Do Look Up

Climate Voices

Do Look Up

Share on

Bishop Desmond Tutu taught us that moral outrage drives successful movements.

It’s a bit early to see emerging trends for the New Year, but here is one I can predict with great confidence: Despite growing global awareness, the climate movement will continue to lose the war for public attention.

For a Zeitgeist check on why, ignore the critics, and watch Netflix’s wildly popular new film, “Don’t Look Up.” With an A-list cast of Hollywood luminaries, director Adam McKay has created a biting satire of an American culture blissfully ignorant of its imminent extinction. In this Hollywood drama, a comet the size of Mt. Everest, not climate change, is humanity’s grim reaper. 

“Don’t Look Up” is a primal scream on American indifference towards an impending natural cataclysm. Movie critics hate the film. But it has been warmly embraced by climate scientists and campaigners like climatologist Michael Mann, who say the movie finally speaks the truth of “a culture distracted by the trapping of celebrity and social media.” The popular press only makes this worse, he says, by creating a “false balance and both-siderism that has enabled the sort of climate denial and delay lampooned by the film.”

But the roots of America’s climate ambivalence go beyond the movie’s cartoonish caricatures of its elite institutions. McKay’s deeper and more profound message is that climate awareness is not connecting at the same spiritual and moral level that other great social, political or environmental causes have.  Many Americans continue to view climate change as an obscure elitist concern that only strikes fear — and reflection — when they are suddenly confronted with a killer tornado, a flash flood, or a burning suburb. 

This occurred to us as we reflected on the life of South Africa’s beloved social justice champion, Desmond Tutu, who is remembered this week in a piece by Climate & Capital’s Managing Editor Blair Palese. As the key spiritual leader of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, he led, not with data, talking points or research reports, but with a fiery, though gentle, moral persuasion. He successfully articulated a deep sense of injustice that every South African of color felt and then he directed that anger towards effective — and peaceful — political action.

Unknown to most, but not to Blair, was that in his last years the Nobel Peace Prize winner was doing the same as he took up the cause to combat climate change. 

As in South Africa, Tutu supported business divestment, not because targeted companies were bad long-term investments (they are), but because moving money away from polluting companies was first and foremost a moral imperative. “It makes no sense to invest in companies that undermine our future,” he wrote in The Guardian. “To serve as custodians of creation is not an empty title; it requires that we act, and with all the urgency this dire situation demands.” 

“To serve as custodians of creation is not an empty title; it requires that we act, and with all the urgency this dire situation demands.” 

“Don’t Look Up” shows why this is not happening with climate change. That is until it’s too late. For too many in today’s manic celebrity-driven culture, the idea of a “just” and “moral” cause seems so “preachy,” so last century, so … unbusinesslike. 

This is a huge issue for the climate movement because it is the passion of human and environmental injustice, not reason, that has been the heart and soul of all great social movements. The push for civil, human and environmental rights; Anti-war, anti-apartheid and anti-poaching; Black Power and Black Lives Matter, women and gay rights; and the multiple political fights around the world for independence, freedom and justice. These historical moments all burned with a moral outrage felt not by just a minority of adherents but by hundreds of millions of people who connected, and made the cause personal. And because of this, these movements repeatedly succeeded in shattering the status quo of entrenched interests.

Morality was the miracle adhesive not just for Bishop Tutu but for Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, the Berrigan brothers, Bobby Sands, Lech Walesa, Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi, Amilcar Cabral, the women who surrounded RAF Greenham Common, AIDs champion Larry Kramer, Gloria Steinham and Betty Friedan, Rosa Parks, Ida B. Wells, Bishop Paul Moore, Angela Davis, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Nellie Bly, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Muhammed Ali, Jane Fonda, a Vietnamese monk setting himself on fire, a solitary man standing in front of a Chinese tank and countless more brave souls.

No revolution has ever succeeded on brains alone. And yet we ask ourselves, are there spiritual leaders alive now who can rise to the challenge and remind the world that what really drives human action is the often wildly irrational, moral outrage that comes from the heart?

We’re not sure. The global climate response appears to have been hijacked by the left side of the brain, by bankers, money managers and wily bureaucrats from multinational institutions. Much of the established climate movement itself seems devoid of passion, unfocused and without a true global leader. There is one huge exception: Greta Thunberg. The Swedish teenager has brilliantly succeeded because she is leading from her heart, and is using moral outrage to rally a new generation of angry — “To serve as custodians of creation is not an empty title; it requires that we act, and with all the urgency this dire situation demands,”  — and scared generational peers. 

But one woman cannot do it all. The critical message from Tutu and “Don’t Look Up” is that human ambivalence is a recipe for disaster. What is needed to fuel a peaceful, environmental revolution is the moral indignation of a thousand Gretas. Without it, climate action is just “blah, blah, blah,” and will never rise from the bottom of the league table of global social concerns.


Written by

Peter McKillop

Peter McKillop is the founder of Climate & Capital Media, a mission-driven information platform exploring the business and finance of climate change.