The recent Hollywood film Don’t Look Up! satirizes the failure of the US government to grapple effectively with climate change. The movie mocks social, political, and economic trends in the US that eventually lead to the end of humanity caused by the incoming comet—a metaphor for the climate crisis. It showcases the systemic issues we must address and the urgent action we must take to combat climate change and its impacts.
The climate crisis
The movie is set in the US, and with good reason. The US, historically the greatest greenhouse gas emitter, has also contributed to the greenhouse gas emissions globally through patterns of colonialism and imperialism. But of course, the climate crisis is a global issue, not least owing to the fact that the less developed countries, which bear far less responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions, are suffering most dramatically from global warming and rising waters, while the major contributors enjoy far greater power to tackle the crisis.
The world has significantly fewer chances to mitigate the climate crisis in time without the active role of the US. In that sense, the comet allegory is inadequate. The threat is not an immediate total annihilation of the planet. The climate risk is not equally distributed nor manifested. Some places will suffer an increased drought risk, and others will be more exposed to floods and sea-level rise. The changes in climate patterns are incremental, unprecedented, already in motion, and some are irreversible. Depending on the region’s economy and the role of the ecosystems, the risk and vulnerability vary. The changes are already happening; to prevent the worst case, we need to slash global greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030—eight years from now. UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated that “the climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win.” Can we?
The price of carbon
Economists favor a carbon tax as a solution. In theory, taxing carbon emissions makes carbon-intensive economic activities and products costlier for both producers and consumers, nudging the economy away from carbon. In practice, there are many details to work out—whom to tax, at what amount, and how to use the tax revenue. Yet, there is no carbon tax in the US and never has been. Eleven northeastern states participate in the cap-and-trade initiative in the power sector. California has the first economy-wide cap-and-trade program, launched in 2013, to be followed by Washington in 2023.
Cap-and-trade policy—another carbon pricing mechanism—puts a limit on emissions for polluting firms who can also trade pollution allowances. The cap is expected to shrink with time and eventually reduce emissions. Carbon pricing is vital, but it needs a holistic policy package of incentives and accommodation for effective and equitable decarbonization.
The goal of decarbonization is to improve the health and welfare of people and the planet—not to raise living costs.
Carbon pricing alone might lead only to higher prices for consumers without a cheaper alternative. The goal of decarbonization is to improve the health and welfare of people and the planet—not to raise living costs. In fact, higher prices for fossil fuels have sparked protests globally, including one in France in 2018. We need to make systems change while maximizing welfare, that is, achieving dynamic efficiency as opposed to allocative efficiency. In other words, we need to develop economic structures conducive to equitable and affordable decarbonization. For instance, progressive car tax system in Norway made most eclectic vehicle models cheaper than similar petrol models. The policy package has been built since the 1990s, taking into account the charging infrastructure and transportation trends, among other things. Notably, Norwegian consumers prefer to buy electric vehicles due to a lower price and convenience, though environmental preferences may have played a role in passing the policy package.
The focus in Don’t Look Up! was the staggering indifference of the media, government, and population regarding the crisis reinforced by promoting the distractions provided by pop culture entertainment. In any case, fostering climate awareness—and anxiety—alone is insufficient without economic incentives to change economic behavior in ways favorable to decarbonization.
The socioeconomic tipping points
Policymaking regarding decarbonization needs to focus on socioeconomic tipping points. Tipping points are points of an abrupt transition, separating two different states. Past the point, the new state is locked in, with little to no chance of returning to the status quo ante. Climate tipping points include the loss of the Amazon rainforest or the West Antarctic ice sheet, which would set biophysical feedback mechanisms into motion, ensuring irreversible growth in global warming.
Socioeconomic tipping points, including financial, economic, social, and political, are a new concept with limited research available compared to climate tipping points. The tipping point is positive if the new state is better than the status quo. Carbon pricing has the potential to tip the carbon equation to catalyze feedback mechanisms, ensuring decarbonization. For instance, a targeted investment has been efficient in spurring transitions to low carbon. We need to identify and employ positive socio-economic and political tipping points to achieve rapid decarbonization.
