Climate and Health scientists “felt seen” while watching Don’t Look Up, one of the year’s best films

Spoiler alert: Climate change is bad for our health. And this story includes details of events in the movie “Don’t Look Up.”

Image from the Netflix Don’t Look Up website

An allegory for the fight against climate change earned four Academy Award nominations this year. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters considers “Don’t Look Up” one of the best pictures of the year. The “Oscars” will be awarded Sunday, March 27.

“Don’t Look Up” tells the story of two astronomers, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, who try to warn the world of a “planet-killing comet hurtling toward Earth,” according to Netflix. But humankind doesn’t seem interested.

The movie’s message resonated with climate scientists around the globe, including those who work at the Department of Health. Many climate scientists expressed the feeling that their warnings of impacts to health from climate change go unheard.

“I personally felt seen while watching the movie, as did a group of my climate and health peers at the University of Washington,” said Rad Cunningham, who leads DOH’s Climate and Health program. “I think the ‘we’re all going to die’ framing in the movie isn’t quite right; it’s more like, many of us will suffer, and the people most likely to suffer are the very ones who are already suffering right now.”

Difficulty communicating with the public struck a chord with Lauren Jenks, assistant secretary for Environmental Public Health, which includes the Climate and Health team. “My favorite line in the movie,” Lauren said, “was the guy telling the professor to explain it to the people, but don’t use math, and the professor says, ‘IT’S ALL MATH!’”

Other scientists agreed that the sense of hopelessness in the movie is not something all climate scientists feel.

Look up and do something

In reality, people are not powerless to stop climate change. Dr. Gulrez Shah Azhar, a fellow at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, said, “I felt the parallels with the climate crisis were too strong. It gave me nightmares — the slow coming of the disaster, and people, not powerless, but willfully refusing to stop it.”

Some scientists recognized that much of the conversation around climate change is directed, perhaps incorrectly, at the individual. Though there is a lot we can do to help fight climate change, we need large-scale action.

“There is often a lot of emphasis on individual actions — even though, in the U.S., the majority of people already support climate change action — instead of emphasis on political and corporate action,” said Orly Stampfer, an epidemiologist in DOH’s Climate and Health program.

In true scientist fashion, she cited a study that examined the top 100 industrial producers of greenhouse gases (GHG), from the nonprofit Carbon Disclosure Project. Greenhouse gases are a major contributor to climate change.

CDP’s Carbon Majors Report 2017,” Orly said. “has been widely cited for this quote that highlights the importance of prioritizing political actions over individual actions for climate change mitigation:

‘The distribution of emissions is concentrated: 25 corporate and state producing entities account for 51% of global industrial GHG emissions. All 100 producers account for 71% of global industrial GHG emissions.’”

Pressure on politicians

The movie also puts some blame on politicians. Some scientists we spoke with felt this was appropriate.

“It was nice to see some blame leveled against politicians in ‘Don’t Look Up’ in a pretty clearly communicated manner,” said Paula Reeves, an environmental planner on the Climate and Health team.

“I thought ‘Finch’ was a better movie and closer representation of the possible extreme effects of climate change,” Paula added. In this film starring Tom Hanks, a robot learns what it means to be human in a post-apocalyptic world.

Whatever your tastes in movies, we want you to be healthy as you enjoy them. And if you’d like to join us in helping us improve our climate, you can do so at our Climate and Health website.

More Information

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Washington State Department of Health

Washington State Department of Health

Protecting and improving the health of people in Washington State.