IEMA opinion: Don’t Look Up challenges us to collaborate and diversify

27th January 2022

It is now two months since the COP26 climate summit took place in Glasgow – billed as a last chance opportunity to take decisive action on the climate emergency.

We also have the second part of COP15 on biodiversity in China later this year, taking place during what many are calling the ‘sixth mass extinction’. The situation can feel daunting, and that sense of urgency and overwhelm was highlighted in Netflix’s recent climate fiction blockbuster Don’t Look Up, which sees astronomers trying to work with the US government to prevent a comet destroying Earth (spoilers ahead).

Out of the silo

One of Don’t Look Up’s key themes is cross-sectoral collaboration. The film is centred around a senior astronomer (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and an astronomy PhD candidate (Jennifer Lawrence). The latter, Kate, discovers that a very large comet is heading directly for Earth; her senior colleague, Randall, confirms her findings and contacts the US government and mainstream media, only to have their concerns minimised and ignored.

Their treatment at the hands of institutions they expected to be responsive leads them, in different ways, to cross-sectoral collaboration. Kate has an outburst on a chat show and is ostracised by the US government. She initially tries to have a normal life, but can’t resist the urge to get involved in street activism. Randall spends most of the film being pulled into the administration and media circus as chief scientific adviser to the government – while having an affair with a very high-profile talk show host. He only joins Kate in her activism when it’s too late.

“Scientists and academics must be included in the process of politics to ensure the best outcomes”

Neither of the two main characters have the skills or experience required to effectively navigate politics or the media. I’m sure plenty of academics and people who are otherwise in non-political professions can relate,and would rather stick to what they know. However, an increasing number of climate scientists and other academics and experts are getting more involved in public life. It is understandable that climate scientists, particularly those at the top of their field – working, for example, as co-authors of IPCC reports – would rather stay away from politics, worried it may jeopardise their careers. However, there certainly are ways to collaborate beyond our silos in pursuit of climate action.

Come together

A good recent example of this was the Insulate Britain protests in the UK, which saw activists blocking roads, including the M25, and demanding that the government insulate all homes in the UK and address fuel poverty.

In November, the group announced that a charity worker, a GP, scientists, an engineer and a vicar were all facing jail for their participation in the protests. Similarly, a jury acquitted Extinction Rebellion activists who had been involved in a different protest, whose backgrounds were: retired GP, recycling worker, shoemaker and retired probation officer.

I’m not saying that one particular direction of travel from one silo to another is better than another – my point is we should recognise that we’re all part of a movement that requires us to work together and support each other as best as we can. While it’s critical that elected representatives lead on decision making in parliaments and governments, scientists and academics must be included in the process of politics to ensure the best outcomes. Conversely, without democratic representation in major scientific, technological and engineering projects, social justice concerns risk being left by the wayside.

Without diverse skills, experiences and backgrounds in our respective fields of work, we will be limiting our capacity for effective action on environmental and sustainability related issues.


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