There’s a scene in the 2021 climate satire Don’t Look Up where a pair of scientists warn the US president, played by Meryl Streep, that there’s a 99.78 per cent chance an asteroid will plow into the Earth. It will cause mass death and “mile-high tsunamis”.
Her response? Well, it’s technically not a sure thing, so now is the time for the country to “sit tight and assess” rather than, you know, do anything. The scene was supposed to be a joke.
Now, Don’t Look Up director, Adam McKay, says the White House is doing much the same in real life when it comes to the climate crisis. We know the Earth is increasingly in peril and despite a $369bn climate-action funding package, President Joe Biden hasn’t taken the kind of radical action many experts say is needed to avert the worst impacts, the director says.
“Climate emergency is not symbolic,” the filmmaker told a virtual crowd on Thursday at an event organized by the climate activist group Declare Emergency.
“It opens up executive powers that are very important to what we need right now.”
To avoid such action, he added, was “stark, raving madness”.
“It’s indicative of the fact that you can tell, these people do not get it,” Mr McKay said.
To shake lawmakers into action, Declare Emergency, whose protest blocked traffic on the major Washington DC freeway I-495 in July, is planning two weeks of mass mobilisation next month in the capital, with the singular goal of getting Mr Biden to put the US on climate emergency footing.
“Our government continues to do next to nothing,” group member Paul Severance said at the event.
Another speaker, Ash Engle, an Oklahoma-based organizer with Ikiya Collective, a climate activism group that works in the US Southwest, argued that leaders are failing to stop the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure. These projects both harm frontline communities and add more planet-heating emissions, she argued.
“People who live in privileged places have the luxury of being unimpacted by these decisions,” Ms Engle said. “We don’t have that option…They’re really planning to create a lot of sacrifice zones in communities like mine.”
The event also highlighted projects like the Mountain Valley Pipeline, 304-miles of gas infrastructure through Appalachia, as proof of the disconnect between what Democrats say and do on environmental issues.
Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia bargained with his fellow Democrats to secure a promise that the controversial pipeline would be completed after years of local opposition, as well as securing expedited approval for other fossil fuel projects around the country, an agreement critics labelled a “deal with the devil” for the climate.
The Democrat has received more than $331,000 from natural gas companies this election cycle, according to The New York Times.
In response to such contradictory climate policy, speakers at the Declare Emergency event said one of the best strategies is non-violent direct action, using physical demonstrations and in-your-face protest to spur change, even if it meant blocking infrastructure or getting arrested.
“This is the moment to put our flesh, our blood, our treasure, our reputation, everything on the line,” Mr McKay said.
Also at the event was Peter Kalmus, a Nasa climate scientist and activist, who often engages in such actions including chaining himself to the doors of a JPMorgan Chase building in Los Angeles earlier this year. He said that direct action is one of the best ways to take a stand.
“You will thank me later,” he told the crowd at the Declare Emergency event. “It is the most liberating thing. If you’re concerned about climate change, if you love your kids, if you’re concerned about the trees and the coral reefs and the future of humanity, if you’re fed up and have all these climate emotions, the most liberating thing you can do is risk arrest.”
He also said that it helps him combat climate despair.
“You’ll be joining the ranks of the most courageous, big-hearted human beings on Earth right now that are taking risks for other people,” he said. “The feeling of solidarity that you get from doing that, the feeling of not holding yourself back anymore, is a beautiful thing.”
President Biden has described the climate crisis as an emergency, and has made cutting emissions a major part of his agenda. However he has stopped short of formally declaring a national climate emergency - a distinct legal step that would open up additional measures for the White House to take action without waiting on Congress.
“Let me be clear, climate change is an emergency,” Mr Biden said in July, standing before a former coal plant that was being converted into a renewable energy facility in Somerset, Massachusetts. “In the coming weeks, I’m going to use the power I have as president to turn these words into formal official government actions, through the appropriate proclamations, executive orders, and regulatory power that a president possesses.”
The climate-fighting portions of the Inflation Reduction Act, signed in August, are estimated to put the US on a path to cut 40 per cent of domestic carbon emissions by 2030. However this falls short of the 50-52 per cent emissions reductions target that the US committed to under the Paris Agreement.
In July, the White House rolled out a relatively modest package of climate executive actions that increased funding for Federal Emergency Management Agency climate resilience programmes, low-income home energy grants, and support for the offshore wind industry.