Last week’s damning report from the UK government’s Climate Change Committee (CCC), which said that the country had “lost the leadership” in tackling the climate crisis, brought to mind the 2021 Oscar-nominated movie Don’t Look Up which, using the darkest of humour, depicts how ill-equipped as a race humans are to dealing with existential threats as governments instead focus on short-term measures in a bid to win votes and avoid the unpopular measures that need to be taken to ensure our future.
In the movie, a meteor hurtles towards Earth, threatening the extinction of all life on the planet, with appeals from scientists for governments to take urgent action largely ignored both by politicians and the media, a President of the US and tech billionaire respectively looking to make political and financial capital from the looming disaster, and some denying the asteroid exists in the first place.
While it could apply to any ongoing crisis demanding a decisive response that puts the welfare of all above party politics, the movie is first and foremost a cutting satirical depiction of how the world is responding to the climate crisis, even as we rush headlong towards the point at which scientific consensus holds that climate change will be irreversible.
CCC chair Lord Debden said on publication of last week’s report that recent decisions by the UK government such as giving the go-ahead to a new coal mine as well as new oil and gas fields in the North Sea were “utterly unacceptable” and that there was decreasing confidence among the committee that the 2030 short-term deadline for the UK cutting its carbon emissions would be met.
“We’ve slipped behind, and other people have moved ahead,” he insisted. “This is not a report that suggests satisfactory progress.”
Don’t Look Up deviates from one of the more entrenched tropes in science fiction cinema, where a movie begins with an event such as an encounter with aliens or potential natural catastrophe that threatens our existence, and which as a result pulls the human race together, with nations co-operating to head off the perceived threat.
Contact, Deep Impact, Independence Day and Arrival are just four films over recent decades that fit this mould to a greater or lesser extent, but the real-world evidence is that even as the scale of the threat climate change poses becomes increasingly clear, we are no closer to finding a way of working together to try and deal with the threat we face.
Don’t Look Up highlights how political short-termism that cannot see beyond approval ratings, the pursuit of populist policies and a media that trivialises complex issues and shies away from asking tough questions, as well as the influence of vested financial interests, come together in a disastrous cocktail.
And while the movie may be set in the US, those themes are transferable to the UK – witness Tory peer Zak Goldsmith’s resignation last week from his position as Minister of State for Overseas Territories, Commonwealth, Energy, Climate and Environment, when he accused Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of being “simply uninterested” in the environment.
It has been a privilege to have been able to make a difference to a cause I have been committed to for as long as I remember. But this govt’s apathy in the face of the greatest challenge we face makes continuing in my role untenable. Reluctantly I am therefore stepping down pic.twitter.com/KDJKN3i6ER
— Zac Goldsmith (@ZacGoldsmith) June 30, 2023
“This government’s apathy in the face of the greatest challenge we face makes continuing in my role untenable,” wrote Goldsmith in a tweet accompanying his resignation letter. In which he listed steps the UK had taken that he said put it at the vanguard of international efforts to combat climate change, and how under its current leadership, the country had now lost that position.
“I will never understand how, with all the knowledge we now have about our fundamental reliance on the natural world and the speed with which we are destroying it, anyone can be unmoved,” wrote Goldsmith, suggesting Sunak was “personally unmoved” by the “existential challenge” and that there was widespread “paralysis” across Whitehall as the government focused on more populist policies.
The most high profile of those in the UK at the moment are the repeated pledges made by the Prime Minister and Home Secretary Suella Braverman to stop refugees and asylum seekers from trying to enter the UK by boat – while not providing them with a safe alternative route to come here for their applications to be assessed.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media will devote acres of coverage to how Just Stop Oil activists are slowing down motor traffic, or briefly disrupting sporting events, while making scant reference to the cause they are actually protesting over.
Globally, of course, tackling the climate crisis has taken something of a back seat these past three years as governments have focused on the coronavirus pandemic, or the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the UK having the added distraction of the country’s departure from the European Union, which has sucked up energy and resources across government.
The fact is that any trying and reduce the impact of climate change often requires effort or sacrifice at the individual level, whether that be reducing car use or doing away with one altogether, using a train rather than plane to go on holiday, recycling as much as possible and practising sustainability wherever possible.
Many councils of course have sought to make it easier for people to do that, for example through policies promoting active travel such as building cycle lanes, or excluding motor vehicles from town centres – which is all the excuse that some politicians or media outlets need in order to oppose them, often by obfuscating or misreporting the facts as a threat to individual freedom.
The term that we’ve come to use to describe what is, in fact, climate change, doesn’t help either – it’s the reason John down the pub this evening might ask, on hearing what I’ve been writing about today, how ‘global warming’ exists given it’s fairly cool for early July in London today, while entirely ignoring the fact that the UK has just experienced its hottest June on record.
The unseasonably cool weather and rainy periods in London right now are, of course, explained by the start this week of the Wimbledon tennis championships – which this year coincides with the opening, today, of a High Court action brought by several Conservative-controlled Outer London boroughs against Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s planned extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone.
Opposition, whether local or national, to initiatives aimed at helping the environment isn’t just seen in the UK, of course. It’s something we see across what are described as ‘developed’ countries, where the political narrative is typically shaped by election cycles.
As a result, necessarily painful measures that must be taken to avoid damaging our planet any more than we have already done are shelved as terms near their end.
Other countries, meanwhile, are pursuing their own agendas, which will often be in direct conflict with trying to reduce carbon emissions, whether that be the increasing industrialisation of a number of countries in the Far East and southern Asia – notably, China – or the Gulf States looking to protect the wealth they have built on the exploitation of fossil fuels.
“We’ve run out of time because change takes time,” University of New South Wales climatologist Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick told Reuters, which reported this week how scientists are becoming increasingly concerned that previously agreed goals to try and contain the impact of climate change were unlikely to be met.
Forest fires, drought, flooding and record temperatures around the world underline the need for urgent action as global leaders prepare to sit down later this year at the COP 28 conference in Dubai to try and reach consensus on how to respond to the threat that the changing climate is having on our planet.
Experience, and expectations, suggest that in terms of deeds rather than words, it will be impossible to reach one, while all the time that metaphorical meteor gets closer and closer to striking us – although unlike Don’t Look Up, when it does, the audience will have stopped laughing long before that happens.
Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.