As a scientist devoted to communicating the dangerous impacts of climate change, I don’t want Adam McKay’s new film, “Don’t Look Up,” to one day be remembered as prescient and accurate. It paints a world imperiled not by a comet but by political inaction and societal indifference to imminent disaster. Still, it’s impossible to read the headlines — from a massive, deadly winter tornado outbreak to new data suggesting that Antarctica’s “doomsday glacier” is one step closer to collapse — and not worry that we are headed in that direction in the absence of concerted global action on climate.
Research informs scientists’ assessment of climate risk (our own work, for example, has demonstrated that model projections may be underestimating the extent to which climate change is increasing the incidence of dangerous weather extremes). But when it comes to the action that is required to address the climate crisis, what is really needed is effective public messaging and persuasion. Yet in an increasingly fragmented, polarized, and politicized society, effectively communicating both the warning signs of a destabilized climate and the promise of solutions to the public and political leaders is fraught.
People are resistant to messages and realities they don’t want to hear. Whether it’s climate change or COVID-19, the rejection of scientific facts deemed ideologically inconvenient has now weaponized a large sector of the population into opposing the needed actions. If ironclad scientific and medical fact and more than 808,000 dead Americans can’t convince millions of people to wear a mask or get vaccinated, what hope do we have to get them to care about rapidly disintegrating glaciers, a warming atmosphere, or rising seas?
Both the pandemic and climate change have deadly consequences for everyone on earth, but simply describing the threat in clear terms through incontrovertible fact doesn’t cut it. Our scientific words and warnings are laundered through disinformation machines, and even those with the best of intentions fail to communicate the human costs. Climate change is too often disregarded by a public rightly focused on their economic or personal worries — and a culture distracted by the trappings of celebrity and social media. Climate change has been branded as a pet issue for people of privilege, despite the fact that the poorest, most vulnerable communities will pay the biggest price. Meanwhile, world leaders are paralyzed by inaction, despite clear evidence that immediate action is exactly what we need.
So how can climate advocates break through this calcified information environment? We have to look for another way in. Humor and satire can help. Though a serious scientist at heart, I’m a convert to this way of thinking. It’s why I’ve done interviews with Bill Maher and Al Franken. And it’s why I’ve partnered with editorial cartoonist Tom Toles to communicate the climate crisis. It’s the same reason Charlie Chaplin deployed humor as a clarion call against fascism and antisemitism, and as a wake-up call for America to eschew neutrality and rescue Europe from Hitler’s Germany: Humor and satire are powerful vehicles for change. And scientific research supports this.
Recent peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated that humor is a powerful tool for engaging the public on climate change. These studies followed a March 2017 report of the American Psychological Association that defined ecoanxiety as “chronic fear of environmental doom.” The report described an increase in depression and anxiety caused by peoples’ “inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change” but that “climate-change humor stops people from worrying about their politics and lets them take in the information. . . . Scientists don’t always understand their audience. Getting someone to laugh is half of the work of getting them to understand.”
Which brings me back to “Don’t Look Up.” McKay’s film succeeds not because it’s funny and entertaining; it’s serious sociopolitical commentary posing as comedy. It’s a cautionary tale about the climate crisis stitched together by McKay’s signature biting humor. That’s the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.
As we look toward the next decade — a critical decade from the standpoint of averting truly catastrophic climate change — we need more unconventional endeavors like “Don’t Look Up” to communicate the perils of climate inaction. Scientific research, on its own, will travel only so far (until scientists distill a 900-page report into a 90-second TikTok). Science isn’t finished until it’s successfully communicated.
As Beth Osnes, associate professor of theater and environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said, “Climate change isn’t a laughing matter, but sometimes you have to laugh at your pain to get to a solution.” So let’s stop to have a laugh or two. And then get on with the work at hand.
Michael E. Mann is a professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. His latest book is “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.”