Don’t Look Up? COVID is a Better Analogy for Climate Change Than an Asteroid
Don’t Look Up has driven conversations about the similarity between its fictional world trapped in a doom loop of greedy corporate interests, cynical politicians, and apathetic voters that lead to the destruction of the human race and the real world’s current path in dealing with the climate crisis. The movie alludes to grave implications for society if it doesn’t change its ways to confront the coming disaster head on. It is not very subtle with its analogy either.
However, an asteroid is not a great analogy for climate change. The impact of it is sudden and occurs on a short timescale; as soon as the asteroid hits, it destroys the majority of the planet. In addition an asteroid itself is a concrete object that can be defeated by just blowing it up. An asteroid actually fits better into the American way of dealing with crises, which is to flex its economic, political, and/or military power. It is easy to foresee the country rallying around an external asteroid threat to build a weapon of mass destruction to take it down; indeed existential threats have been one of the few things to unite Americans throughout history.
Climate change, on the other hand, isn’t like this at all. The process plays out on a time scale of decades if not longer, with sometimes imperceptible changes in the short term whose consequences are not always immediately clear. This intersects with deficits in human psychology to make the threat less salient. It allows people to shrug off their negative impact on the climate much more easily in an almost rational way since “their” impact is negligible relative to the cost of changing their actions.
In fact, a much better analogy for climate change is the current COVID pandemic. And we can learn a lot about the path our society is on from studying how the US has reacted in real time to COVID.
America’s response during the pandemic has been one of inequality, short sightedness, denial, polarization, and a lack of coordination.
Often lost in the discourse of COVID is the unequal impact it has had on lower income and minority individuals. This occurs in the uniquely American way at the intersection of race and income that is exacerbated by prior inequalities.
Minorities and lower income workers are less likely to be insured because of a lack of employer provided care, cost, and a host of other issues. This combined with other factors like distrust of the medical community has led to higher cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID.
On the flip side, many restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID have disproportionately impacted lower income and minority workers. Shutdowns of things like indoor dining, schools, and other regulations directly impacted lower income workers and families while higher income individuals had alternative options to reduce the economic harm of these policies. Little analysis has been done to consider the full costs and benefits of these shutdowns relative to alternative policy measures.
Climate change itself will have unequal impact. Those without the economic resources to move away from impacted areas will be left to bear the brunt of environmental damage. These groups are also often those that lack political capital to influence the policy debate, leaving their concerns underserved.
The very actions that have led to climate change itself are those undertaken by relatively well off individuals and corporations who have the resources to evade the impact they leave behind.
The US has failed to react to COVID in an optimally long term way. Vaccines are the most effective way to reduce the spread of COVID and prevent mutations that can lead to new variants. However, the US has not shared its vaccine resources with the globe, hoarding them and leading to waste. While complicated, better planning could no doubt have mitigated this outcome.
In turn this has led to predictable results like Delta and Omicron and potentially even new variants in the future as well until vaccine resources are shared more equitably.
Beyond this fact, for decades the US has underinvested in public health infrastructure, creating the conditions for COVID to have a disproportionate impact.
Climate change policy is itself a classic case of short sightedness. The US is not making any of the necessary long term investments needed to head off climate change.
Denial and Polarization
This connection is obvious with anti-vaxxers, COVID deniers, and conspiracy theorists fueling culture war diatribes that have exacerbated the impact of COVID in the US.
But it is worth turning to the data to show just how much of an outlier the US has been among rich countries.
The left chart below shows across all countries how the percent of a population that is fully vaccinated relates to real GDP per capita. The positive correlation highlights how the inequality noted above also exists across the world.
The noticeable blue dot is the US, showing how low its vaccination rate is relative to other high income countries. And when we focus on high income countries only in the right chart (to adjust for differences in resources in health systems, etc.), we see that the US is an outlier in COVID deaths as well.
None of this had to happen. Much of the low vaccination rates are driven by political polarization and denial of basic facts, bolstered by misinformation on social media and from right wing media.
Climate change has suffered the same fate with constant misinformation attacks and complete denial by a large swath of the political right.
Both COVID and climate change in the US suffer the same issue of tribal epistemology.
Lack of Coordination
The US response to COVID has suffered from a lack of coordination across agencies and organizations. Rules have differed across states and even within the Federal government, leading to widespread confusion.
Various organizations like the CDC, American Heart Association, and others have given conflicting advice on COVID and reducing risk, which in turn have fueled the distrust in institutions and pushed people towards conspiracy theories.
Climate change also lacks a top down coordination in action. Federal policy has been defanged largely through the inaction of congress because of the filibuster and the Right’s complete lack of belief in basic science. This in turn has led states to try to implement their own solutions.
But just like a state’s COVID strategy cannot prevent the spread of an epidemic across its borders, a state’s climate policy cannot have a broader impact across the US or the globe because it lacks the large footprint required to really tackle the problem.
COVID itself is quite like climate change, and our response leaves no hope for the status quo. American culture and institutions have us setup to fail unless we make dramatic changes. Otherwise, we will just muddle through and fail to prevent inhumane levels of harm from befalling both people here in the US but also across the globe due to the outsized impact America has on the world stage.
To truly tackle the climate crisis will requires us to reform entire institutions and forgo easy, short term fixes for long term societal transformation. No single thing will save us, including technology, so it is time for a coordinated response from all levels of society.