Adam McKay: Global Warming Is Not Being Treated Like an Emergency

Don’t Look Up director Adam McKay writes in Jacobin about climate change and the institutional blindness and warped incentives that should scare the crap out of all of us.

A helicopter prepares to make a water drop as smoke billows along the Fraser River Valley near Lytton, British Columbia, Canada, on July 2, 2021. (James MacDonald / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

There is a scene in the 1998 movie about two modern-day teens trapped in an idyllic 1950s TV show, Pleasantville, in which Tobey McGuire’s character runs into a firehouse to tell the firemen that an actual fire has broken out. The firemen, who in their perfect, scripted television world only ever rescue kittens, stare blankly at McGuire from their dinner table, as he yells “Fire!,” over and over again. They have zero existing framework to even understand the basic concept of “fire,” let alone take action to contain it.

It’s a really funny moment. But if you talk to any climate scientist, writer, or activist these days, they will tell you that this is what they face in reality.

Climate events every day make it clear that the escalation is happening much faster and more violently than anyone anticipated. Britain crossed 40°C (104°F) last summer, causing homes to burst into flames; trees have started growing in the Arctic tundra; water is drying up in the American Southwest and across the globe at a startling rate; and it is all but certain that we will cross 1.5°C warming in the next two years. And on and on.

A recent piece in the Guardian by Roger Harrabin describes a disconcerting encounter he had with a renowned scientist:

The heat phenomenon in the Canadian town of Lytton, for instance, produced a “dome” of trapped heat that cranked up the temperature to 49.6C. Wildfires raged and the town was razed. I broke the news to one of the Royal Society’s leading members, Prof Sir Brian Hoskins, but at first he did not believe me. Then he said: “Oh, my god, that’s really scary.”

Extreme change is happening much, much faster than we thought. Water and food shortages are already here. With dozens of events — including the frequency of winter tornadoes tripling in the American South — popping up every day, it’s clear we are dealing with a “right now” time frame. Nonetheless, governments, leaders of industry, the banking world, and large swaths of the news media have so far reacted like the blank-faced firemen in Pleasantville.

Just earlier this week, the Biden administration signaled that it would approve the Willow oil drilling project on federal land, a project that will release over nine million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere — the equivalent of putting an additional two million cars onto the road. The administration is doing it under the Jamie Dimon–backed premise that more fossil fuels are required in order to eliminate fossil fuels.

At first blush, every aspect of this move reads as madness. But I believe this decision, and the almost total lack of curiosity or concern surrounding it, demonstrates something much more dangerous than foolishness or imbalance. It shows that many entrenched political forces can only understand the rapid warming of the planet as just another issue that polls indicate some people are concerned about. For these leaders, the climate crisis is placed neatly against traditional concerns, such as the economy, rising gas prices, or an angered donor class. It’s a level of institutional blindness and warped incentives that should scare the crap out of all of us.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that leaders, CEOs, or media members who fail to take in the reality of this consequential moment are necessarily all “bad people,” but instead were selected by and have thrived in a reality that no longer exists.

And I’m not being hyperbolic. Humans have never lived in a climate with this much carbon. It’s been two million years since the earth’s atmosphere had the level of greenhouse gases that scientists are currently reporting.

Can our institutions account for their blind spots and pivot to the moment we’re in?

It’s certainly not looking good lately. But the scene that follows Maguire yelling “Fire!” in Pleasantville shows his character turning on a never-before-used hose from the fire truck to finally put out the blaze.

“So that’s what that’s for!” says the fireman next to him.

Government leaders, the media, and heads of industry need to stop living in a world that fits their needs and feels familiar, and start living in the world as it is. The alternative is unimaginably grim.