Don’t Look Up_eng



Cast of Don’t Look Up, 6 December 2021, at Jazz At Lincoln Center


“Don’t Look Up,” the American Dream, and An Appeal


14 December 2021

James Hansen

Imagine a giant asteroid on a direct collision course with Earth. That’s the equivalent of what we face now.”  That’s what I said in my TED talk on global warming a decade ago. Don’t Look Up, to be released December 24 on Netflix, uses the same idea to telescope time by two orders of magnitude – from half a century needed to change global energy systems down to half a year to divert an asteroid.  Six months is an action timescale that can engage the public.  (I took the photo above of the stellar cast[1] of Don’t Look Up at its world premiere.)


Scientists are frustrated as they try to communicate the emergency in both the asteroid story and the real-world climate story.  Villains in the asteroid story include greedy industrialists, incompetent and corrupt government, media that abdicate responsible reporting in favor of ratings, and a public focused on tabloid entertainment.  With all that headwind, can the asteroid story have a happy ending?  I won’t spoil that, but the film achieves a degree of satisfaction on Earth and on a far-away planet with the help of colorful, carnivorous animals.


The real climate story faces those headwinds and more.  The long timescale brings intergenerational conflict: today’s adult leaders fail to take needed actions, but today’s young people and offspring bear the consequences.  The story is complex because the villain is a hero.  Fossil fuels are remarkable condensed energy that has raised living standards in most of the world.  The world won’t turn its back on fossil fuels without better alternatives.


The climate story could have a happy ending – but young people must play a leading role to achieve that.  They have incentive and tools to fight with, but winning requires understanding the big picture.  Perhaps we old people can provide information, so I address my comments to young people.


It is helpful to look first at the global picture.  China and the United States together are responsible for almost half of global fossil fuel carbon emissions today, with China’s emissions more than double those of the U.S.  However, climate change is driven by cumulative historical emissions, for which the U.S. is most responsible.[2]


During the three decades since the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change was agreed upon, global carbon emissions have increased about 60 percent.  The 26 Conferences of the Parties (COPs) in the past three decades did not even stem emissions growth, let alone achieve the rapid emission reductions that are needed.


That is not surprising because the COP meetings did not address the two fundamental requirements to drive down global carbon emissions rapidly: (1) a simple, steadily rising carbon (oil, gas, coal) fee enforced near-globally via border duties on products from countries without a carbon fee, and (2) development of modern nuclear power[3] as cheap as fossil fuels.


A carbon fee is needed to make the fossil fuel price honest; the entire fee must be distributed uniformly to the public to achieve public acceptance and social justice.  Modern nuclear power is needed as a complement to intermittent renewable energies; otherwise, the complement will be gas.  If we choose gas, we choose fracking, we choose groundwater pollution, we choose methane, and we choose disastrous climate change.


These two requirements were not pulled out of a hat.  They are the result of 20 years of open-minded interaction with students, conservationists, “big green” environmental organizations, utility CEOs and their technical staffs charged with “keeping the lights on,” two workshops with scientists from China and India at the East-West Center in Hawaii, and more, as described in Bright Future2 and several draft chapters[4],[5],[6],[7] for Sophie’s Planet.


The American dream was alive and well in the years after WWII, when I grew up.  It’s still alive today, but not well.  That’s where your opportunity comes in.  We have two crises today: the climate crisis that most people don’t notice because it grows on decadal time scales, and the political crisis that is in our face.


The climate crisis cannot be solved in a decade, but it can be solved during your lifetime.  This next decade, the fourth decade since the 1992 Framework Convention, is crucial for getting the climate story pointed in the right direction.  This must be done in the context of fixing the urgent political crisis.  If we do not fix the problem of political polarization, there is a danger that the climate situation really could go haywire.


How can young people help restore the American dream?  The first step is to understand the underlying problem that has caused things to go off track.  The following is in part extracted from the longer Bright Future2.


The long-recognized underlying problem is the role that money is allowed to play in our democracy.  When President Eisenhower was preparing his farewell address, in which he warned the nation of the threat of a growing military-industrial complex, an early draft of the speech described the military-industrial-congressional complex.  But Ike backed off.  When his brother, Milton, asked about the deletion he replied “It was more than enough to take on the military and private industry. I couldn’t take on the Congress as well.”[8]


Eisenhower’s focus on the danger of militarism for our democracy, unfortunately, had little impact.  Investments in defense contractors still outperform the overall stock market.[9]  More important, the reign of the military-industrial complex leads to “wars of choice”[10] that the public does not want.  Our Constitution grants decision-making over war and peace to Congress, but Congress has allowed the President to usurp that role and even employ the CIA as an unaccountable secret army.


Eisenhower’s omission – the role of Congress in this distortion of the democratic process – is the fundamental problem: Congress is permitted to accept bribes under the rubric of “campaign” funds.  This problem grew to a monstrous scale when the Supreme Court – supposedly the guardian of our democracy – ruled in Citizens United that corporations – with their vast resources – are free to participate in this vulgar, legalized corruption.




Public frustration with the Washington swamp of special interests has led to the rise of extremes in both political parties.  Polarized government fails to govern effectively; both parties are viewed as elitist and concerned mainly with their reelection; public frustration grows higher.  Oscillation between two extremes is unstable and thus a threat to democracy – conceivably a future oscillation could lead to an autocracy.


Why do I think that young people can play a leading role in solving such fundamental, difficult problems as political polarization and global climate change? [11]


First, consider evidence from elections.  When I gave climate talks on campuses in 2008, there was a wave of enthusiasm for upstart candidate, Barack Obama.  He swept past Hilary Clinton on that wave without benefit of the establishment or big donors.  Young people were the force behind that wave.  Little money was needed.  Skill with social media helped.  In 2016, young people provided great energy to the Bernie Sanders campaign, lifting it a level that almost upended heavily favored establishment candidate, Hilary Clinton.


Second, young people can comprehend the actions needed to address climate change and they can organize support.  Last year more than 350 college student government presidents made a powerful statement in support of carbon fee and dividend.  They want to follow the economic science, with 100% of the carbon fee distributed to the public, so that most people come out ahead, the economy grows, and entrepreneurs and innovations help modernize energy infrastructure at no cost to the public.  This year more than 700 high school leaders from all 50 states launched their own bipartisan initiative in support of carbon fee and dividend.






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