The new comet apocalypse movie “Don’t Look Up” asks a dark question, one that’s been hurtling toward us for some time.
If the world is coming to an end, will we buy it?
In the film, two scientists report that a planet-busting comet is on a collision course with Earth. We have six months until extinction.
By the time the news passes through the meatgrinder of polarized politics and paralyzed government, there’s just a day or two left for humanity to accept its fate.
In a real end-of-days scenario, we’d be lucky to go from denial to acceptance in six months.
Consider that we’ve spent two years in the shadow of COVID-19, and today 73% of Americans say they are fully vaccinated (another 2% said they intend to get vaccinated ASAP), according to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Impressive, except that almost one in four say they will either “wait and see,” only get vaccinated “if required to,” or “definitely not” do so.
To reach this level of acceptance, it has taken 5.5 million deaths worldwide―846,000 in the U.S.
And COVID is just the warmup.
Think of the pandemic as a large wave sweeping ashore. Behind it looms a tsunami magnitudes larger. Climate change, the real planet-buster, is coming. To be accurate, it’s already here.
If you have any doubt of its impact, view The New York Times’ visual report from 193 countries around the world, a sobering catalog of catastrophic floods, hurricanes, wild fires, droughts and almost unbearable heat. Believe your eyes.
Scientists have been trying to warn us about this slow-motion apocalypse for 50 years. And yet too often we talk about the crisis as if it is something we will need to address in the next five, 10, or 15 years.
Today almost 60% of U.S. adults say we are already seeing the effects of global warming, according to a 2021 Gallup poll. About 43% say they are “highly worried,” and another 22% say they worry “a fair amount.”
That leaves more than one-third who worry “only a little” (18%) or not at all (17%).
Maybe that explains the tepid critical response to “Don’t Look Up” The denial hits a little too close to home.
Take the movie’s dismissive president played by Meryl Streep. When the scientists deliver the news that there’s a 99.78% certainty that a huge comet will collide with Earth, she replies, “I’m gonna call it 70% and let’s just move on.”
There was a time when we would have called such dark humor “over the top.” We’re past that point. Back on March 30, 2020, when COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. had just topped 3,400, then-President Donald Trump said: “Stay calm. It will go away.”
In an average week, we now pass 3,400 deaths by Thursday.
Another thing “Don’t Look Up” gets right is the certainty that any disaster will become a political talking point.
Just look at the political breakdown of the 60% who say we’re already seeing the effects of climate change. That’s the view shared by 82% of Democrats, and 29% of Republicans. According to Gallup, that gap between the two parties was just 13 percentage points back in 2001.
The truth is that our planet’s climate is no more of a political force than the virus that causes COVID-19. Both are forces of Nature. Whether we “believe” in them is irrelevant. They proceed with or without our acceptance.
If there is hope to be found, however, it may be in one place few seem eager to look. Bad as the pandemic has been, it has taught us two powerful lessons.
The first is that no matter how much we ignore our scientists, they will be at their best when our butts need saving. It took researchers barely a week to sequence the entire genetic blueprint of the new coronavirus. Then, in one of the greatest achievements of our age, scientists developed effective vaccines in less than a year―a task that previously took a decade or longer.
The second lesson is that no matter how defiantly we refuse to alter our lives, we can and will when forced. Think back to 2020. By April, 70% of Americans had left the office and started working from home. By August, 89% of suburban residents were wearing masks.
The choice we face with climate change is simple—essentially the same one we face now with the virus:
Change or die.
To stave off a planet-busting disaster, wouldn’t most of us ride bicycles, take shorter showers, install solar panels, use energy-efficient light bulbs, even eat more vegetables?
If we could see annihilation bearing down on us like a comet, you bet we would.
It’s time to look up.