When Can Climate Change Be Comedy?
Two astronomers discover a comet that’s heading towards the Earth. The catch: There’s only six months and 14 days to avert a total annihilation of humanity.
The scientists, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, embark on a media campaign to convince the world and the president, played by Meryl Streep, to take the threat seriously.
Joining Ira to talk about the parallels between this movie and real-world crises like climate change and COVID-19 are Sonia Epstein, executive editor and associate curator of science and film at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City, and Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, based in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. Montano is also the author of Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontline of the Climate Crisis.
Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.
Samantha Montano is an assistant professor of Emergency Management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and author of Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis (Park Row, 2021). She’s based in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts.
Sonia Epstein is the Curator of Science and Technology at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. She’s also the Executive Editor of Sloan Science & Film at Museum.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. What if scientists warned of a certain upcoming doomsday, and no one took them seriously? That’s the plot of director Adam McKay’s latest dark comedy Don’t Look Up. Two astronomers discover a comet that’s heading towards the Earth, and there’s only six months and 14 days to avert a total annihilation of humanity.
The scientists played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence embark on a media campaign to convince the world and the president– played by Meryl Streep– to take the threat seriously.
SPEAKER 1: How certain is this?
SPEAKER 2: There’s 100% certainty of impact.
SPEAKER 1: Please, don’t say 100%.
SPEAKER 3: Could we just call it a potentially significant event?
SPEAKER 4: But it isn’t potentially going to happen.
SPEAKER 1: 99.78%, to be exact–
SPEAKER 3: Oh, great– OK, so it’s not 100%.
SPEAKER 1: Call it 70%, and let’s just– let’s move on.
SPEAKER 4: But it’s not even close to 70%.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, by the way, this movie is billed as a comedy. Joining me now to talk about the parallels we can draw from this movie to real-world crises, like climate change and COVID, are Sonia Epstein, executive editor and associate curator of science and film at the Museum of the Moving Image based in New York City; and Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and author of Disasterology, Dispatches From the Front Line of the Climate Crisis. She’s based in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. Welcome to Science Friday.
SAMANTHA MONTANO: Thanks for having me.
SONIA EPSTEIN: Thank you for having us.
IRA FLATOW: I just want to warn our listeners a bit that the following conversation might contain spoilers which we might not be able to avoid, so be ready for them or watch the movie before we begin our conversation. And let me begin, Sonia, with you talking about movie director Adam McKay, who has talked quite a bit about how the movie really is an allegory for climate change.
SONIA EPSTEIN: It’s interesting when watching it, because perhaps for some of you– and for me too– the first thing that comes to mind is not climate change per se, but maybe the current pandemic and the way that things have become so polarized. Adam McKay– he started writing this film in 2019. He said he was inspired by a book that came out that same year called The Uninhabitable Earth, Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells, which is, as the title indicates, about the threat of global warming and climate change.
And he really wanted to do something that was about that. And so climate change is something that happens gradually over decades, over millennia, and not something that is as locatable, say, or evident as a comet, where you can just look up, as the film says, and what’s coming at you. So far as I’ve heard Adam McKay say, he chose this conceit of the comet to make the problem imminent, tangible in a way that climate change really is not– and in so doing, to show the willful ignorance towards even a disaster as apparent as a comet.
IRA FLATOW: Samantha, do you agree that this is a good analogy?
SAMANTHA MONTANO: I really struggle with this. I went into watching this movie having listened to a lot of Adam McKay’s interviews, and so I went into it as, this is a climate movie. But as I was watching it, almost immediately, I felt like I was watching the pandemic. And certainly, there are similarities between the pandemic and climate change, and the global nature of those two, and the fact that they require a global solution, and the politics, and the economics of both of those situations. We run into this problem of trying to use a comet that has a specific date and time that it will cause destruction as a metaphor for climate, because of course, climate manifest as many little impacts over a much, much longer period of time.
IRA FLATOW: I think there was an interesting metaphor and comparison in the film where it started out as trying to convince the world, these scientists convincing the world that they– all humanity was going to die. And then it quickly morphed into what we see today– basically, oh, this is a hoax.
SAMANTHA MONTANO: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Wait a minute. Don’t believe what your eyes see. And that’s actually the title of the movie. The hoaxers were saying, don’t look up. Don’t look at the comet. It’s not there.
