The new Netflix film Don’t Look Up is a star-studded allegory about climate change. The world faces a clear and imminent threat, and the question the movie poses is: Will we be able to overcome the narrow self-interests of politicians, the business community, and individual nations to defeat the threat we collectively face? Will too many people around the world be too gullible and passive to demand the right actions from their leaders?
In the case of the film, it does not give away too much to suggest that doing the right thing is a challenge. The film is not just a parable about our inertia when it comes to the ever worsening, nearly irreversible climate crisis—it is a reminder that the idea that the planet will effectively unite in the interest of self-preservation is itself a romantic myth.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown that bona fide global cooperation is more fanciful and out of reach than ever.
It was a very different sort of Hollywood product, President Ronald Reagan, who—with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev—helped promote this fantasy of an enlightened global community. During a 1985 summit in Geneva, their conversation took an odd turn. As reported by Gorbachev himself, “President Reagan suddenly said to me, ‘What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help us?’” Gorbachev responded, “No doubt about it.” Reagan replied, “We too.”
Our modern experience with shared existential threats tells another story.
The climate crisis is, of course, one part of the tale. The ancient Greeks contemplated whether deforestation or draining swamps might impact rainfall. But warnings that humans could cause global warming by producing carbon dioxide have themselves been around a long time. Nineteenth-century scientists understood the concept and, in 1896, Svante Arrhenius published the first paper explicitly warning of this threat.
We know the rest of the story. Although today there is very nearly universal agreement among scientists that global warming is real but that its consequences are likely to be severely disruptive—costing billions of dollars and threatening millions of lives—the governments of the planet Earth have moved far too slowly. In just this past year, we effectively exceeded the warming targets set during the Paris 2015 climate talks, we have seen record-breaking heat, faster sea-level rise, shrinking polar ice caps, and devastating weather… and still the COP 26 talks in Edinburgh produced underwhelming results.
Here in the U.S., Sen. Joe Manchin and his GOP allies blocked major new funding for climate programs—and he actively defended the fossil-fuel interests so prominent in his home state of West Virginia. We could be on a path to sea levels rising as much as seven feet by the end of the century and right now it seems unlikely we’ll be able to reverse those trends.
Other climate-related existential threats—from lack of water to famine—have more typically produced conflict than cooperation between neighboring states. Making matters worse is that most of our international institutions were designed to be weak—to let big countries like the U.S. have their way, to support the initiatives of a rich few states, and not to be able to impose their will on individual countries in an effective way. As a result, many responses to global threats are either weak or ad hoc.
But it’s not just climate. Another existential threat we have faced for almost eight decades is that posed by nuclear weapons. We know that nuclear warfare would be horrific, and that a nuclear exchange by superpowers like the U.S. and Russia or China could destroy the planet. While we have had arms agreements and efforts to contain the spread of such weapons, look at the headlines. Iran is nearing the capacity to manufacture nuclear warheads. North Korea reminds us regularly it has joined the nuclear club. Israel and India got such weapons half a century ago. Pakistan did in 1998.
Today, there are more than 13,000 nuclear warheads known to exist worldwide, almost 12,000 of which belong to the U.S. and Russia. What’s more, we have let some key arms agreements lapse in recent years, and have made precious little progress on the big, bold ideas that enlightened self-interest (or common sense) might dictate, like eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. What’s more, there have been proponents, such as former President Trump, of investing in “smaller”—which is to say more usable—nuclear weapons, which would increase the risks we face. In other words, more than three-quarters of a century after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the threat of nuclear catastrophe remains and, in many respects, it is getting worse.
And you’ll be very disappointed if you think we’ve got good global mechanisms in place to address next-generation threats from cyber to AI-empowered weapons to biowarfare.
COVID-19, of course, is another menace that has defied cooperation for nearly two years of death and despair.
For all the rhetoric about the need for global solutions, the response of the international community to containing the spread of the pandemic has been woefully inadequate. The U.S. has committed over 1 billion doses to the international community, but the need is perhaps 11 times that. Even those commitments are slow in delivery and distribution. Nations, including the U.S., have been careful to build vaccine, testing, and PPE stockpiles before sharing with other countries.
The result has been major outbreaks in the developing world, where estimates are that the poorest countries may not receive the vaccine until 2023. Only a tiny percentage of people in those countries have received even one dose of vaccine. While vaccinating half the world’s population is not an accomplishment to be minimized, the reality is that 40 countries have vaccinated less than a quarter of their populations. Other issues like export bans, production levels, intellectual-property barriers, and supply-chain blockages are solvable, but are often gummed up by industries or politicians acting just like those in Don’t Look Up do: based on self-interest, ignorance, or a toxic combination of both.
The result of course, has been the emergence of new variants in the undervaccinated parts of the world that ultimately affect the whole planet and prolong the pandemic. For Americans, the short-sightedness of government leaders is familiar. While the Biden Administration has done a remarkable job in getting Americans vaccinated, they have faced resistance at every step of the way from red-state governors who seem willing to sacrifice their own people in order to pander to the leaders of their party and the most extreme elements of their base. The vaccine and the know-how to contain the disease are available everywhere. But people living in counties that voted for Donald Trump are almost three times as likely to die of COVID-19 as those in areas that voted for President Biden.
There you have it in microcosm. If the U.S. can’t get its act together to combat a disease that has infected more than 50 million Americans and has killed about 825,000, how can we expect the planet earth to do any better? You would think survival mattered enough to look past our differences. Apparently not.
Higher life forms elsewhere in the universe will no doubt look at this and see it as an invitation, Reagan and Gorbachev had it wrong. We’re not a planet that is likely to come together to put up much of a fight against alien invaders.