Unfortunately, negative tipping points currently prevail. Some $634 billion in energy-sector subsidies were tracked in 2020 globally: around 70 percent went to fossil fuels. Only 20 percent went to renewable power generation, 6 percent to biofuels, and just over 3 percent to nuclear. Moreover, fossil fuel subsidies increased by 142 percent in 2021. We are doing the opposite of carbon pricing by subsidizing fossil fuels. There is a need to weaken negative tipping points by eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, which will allow more room to enable positive tipping points. However, fossil fuel interests have a firm grip on policy changes. In the US, interest groups have been blocking constructive climate policy and reversing the existing policy throughout the years.
Fossil fuel interests represented by a very small group of wealthy Americans disproportionately influence US politics
In the movie, the US government does not take the “comet science” seriously, dismissing the catastrophic predictions. Seeing the opportunity to boost political popularity amidst a personal scandal, President Orlean decides to launch a mission to destroy the comet, yet succumbs to the political donor’s plan to save the comet for mining. This is representative of the US government’s fragmented and weakened acknowledgment of the threat of climate crisis. Most importantly, the oversized influence of fossil fuel interests in politics is represented through the billionaire’s greed to mine minerals on the comet, dismissing the extent of the threat.
The movie embodies the US government in one person, President Orlean, and pins the faults of the government on her feckless pursuit of self-interest. In reality, however, the complex systemic issues cannot be pinned to one individual. The overrepresentation of the wealthy few, who protect the fossil fuel industry’s interests, is based on a complex system of lobbying and elections. Fossil fuel lobbying prevents climate legislation, supports climate denialism, and backs fossil fuel interests in courts. Since 2011 lobbying has mostly sought to reduce taxes on fossil fuels, or rather preserve existing tax breaks. Fossil fuel interests can also influence elections through super PACs. Lobbying is legally protected by the First Amendment and the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, while super PACs are legal through the Citizens United ruling. As a result, fossil fuel interests with abundant wealth represented by a very small group of wealthy Americans disproportionately influence US politics. They have been blocking climate action, despite the majority support.
Human dignity and climate policy
Climate policy is a matter of human rights, democracy, the rule of law, transparency, and accountability. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” writes Evadné Grant. The dignity of each person is the moral foundation for equality in human rights and, by extension, in democracies. Politicians, often tied with fossil fuel interests, represent neither the majority of Americans nor their own narrower local and state constituencies. President Biden’s Build Back Better (BBB) plan would have delivered the promised 50 percent cut in US carbon emissions by 2030. Yet, the bill did not pass. Fossil fuel interests, which enjoy double representation in Congress, block climate policy. A single individual, Senator Joe Manchin, with a fortune in the fossil fuel industry, broke the bill.
Notably, policy decisions in the US have repercussions for the rest of the world. If the original BBB plan had passed, it would have created a massive feedback mechanism catalyzing decarbonization globally. Moreover, the failure preserves the negative tipping points, which reinforces fossil fuel interests and prevents climate action globally, further condemning the global population to live with the worst consequences of the climate crisis.
Don’t look up! Look around
Don’t Look Up ends with a nihilistic family dinner and acceptance of the incoming destruction. Yet, we have more solutions than nukes to destroy the “comet” of climate catastrophe. The movie focuses on the wake-up call—“Just look up!”—in response to indifference. We are past the point of “looking up” at the problem, however, and need to start looking around for why we are failing to apply the solutions. Global emissions must peak in 2025, reduce by 43 percent by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050 to limit global warming. We must find and employ new sociopolitical and economic tipping points. Potential tipping points include executive action by President Biden or climate action and leadership in China, among others. It is not too late, and we still have a chance to preserve and reinforce conditions for integral human development in the US and globally.
Zhanaiym Kozybay (MGA ’21) is a master of global affairs graduate from the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. She worked as a research assistant under the supervision of Sisi Meng during the 2021-2022 academic year. Sisi Meng is an assistant teaching professor of economics and technology for development at the Keough School of Global Affairs.
This article is part of a series of blog posts published by the Keough School of Global Affairs. Dignity and Development provides in-depth analysis of global challenges through the lens of integral human development.
Photo: “”Climate Change” by Riccardo Maria Mantero is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.