Skip to main content

Climate scientist and Netflix 'Don't Look Up' director talk comet metaphors and global warming (exclusive)

Leonardo DiCaprio (left) and Jennifer Lawrence portray ignored astronomers in Netflix's "Don't Look Up," a comet impact movie that doubles as a climate change warning.
Leonardo DiCaprio (left) and Jennifer Lawrence portray ignored astronomers in Netflix's "Don't Look Up," a comet impact movie that doubles as a climate change warning. (Image credit: Netflix)

The creator of Netflix's popular satire-comedy movie "Don't Look Up" recently spoke with a climate scientist about how the movie contributes to the conversation about global warming.

The interview, exclusively released to Space.com, is a 24-minute audio conversation between filmmaker Adam McKay and Kate Marvel, an associate research scientist at both Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

McKay opens the conversation by saying he went into a state of "real terror" and couldn't sleep for three nights after reading the book "The Uninhabitable Earth" (Tim Duggan Books, 2019) by U.S. climate change journalist David Wallace-Wells, which describes possible after-effects of global warming such as climate wars and severe economic plunges.

"I couldn't get over it, so I went on a sort of fact-finding mission just to talk to people," McKay explained in the interview. "I talked to climate reporters and scientists, and I just kept asking questions. And every answer I got was more dire than I thought."

Related: Best sci-fi movies of all time

This all, of course, played into the plotline of "Don't Look Up", which uses the metaphor of an impending world-killing comet to describe the reaction of the public, scientists and policy-makers to climate change. 

"This [climate change] is the biggest story in human history, and arguably the biggest threat since the Chicxulub comet 66 million years ago," McKay said, describing the asteroid many scientists say is responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs after crashing into Earth.

In the conversation, Marvel said she agreed with McKay's assessment of climate change: "The urgency and the threat is absolutely accurate."

As a climate modeler, she said what struck her in her research is that many of the predictions of global warming put forward in the 1980s are "more or less spot-on" today. (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's climate dashboard said in March 2021 that the climate has warmed by 0.32 degrees Fahrenheit or 0.18 degrees Celsius per decade since 1981.)

Global warming is due to rising concentrations of carbon and other greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere from human activities such as industrial emissions or car exhaust. We can even see the emissions in real-time through websites such as Bloomberg Magazine's "Bloomberg Green", which Marvel said is "just horrifying."

Related: 'Don't Look Up' director Adam McKay talks comets, climate change and total disaster

Marvel also described a sense of sympathetic horror to watching the astronomers portrayed in "Don't Look Up" who are warning humanity of the impending comet, especially the character played by Jennifer Lawrence (the Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky; the deadly comet bears her name in the film.)

"I actually trained as an astrophysicist; that's what my Ph.D. is in. So I really related to the astronomers," Marvel said. "It was actually extremely painful for me watching a scientist trying to communicate their results, and just being bad at it because they have no media training."

Partly joking, Marvel continued: "As a scientist [also] named Kate trying to warn the world, I felt personally attacked. But I did really relate to the Kate character, because she didn't sign up for this. She just wants to study some comets. She just wants to do some science, and all of a sudden, she's thrust into this world that she doesn't necessarily understand. So that was something that I really felt on a deep level."

Adam McKay (left) directs Jennifer Lawrence during "Don't Look Up." (Image credit: Netflix)

Marvel acknowledged that like Dibiasky in the film, she has faced personal attacks, but she works not to engage with people who do not believe that climate change is happening.

"The internet's full of cranky people who are saying mean things all the time," she said, and pointed to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication's periodic surveys of American public opinion concerning global warming. She said the survey statistics show that less than seven percent of the population believe climate change is a hoax, and that segment "is way over-represented online."

Marvel also said climate change communication was poor for many years, as she said it used to be along lines like this: "Look at this polar bear. This polar bear is going to die. It's your fault personally." Marvel continued, "I think that doesn't really resonate with people."

A map of tropical water vapor from NASA. Research on water vapor and other climate features suggests that satellite measurements might have underestimated past warming.

A map of tropical water vapor from NASA. Research on water vapor and other climate features suggests that satellite measurements might have underestimated past warming. (Image credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

In recent years, she said, the science of attribution has increased – both in part to better measurements, and also in part because global warming is just so clearly visible. For example, she said: "The Pacific Northwest heatwave that we experienced this [past] summer, that would have been basically impossible  without climate change."

But at the same time, she said the scientific community recognizes that outreach is needed with "people who tell stories", with social scientists, with environmental justice advocates, and with other groups. "We need to explain why this matters, and help people come up with solutions."

An impending comet impact is a stand-in for the devastation of climate change in "Don't Look Up." (Image credit: Netflix)

So what can ordinary people do? Besides not engaging in activities that contribute to global warming, Marvel calls for more political engagement. "Call Congress right now. Call your senators. Tell them you want to see climate action. Tell them that this is really important to you. And also," she added, again somewhat joking, "it's really cathartic to yell at senators — or their voicemail."

On a larger scale, she said, to keep the world below the Paris Agreement's 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) of warming, "we need emissions to fall by seven percent every year." Since shutting down global activities is not sustainable, she said "huge systemic transformation" is required.

"The good news is, a lot of that is already underway," Marvel said. "The bad news is, it's not fast enough. But the good news on top of that is we can make it go faster. If you organize, if you yell, if you demand political action — if you pay attention — this is a problem with a solution."

Marvel added she loved the comedic tone of the film because she is "extremely pro-laughter" – it lets people unite, she added. She has more suggestions for Hollywood in the future to further diversify their climate movies, including a "climate change rom-com" and "a climate change revenge movie where Liam Neeson punches a bunch of fossil fuel executives."

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.  

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.