resources that will have impacts for economies and livelihoods, are welcomed and embraced.
Was capitalism’s role in the climate crisis accurately portrayed in the movie’s metaphor?
The role of capitalism and profit-making, once again, was taken to a comic absurdity that we could all kind of shake our head at and recognize as a mirror back to ourselves. It was a little bit like a funhouse mirror. But there was truth in what that mirror portrayed. Why have we not done anything? It’s not that the science isn’t here. It’s about short-term thinking and — I’m going to use the word greed, knowing it’s a provocative word — the ability to be putting our profits and our current lifestyle over the well-being of the earth’s climate system and all of the people and communities and ecosystems that depend on it. We know what we need to do, which is cutting out fossil fuels and simply consuming less and coming up with a cultural shift. … And once again, I was talking about this in the 1980s. We’d be talking about things that were going to happen in 2020 and 2030. My goodness, that was a long time away. But now it’s here. The short term has arrived.
How do you balance taking climate change seriously while remaining optimistic?
Oh, there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic because we do have time. We’ve got to roll up our sleeves, but we do have time. … Where are there places where communities, industries, nations are taking actions that are across a span of energy policy, thinking about the food system, looking at ways in which conservation of soil in the Midwest and other parts of the world actually preserves carbon in the soil and makes it more fertile and more productive for farmers — where are these win-win solutions? We’re resourceful, we know how to do these things. How do we share that good news, and then scale it fast?
What is an important lesson missing from the movie?
The movie is really about eliminating disaster. The big opportunity with addressing climate change is that we can go beyond limiting harm. In creating more fuel-efficient public transportation systems in our cities, we actually offer opportunities for people to sort of reduce the cost they’re paying for transportation and reduce the health impacts coming from pollution associated with fossil-fuel-based transportation industries. When we talk about nature-based solutions, we talk about giving more parks and green spaces and conserving forest land. And we know that contact with nature makes us more mentally healthy. … We have an opportunity, not just to keep hanging on. We can make the earth and our communities living on the face of the earth a place of regeneration.