The world’s top three shows on Netflix currently include the Heroic Quest of a Monster Hunter; the escapades of an American in Paris; and, at number one, a black comedy on climate change called Don’t Look Up.
The film, directed by Adam McKay and starring a star cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep, tells the story of two scientists who spot a comet rushing towards the impending destruction of Earth. We follow their unsuccessful attempts to convince society to act on this existential threat, which sparks more interest in the handsome climatologist than the looming end of the world.
The film sparked huge discussions online. As an environmental communication researcher fascinated by the power of storytelling, this is a debate that I have followed very closely. So what does the academic literature on climate change communication tell us about the potential impacts of this film?
Watch out for driving problems
Conservationists have long struggled to convey climate warnings to a largely disengaged audience – in fact, it inspired the entire premise of the film. Whether a film about climate change can take the top spot on Netflix is therefore a big deal. Its popularity is also due, at least in part, to its celebrity cast. Environmental campaigns often feature celebrities for this very reason.
The popularity of the film is important because the media can have an agenda-setting effect – audiences place more importance on topics that receive more media coverage (called “attention to issues”). There’s no denying that the film draws attention to climate change, whether viewers love it or hate it. Its success also underlines the significant role that the arts and humanities can play in portraying alternative imaginaries of climate change.
It’s good to laugh about climate change
Don’t Look Up is not the first time comedy has been used as a communication tool on climate change. In September 2021, late night comedy hosts in the United States joined forces for a night of climate comedy and internet climate memes abound. However, a feature-length satire of the climate crisis takes climate comedy to a new level.
Is humor an effective way to engage the public on climate change? Comedy is a powerful way to communicate and make sense of social issues, and this is true in the climatic context where it can help us process and manage our emotions.
Many of us who care about climate change can be closely related to the film’s protagonists as their experiences validate our own feelings of anger, frustration, and sadness over climate inaction. As one of the characters in the film exclaims: “We are trying to tell you that the entire planet is about to be destroyed!”
Good comedy captures the nonsense we all experience in our daily lives. We then have the impression of being “in the game”. This is especially important for climate action, as a sense of belonging to a group is a key predictor of individual participation in activism. Therefore, the film could promote a sense of solidarity and shared identity among climate action advocates.
Who will watch?
The trickiest thing about humor is that it can be polarizing. It’s clear who is being satirized when the film portrays Americans wearing red baseball caps emblazoned with the phrase “Don’t Look Up” who deny the existence of the comet.
We can safely assume that those who are already concerned about climate change are more likely to be drawn to the film, while those who are laughed at will be less inclined to watch. The film is also unlikely to drastically change the beliefs of climate change skeptics or climate activists. Confirmation bias causes us to seek information that supports our opinions, and reasoned reasoning causes us to process information in a way that supports our pre-existing beliefs. The film’s greatest chance of influencing climate engagement is found among those who are aware or concerned about climate change, but not yet alarmed. This group represents a majority of the American public.
Are we going to stop the comet? (warning: spoilers to come)
Will the film’s grim ending inspire us to take action on climate change or will it only cripple us further? Whether climate change communicators should use scary or hopeful narratives is a matter of significant debate, and my own research calls for caution: we shouldn’t assume that a single piece of content will result in necessarily dramatic changes in climate-related attitudes or behavior. .
However, communicating our ability to act on climate change – by portraying a sense of effectiveness or “constructive hope” – is crucial. Although the comet ultimately destroys human civilization in the film, humans were given the opportunity to avert disaster. Likewise, it is always in our power to mitigate and adapt to climate change. As Leonardo DiCaprio tweeted, “we may not stop this comet but we can stop the climate crisis”. On the other hand, the metaphor of the comet has limits. Climate change is much more complicated. Its effects are not evenly distributed or preventable with a single quick fix.
If Don’t Look Up teaches us anything, it’s that bashing people with facts is not an effective communication strategy. As the comet impacts Earth, the film ends with a heartfelt discussion around the dinner table. If only such candid, harsh, and meaningful conversations would take place while the company represented in this film still had time to act.
Fortunately, there is still time for us to act on climate change. As climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe argues, people-to-people conversations are one of the most powerful forms of climate action. It means listening more than we talk and helping people make the connection between their personal values and the fight against climate change. Stimulating dialogue will probably prove the film’s biggest long-term impact.
Overall, despite its depressing ending, the fact that a satirical film about climate change could reach No. 1 on Netflix makes me look up.