The biggest threat in ‘Don’t Look Up’ are the capitalists

As the dust settles on a movie that has well and truly got people talking about the climate crisis in a way that no other movie has, it is worth talking about one of the most important messages of the movie, and one that has largely been ignored.

In Don’t Look Up, as the meteor hurtles towards Earth, finally the fictional government decides to act, but just as hope emerges with a plan created by the best scientists, it is dashed by a billionaire businessman promising salvation, and riches to boot. The link between fact and fiction is paper thin. In the movie, Mark Rylance’s character, Peter Isherwell, persuades the President that she can save the world and make trillions in profits while at it. Essentially, she can have her metaphorical cake and eat it. In real-life, climate scientists are urging systemic change that includes “a deep transformation based on a fundamental reorientation of human values, equity, behavior, institutions, economies, and technologies”, while the billionaire brigade are promising us all that we can save the world without having to change the way we live. We can all have our cake and eat it too.

As the crisis gets worse, the calls to tech our way out of the mess will grow ever more fervent. Already, this is the preferred solution of the billionaire class, who see no reason to halt the megamachine that is ultimately causing the extermination event we are witnessing. We still have time, if we act immediately, to avoid complete collapse, but if we act slowly the need for drastic action will arise and this will be in the form of giant geoengineering projects. While they will be sold as a panacea for our problems, they will do more harm than good and once started, there will be no turning back. One such project is the giant space umbrella proposed by James Early in 1989. The idea is that the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs blocked out 90% of the Sun’s rays, resulting in a massive temperature drop. Rather than wait for another asteroid, we could mimic the effect ourselves, the logic goes. The project entails, somehow, getting a 2,000 km-wide (1,242 mile) glass shield into position where it is balanced between the Earth and Sun’s gravity. That position is around a 1.6 million km (1 million miles) away. The shield would be so enormously heavy that it would need to be made on the moon. As a work around to the weight problem, an astronomer called Roger Angel has suggested producing sixteen trillion flying space robots on Earth, each weighing one gram. These space robots would deflect sunlight by forming a cylindrical cloud 96,560 km (60,000 miles) wide. They would need to be regularly “nudged” to avoid them crashing into each other. If this doesn’t sound outlandish enough, it has even been proposed that we simply move the Earth further away from the Sun. This would be done by causing an explosion equivalent to five thousand million million (yes two millions) hydrogen bombs.

As comical as these “solutions” seem in 2022, by 2042, we may see these as necessary. By far, the most widely touted of these projects, and the most likely to be attempted is solar radiation management (SRM). The aim of this project, funded partly by Bill Gates, is to mimic volcanic explosions. After Mount Pinatubo, in the Philippines, erupted in 1991, around 15 million tons of sulphur dioxide was injected into the stratosphere, between 10km and 50km (31miles) in altitude. This sulphur dioxide then mixed with water and created a layer of sulphuric acid droplets which scatter and absorb incoming sunlight. Stratospheric winds then carried this layer around the globe. The effect was that over the next fifteen months the global temperature dropped by 0.6°C (1.08°F). Of course, as this was a one-off event and CO2 continued to be pumped into the atmosphere, once the aerosols naturally dispersed, the temperature rose again. The man-made version of the Pinatubo effect is to send high altitude airplanes into the stratosphere 4,000 times a year to inject sulphur dioxide. As a bonus, the sunsets would apparently be incredible, but on the flip side, scientists claim SRM would cause a “calamitous drought” in the Sahel region of Africa, projected to be home to 196 million people by 2050. We have experienced the global impact of large volcanic eruptions elsewhere. After the Indonesian volcano, Mount Tambora blew its top in 1815, the following year, Europe experienced widespread harvest failure. Three of the four large dry spells in the Sahel region in the 20th century followed large volcanic eruptions in Alaska and Mexico the previous years. These droughts created ten million refugees and killed 250,000 people. It isn’t just Africa that might suffer the effects of SRM. It has been suggested that to negate the impact on the Sahel, sulphur should be added in the tropics, but scientists warn that this will then cause a decrease in monsoon rains in South Asia, home to two nuclear powers and over a billion people already suffering the effects of drought and flooding. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), SRM will also cause damage to the ozone layer which has been in a long recovery since the 1980s, due to human activities.

The concern for many scientists is that as the temperature continues to rise, populations will demand that their leaders take drastic action, and twenty or thirty years down the line, this may be a last resort. For this reason, research was carried out by the Swiss National Science Foundation in 2020, and they found that while the temperature would drop, the interference would impact precipitation, flood and drought patterns around the world. While it may become necessary, if we fail to act now, climate scientists are clear that it should be avoided. Emeritus Professor at Imperial College London, Joanna Haigh, said of these research findings: “The results of this study indicate that solar geoengineering can in no sense be viewed as a sensible rescue plan due to the potential to severely impact on temperature, precipitation, floods and drought patterns across the globe”.

Other research has looked at the long-term effects of SRM and the findings do not look good. It has been estimated that stratocumulus clouds would gradually thin and break up, in turn causing global warming of 5°C (9°F). Further problems arise because SRM is relatively cheap at $2 billion a year, so cheap that most countries could afford to carry out their own projects, independent from each other. This would create a wild west free-for-all where countries attempt to whack-a-mole and could descend into complete climate chaos, causing mass starvation and triggering global wars.

Failure to address the crisis head on immediately will mean that actions we consider insane today will likely be heralded as essential solutions within a few decades. Don’t Look Up is a welcome piece of comedy that has got us all finally talking about the elephant in the room. Realizing that businessmen don’t always make the soundest decisions is a takeaway we would be wise to remember. As in art, time is running out, and the faster that we all realize this, the better. We don’t need piecemeal change; we need a systematic transformation of our societies. What that looks like and how fast we get there should be up to us, not profiteering billionaires who have a Plan B to terraform a distant planet on the backburner.

The author, Simon Whalley, is an educator in Japan, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Japan and the author of the upcoming book, Dear Indy: A Heartfelt Plea From a Climate Anxious Father.

Cover illustration: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center – Bennu’s Journey – Early Earth – CC BY 2.0

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