SAMANTHA MONTANO: Yeah. This is where I think maybe there was a bit of a clearer parallel with climate change, in that we are beginning to see the fingerprints of climate change in our day-to-day lives, as we’re seeing more and more climate-related disasters occur across the US, around the world. And scientists are able to do attribution studies make more clear those connections between specific disasters and the climate changing as a whole. In a sense, you can see the disaster a bit more. It’s a bit more clear than it was going back a decade, two decades, three decades, but still you have this issue of it being spread out over this really long period of time.
SONIA EPSTEIN: Maybe one of the things that the film does parallel– and Ira, I am also curious for you, as a science journalist– is the feeling of frustration or even disbelief that scientists or science journalists, people who are concerned about our world and the species that are in it, feel. We’ve been telling people that climate change is real, that it’s happening, and yet there is a real lack of action. And so that struck me as the main parallel between the events unfolding in the film and what’s unfolding in real life. And yeah, I guess I’m curious, for each of you, if that– it rang true in that way.
IRA FLATOW: One of the disappointing, but actually real-world issues was the total failure of the media to take this seriously. They go on a talk show, which is similar to the morning talk shows there, and as they are there to present the news about the destruction, or the imminent destruction of the world, the hosts of the talk show just– they laugh it off. And even before they sit down, one of the producers says, keep it light, keep it light, as if this is something that, you know, just morning talk show fare. And that’s really disturbing as a journalist to see the screenwriter saying, this is the state of the media now, and that’s how we think it really would happen.
SAMANTHA MONTANO: Yeah. I will say, that scene in particular definitely resonated with me, as somebody who goes on various media platforms to talk about disasters, to talk about climate change, to advocate for policy change, to prevent destruction in its various forms, seeing in the comments about, oh, they need media training before they go on TV again, how the journalists interacted with those scientists, saying, like you said, keep things light.
I’ve heard very similar things as I’ve given interviews in the past, even just making sure that we end interviews on a light note– getting asked questions like, well, what’s your favorite disaster movie? Just keep things light at the end of interviews. So that piece of it definitely resonated. And Jennifer Lawrence has a great line– something along the lines of, it’s the end of the world. Maybe it’s not supposed to be light. Maybe it’s supposed to make us stop and pay attention, feel bad.
IRA FLATOW: Sonia, Don’t Look Up reminded me immediately of another terror comedy from another era. And I’m talking about the 1960s film Dr. Strangelove about the threat of nuclear war during the Cold War. You look at this, and you see that they’re trying to make a comedy out of something that we were all very fearful of. Is that the role of film? Is that the role of trying to make a comedy? Can we reach more people with comedies than a straight documentary or a disaster?
SONIA EPSTEIN: Yeah, I think those are all good points. I think there’s other films that have a more similar– or comparable plot point, like Armageddon, to Don’t Look Up, but Dr. Strangelove and Don’t Look Up are similar, because A, they’re both comedies, but also they’re not action films. They’re sort of inaction films and these sardonic critiques of our politics, of these institutions that are failing to act.
And so I do think, as comedies, there is a potential for films like don’t look up to reach a broader audience and maybe become a sort of cultural touchstone that aids in difficult conversations, like about climate change, like about the pandemic. So I do think comedy has a potential to hopefully bring people together.
IRA FLATOW: Samantha, the other big power player in the movie is the head of BASH, an amalgam of various tech CEOs. Some people have said that the lead character is a combination of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs– and the point being is that it’s all about the money. You can make money from a disaster. What role do tech companies play in the real world in our understanding and action on COVID, for example, where drug companies are making huge profits?
SAMANTHA MONTANO: Naomi Klein coined the phrase disaster capitalism. So we see that various companies make money when disasters happen, or make money in failing to prevent disasters from happening. And so certainly, that is a huge issue when we look at why we are not taking more action to prevent disasters that are happening around the country. Climate change is the obvious factor there, and the connection with the oil and gas industry, of course, is quite clear, but also, one of our– the research shows us one of our major challenges across the country are development decisions that are being made.
Those are decisions that are being made at the local level by developers that very often are paying off local politicians, funding their campaigns. And we’re seeing people building new buildings in areas that we have a high risk of experiencing a disaster. And then it’s up to the federal government to help come in, non-profits individuals to come in and pay for that recovery on their own. So certainly, the role of corporations and the role of capitalism are inextricably tied in with how we approach risk and managing risk in this country.
IRA FLATOW: Samantha, as a disasterologist, is there a take-home message for you in this film?
SAMANTHA MONTANO: This movie did not necessarily have a happy ending, but I think the difference here is that we don’t just have six months to save the world. Climate change doesn’t work quite that way. We need to act as quickly as possible, but it’s not necessarily all or nothing, as this film portrays. And so I think one thing that this film does really well is try to show the various moving parts that need to fall in line to have us be able to act.
And look, this movie is not on its own going to solve climate change, but I do hope that it signals a really important shift in Hollywood of making more climate change movies. There have been very few climate movies made in the past 20, 30 years. This one film is only going to do so much. We need 100 other films about climate change to help people see what the problem is, to see solutions, to find characters that they identify with to help create a vision for us moving forward and how we can address these deeply entrenched systematic problems that are creating the conditions that we are beginning to experience.
IRA FLATOW: We had that movie from years ago called The Day After Tomorrow–
SAMANTHA MONTANO: Sure.
IRA FLATOW: –which was not very accurate scientifically.
SAMANTHA MONTANO: Yeah. No. Myself and my research partner, John Carr, we actually just published a study where we watched 173 disaster movies from the past 20 years, and there were only a handful of movies that even mention climate change. And the ones that did did not portray climate change accurately. But Hollywood has done several disaster movies in the past 20 years where they’ve claimed it as a metaphor for climate change, where they– you have these, very often, asteroid-related movies that are going to cause a global problem, require a global solution.
So this movie does kind of fit into a more recent history of how climate and disaster movies and Hollywood have tried to tackle these issues. Obviously, the kind of ensemble cast that they have here will hopefully bring more attention than some of those others have.
SONIA EPSTEIN: One thing that this film– and I’m also thinking of Contagion from a which– from a few years back, which has become a touch point during the pandemic– with these films do potentially show is something about the scientific process and something about the inherent uncertainty that’s a part of the scientific process that I think we heard in the clip up top. Even where it’s 100%, it’s 99.97%, and that means that scientists don’t know 100%. And that’s just kind of the truth of the scientific process, but I think that’s also an issue with the media array, where– how do you embrace the fact that scientists can make mistakes and still have the public trust?
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Another interesting point that I found about the movie is that, historically, we like to think that, even though our country may be divided politically– but when a disaster happens, whether it’s a war or some other disaster, we all come together in a common cause and figure this out together. That does not seem to be the theme of this film. That does not seem to be happening anymore in the greatly divided society we have.
SAMANTHA MONTANO: Yeah. So we actually have some insight here from disaster research on why that is. So usually, when we think of disaster, we’re thinking of these relatively short duration events. So you’re thinking earthquake, tornado, hurricane, where the actual response to those events takes place over a couple of days, maybe a couple of weeks, whereas, as we’ve seen with the pandemic, we have a response that has lasted, at this point, nearly two years. And there are really clear differences in how human behavior manifests, how our institutions respond to these really short-term acute disasters versus these much longer in duration disasters.
So this movie in particular was really interesting, because they had this six-month– which usually would fall more into this long duration framework for thinking about disaster. And in terms of some of the human behavior that was depicted in the movie, it does kind of align much more with what we’ve seen during the pandemic. But this is one of the real challenges with climate change. Climate change itself is not, from an emergency management framework, a disaster. It is influencing other disasters that are occurring, which is one of the reasons it’s really hard to think about. And there’s multiple layers of issues going on that you have to unpack.
IRA FLATOW: Well, I hope everybody gets a chance to watch this, because it will give you something to think about. And I hope we did not give away any of the spoilers in our conversation. I want to thank both of you for taking time to be with us today.
SONIA EPSTEIN: Thank you so much.
SAMANTHA MONTANO: Thanks for having us.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Sonia Epstein, executive editor and associate curator of science and film at the Museum of the Moving Image based in Queens, New York; and Samantha Montano, assistant professor of Emergency Management Massachusetts Maritime Academy, also author of Disasterology, Dispatches From the Front Line of the Climate Crisis– she’s based in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts.