Sunday, January 30, 2022

3564. Despite U.S. Embargo, Cuba Aims to Share Homegrown Vaccine with Global South

 By Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, Democracy Now!, January 27, 2022

Editor's note: The following is from the NBC News: 

    • "Cuba’s prestigious biotech sector has developed five different Covid vaccines to date, including Abdala, Soberana 02 and Soberana Plus — all of which Cuba has said provide upwards of 90% protection against symptomatic Covid when administered in three doses.
    • ""The country of roughly 11 million remains the only country in Latin America and the Caribbean to have produced a homegrown shot for Covid.
    • "The WHO’s potential approval of Cuba’s nationally produced Covid vaccines would carry “enormous significance” for low-income nations, John Kirk, professor emeritus at the Latin America program of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, told CNBC via telephone."

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Democracy Now!: A 60-year U.S. embargo that prevents U.S.-made products from being exported to Cuba has forced the small island nation to develop its own COVID-19 vaccines and rely on open source designs for life-saving medical equipment such as ventilators. We speak to leading Cuban scientist Dr. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa about how massive mobilization helped produce three original vaccines that have proven highly effective against the coronavirus. “In a moment that the whole world was mobilizing to face this tremendous menace that was killing people around the world, the U.S. administration did not lift any of the 400 sanctions that were slapped on Cuba during the Trump administration plus this decades-long embargo,” says Valdés-Sosa, director of the Cuban Center for Neuroscience. “Medicines and vaccines are not a commodity. It’s not something to get rich with. It’s something to save people’s lives.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

Cuba has announced plans to deliver as many as 200 million doses of its homegrown COVID vaccines to nations in the Global South. Despite the U.S. embargo, Cuba now has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. Cuba has also announced it will soon apply for approval by the World Health Organization for one of its vaccines, Abdala, which has been shown to be highly effective.

This all comes as Cuba prepares to mark the 60th anniversary of the U.S. embargo, which has severely curtailed Cuba’s response to the pandemic, making it harder to import critical medical equipment and supplies. The embargo began on February 7, 1962, by President John F. Kennedy. It’s continued under 11 U.S. presidents since then.

We’re joined now by Dr. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, the director of the Cuban Center for Neuroscience. He has played a key role in Cuba’s response to the pandemic.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Doctor. It’s great to have you with us. Can you talk about how Cuba has dealt with the pandemic, its plans to give out hundreds of millions of vaccines? And what? You’re reporting Cuba, this month, between seven-day averages of one to four deaths, daily averages?

DR. MITCHELL VALDÉS-SOSA: OK. Well, first, thanks for having me on the program. I enjoy your show very much. I watch it frequently in Cuba. So thanks for this invitation.

I think Cuba really faced the menace of the pandemic with trepidation. We were really worried, because we saw news around the world of people dying, intensive care units being overloaded, and new variants continuously being — coming — appearing and sweeping around the world.

I think the key to the Cuban response is the close coordination and collaboration of all the actors, everyone involved. So, one thing that happened is that all the research centers mobilized and started redirecting their work. And, for example, in the case of my center, which is a center for research on neuroscience — we study developmental disorders, Alzheimer’s disease — we decided to set that aside for a moment and start collaborating in preparing for the response of the pandemic.

And one of the things that happened is that several centers got together, and we started producing ventilators, because there was a shortage of ventilators. One of the effects of the embargo — or the blockade, as we call it in Cuba — that the U.S. has imposed on us for so long, it was difficult to get ventilators from the U.S., and even spare parts for ventilators that had been bought before the pandemic, some of them from Europe. But what’s happening is that if a company supplies something to Cuba, and then it’s bought off by a U.S. company, then they can’t sell us the spare parts. And this is a tremendously difficult situation in many areas of medical attention.

And here is something which is interesting because it shows the two sides of the relationships between the U.S. and Cuba. One of the ventilators we started manufacturing is an open source design, which was put on the internet by MIT. And this is, I think, very generous. This happened all over the world. People started sharing solutions for the pandemic. I think the pandemic really brought out generosity in people, solidarity. And that’s, I think, a very interesting aspect. And we took the design from MIT, adapted it to Cuban conditions, and we started building the ventilators. This is the good side of the coin. But on the other side, we couldn’t buy any of the parts in the U.S. And we had to change some of the — part of the design, and we had to go to sources far away, and sometimes at much higher prices. And this is incredible that in a moment that the whole world was mobilizing to face this tremendous menace that was killing people around the world, the U.S. administration did not lift any of the more than 400 sanctions that were slapped on Cuba during the Trump administration, plus this decades-long embargo. It didn’t budge an inch.

So, all that Cuba did — and I think we were very successful. If you look at the rates of death in — people that died in Cuba, of people that were infected at different moments, Cuba has been very successful compared with every country in this continent. And I think we achieved this because there was a massive response of all the population supporting all the measures that the public health system started orienting, and every resource in the country was mobilized.

To finish the story about our ventilators, we managed to manufacture 250 ventilators, that were delivered to hospitals all over Cuba. And immediately after this, we started working on a second ventilator. I mean, the second design was also open source, from the UCO in the U.K. They were very helpful, managed to collaborate. Cubans there, that live in the U.K., they did crowdfunding. They got the funds. They bought the parts, the components, sent it to Cuba. We got help from the European Union, from the World Health Organization, and we managed to start manufacturing another 250 ventilators. And this was something that was done with collaboration from many research centers, people working very hard, working nights, working weekends. And I think we managed to help the health system manage this very difficult situation, which became much tougher after the new variants came up, first Delta and then Omicron.

But I think that the really interesting aspect of this work is how Cuba, in less than a year, managed to develop three vaccines. And there, the embargo is really crippling, because you need, to manufacture vaccines, production facilities. You need different fermenters, if you’re going to make it through genetic engineering. You need chemicals. You need all kinds of supplies. And it was very trying to get this, because the impact of the embargo is not only that we cannot buy in the U.S. There are two additional add-on effects which make things difficult. One is that European or Japanese suppliers get scared off. We have negotiated. We’ve tried to buy materials from people in Europe, and they say, “Well, we could sell, but we would get into trouble with the U.S. We have big contracts in the U.S.” So, that’s one of the additional knock-on effects of the U.S. embargo. The second is that even though we sell products, Cuban products, abroad — and that’s what the Cuban pharmaceutical and biotechnological industry does: It sells products abroad. But to buy raw materials to be able to manufacture the subsidized and very low-cost medicines and products that are sold to the Cuban population — and when we try to bring the funds to Cuba, we try to use them, then all the bank operations are hampered by U.S. regulations. So, the embargo has a very strong effect, a very noxious effect, on the development of anything. But despite this, in one year, Cuba managed to develop its three vaccines, and now there’s a fourth vaccine on the way.

The interesting thing is that the rollout of the vaccines was very, very effective and very easy. I’d say the Cuban population, the Cuban people, have great trust in their health system. They don’t see it as something that’s separate from them. They collaborate with it. It’s not a money-making machine. Public health in Cuba is free for everyone. We have family doctors in every neighborhood. People trust their doctors. So, we’re very puzzled when we see the news abroad that there are people that distrust the vaccines, that there are people that don’t want to get vaccinated. In Cuba, there’s no vaccine mandate, but people just line up and are really anxious and enthusiastic to get vaccines. And we have over 80% of all the population with the full vaccination program. Everybody’s been vaccinated. And now we’re rolling out a booster, an additional booster vaccine. Over 50% of the population has received the booster. At our center, in addition to redirecting our work to manufacture ventilators, we also set up a vaccination center. We gave over 6,000 shots. The doctors and nurses that work at our center volunteered, and they were working very hard. And just people would call and come with enthusiasm.

And I think the important thing is that there’s been years of working up trust in science. People feel that the future of the country is really connected to science. And they see the scientists that developed the vaccines as heroes. Even some of the most popular songwriters and musicians have written songs about the vaccines and about the doctors. And I think this is part of a really consistent message of all society. When you see on Cuban TV anyone talking — it could be the president, it could be a minister, it could be a teacher, a sportsman — everybody is masked up. This has been a consistent message to all the population. And every day the Ministry of Public Health, on television, reports how many cases there are, if there’s any deaths. And this problem of keeping the public informed and of being straight, talking straight to them and really giving them information, has been very useful. And I think we’ve been successful in controlling this pandemic, although it’s been incredibly difficult, and we’ve had to manage and invent many, many ways to work around all the negative effects of the embargo.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Doctor, despite the effectiveness of the vaccines that Cuba has developed, they have not yet received approval from the World Health Organization. Could you explain why you think that is and what steps Cuba is taking to ensure that that approval comes? Because Cuba has also made commitments to donate vaccines or to give vaccines to low-income countries, and WHO approval is important for that.

DR. MITCHELL VALDÉS-SOSA: Yeah, WHO approval is very important, and Cuba is in conversations with the WHO to obtain this approval. But it’s not, let’s say, a barrier, because the regulatory body of every country has the right to decide which vaccines it uses. So, the equivalent of the FDA in different parts of the world are examining the Cuban vaccines, and, for example, in Vietnam and Venezuela and recently in Mexico, they have approved using the Cuban vaccines.

Cuba is working with the World Health Organization, and it’s finishing a new production plant in Mariel, the latest technology. And the idea is transferring production of vaccines to this new facility, so it will have all the possibilities of receiving an inspection by the World Health Organization and being finally approved. But this does not impede, it’s not an absolute barrier, because other countries can use their regulatory bodies, and they’re doing so. And so countries are now receiving Cuban vaccines. We think at the beginning of this year we will have this approval and that this process will be finished.

This new production facility, it’s called Mariel-CIGB. It was just finished. And it’s really top-notch. It has the most advanced technologies for production of biotech products. And we’re sure it will come out very successful in the inspections that are needed for approval by the World Health Organization. But that does not limit the possibility of helping other countries. And that’s going on now at this moment.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Valdés-Sosa, we only have a minute, but could you explain what plans Cuba has for technology transfer to allow other countries to manufacture Cuban vaccines?

DR. MITCHELL VALDÉS-SOSA: OK. This is already going on. Cuba has now reached an agreement with the Pasteur Institute in Iran, and they are now producing the Cuban Soberana vaccine. And Cuba is negotiating with other countries and is open to share its technology so it can be used worldwide.

One of the concerns we had when the epidemic began is that we knew that there would be a shortage of vaccines to reach everyone. And it’s absolutely clear, if we don’t vaccinate the whole world population, there’s going to be the risk — and it’s almost certain — that new variants will rise, and some will be able to circumvent and to get around the defenses that previous vaccines have achieved. So, Cuba is very open to this. We are part of the Global South. And we understand that medicines and vaccines are not a commodity. It’s not something to get rich with. It’s something to save people’s lives. And we’re really in favor of sharing technology and of working with people around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, we want to thank you for been with us, director of the Cuban Center for Neuroscience.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

3563. U.S. Science No Longer Leads the World

By Jeffrey Mervis, Science, January 21, 2022

A new data-rich report by the National Science Foundation (NSF) confirms China has overtaken the United States as the world’s leader in several key scientific metrics, including the overall number of papers published and patents awarded. U.S. scientists also have serious competition from foreign researchers in certain fields, it finds.

That loss of hegemony raises an important question for U.S. policymakers and the country’s research community, according to NSF’s oversight body, the National Science Board (NSB). “Since across-the-board leadership in [science and engineering] is no longer a possibility, what then should our goals be?” NSB asks in a policy brief that accompanies this year’s Science and Engineering Indicators, NSF’s biennial assessment of global research, which was released this week. (NSF has converted a single gargantuan volume into nine thematic reports, summarized in The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2022.)

NSB’s white paper hints at an answer by highlighting several factors it considers essential for maintaining a healthy U.S. research environment. The nation, it says, must sustain excellence in basic research; foster a scientific workforce more diverse in race, gender, and geography; and support high-quality precollege science and math education. The board also calls for forging closer ties between academia and industry, keeping borders open to promote international partnerships, and promoting ethical research practices.

Achieving those goals won’t be easy, says Julia Phillips, an applied physicist who chairs the NSB committee that oversees Indicators. Now retired after a long career at AT&T Bell Laboratories and the Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories, Phillips spoke with ScienceInsider about obstacles posed by an uncertain budget climate and a roiling debate over how to protect research from foreign influence.

No “appetite” for more spending

“It would be the height of hubris to think that [the United States] would lead in everything,” says Phillips, who is also home secretary of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. “So, I think the most important thing is for the United States to decide where it cannot be No. 2.”

At the top of her priorities is sustaining the federal government’s financial support of fundamental science. “If we lead in basic research, then we’re still in a really good position,” she says. But the government’s “record over the last decades does not give me a lot of cause for hope.” For example, Phillips says she is not optimistic that Congress will approve pending legislation that envisions a much larger NSF over the next 5 years, or a 2022 appropriations bill that would give NSF a lot more money right away.

“How much is the U.S. willing to spend on [basic research]?” she asks. “It’s now a really small fraction of the GDP [gross domestic product]. Increasing that could be on the table. And I appreciate that Congress has consistently been more generous than [what presidents have requested]. But I see no evidence that there’s an appetite for raising that share significantly, which is what it would take.”

Falling behind

The United States trailed China in contributing to the growth in global research spending over the past 2 decades.

China 29%UnitedStates 23%South Korea& Japan 9%Other Asia 7%Other 14%EuropeanUnion 17%Contributionto globalR&D growth

Distrust on research security

Phillips thinks a lack of trust between academic leaders and the U.S. intelligence community is aggravating tensions over the potential threat posed by foreign students and scientists who study and work at U.S. universities.

Members of Congress and federal security agencies have accused China of building up its research capacity by enticing U.S.-based scientists to share their discoveries. Some have blamed U.S. university administrators for lax enforcement of rules that require researchers to disclose foreign funding and are calling for tighter oversight. Universities have pushed back, saying law enforcement officials often withhold information about potential threats on their campuses and that the government’s 3-year-old China Initiative has engaged in unfair racial profiling of researchers of Chinese descent.

Talent from abroad

A majority of computer scientists and engineers with Ph.D.s working in the United States were born overseas.

Social andbehavioral sciences20.6Physical and earthsciences42.4Life and agriculturalsciences50Engineering57.1Computer sciencesand math60.3015304560Ph.D. scientists born overseas (%)

The friction hasn’t been helpful, Phillips says. “Some of the people that I’ve heard making those [assertions] do not fully appreciate the seriousness of the [security] issue,” she says. “I knew the director of counterintelligence at Sandia very well. And every now and then, he would come visit me and say, ‘OK, you are hiring this postdoc. And I need to tell you, there are certain things about their pedigree that gives us some concerns. And here’s what they are, here’s why.’ And because I had a [security] clearance, he could tell me that.”

“But in order for them to tell you that, there has to be a certain level of trust,” she adds. “And some of the people who are especially alarmed and making those comments [criticizing the China Initiative] have not gained the trust of individuals in the intelligence community.”

The “appalling” state of science education

The latest Indicators highlights serious—and persistent—inequities in elementary and secondary school education, such as poor students of color scoring lower than white and Asian students on standardized tests and being more likely to have inexperienced science and math teachers. Those disparities emphasize the need for NSF to continue supporting efforts to improve science teaching, Phillips says. But she concedes the federal government has limited ability to shape precollege schooling.

“The levers [of decision-making] are mainly at the local and state levels,” she says. “However, NSF has funded a lot of research on what works in the [kindergarten] through grade 12 curriculum, so there is potential for some impact.”

She adds, “This is an area in which the [National Science] Board is speaking more in its role as an adviser … and calling attention to this problem. And, in my opinion, if we do nothing more than get national attention on what I think is just an appalling situation, we will have done our job.”

A gap in math

Asian and white eighth-grade students far outperform Black and Latino students in math, and poverty widens the disparity.

294275264254323299280273Students eligible forfree or reduced lunchesBasic level scoresProficientlevel scoresStudentsnot eligibleAverage NAEP* scores* National Assessment of Educational ProgressAsianWhiteHispanic or LatinoBlack

Spreading the wealth

NSF has spent decades tinkering with a grantmaking process that now results in most of its dollars going to a relative handful of institutions along the nation’s East and West coasts. For example, its 40-year-old Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research tries to build research capacity at institutions elsewhere and now serves half the states. This year, NSF has asked Congress to fund a network of geographically distributed innovation hubs to boost the research infrastructure available to scientists in have-not states, and the Senate has approved a bill that would funnel 20% of NSF’s overall research budget to institutions in those states.

But even as NSF seeks ways to create a larger pool of grantees, Phillips says, the agency has wrestled with how to measure the effectiveness of such efforts. “If you’re going to pour money at a problem, you also want to know if it’s having an impact,” she says.

“One possibility is to see how patenting activity has changed in different parts of the country,” she continues. “And how much of that can you trace back to an innovation hub? [Another metric could be] how the number of [science and engineering] jobs has increased in a particular region, or the flow of talent between academia and the private sector. You see that flow all the time in Silicon Valley and in the Route 128 area [surrounding Boston]. But you don’t necessarily see it happening in other areas of the country.”


Tuesday, January 11, 2022

3562. Miyazaki Anime: Animism for the Anthropocene

By Shoko Yoneyama, Global Dialogue, Novemver 5, 2021

There is general agreement that addressing climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and other existential crises associated with the Anthropocene requires a rethinking of human-nature relationships. But we have not progressed very far. Perhaps we need to envisage a totally different kind of relationship. Amitav Ghosh suggests we are suffering a crisis of imagination because we lack a cultural frame of reference that would enable us to imagine alternative ontologies. Is it possible that animism could help find a solution?

But isn’t animism a “simple faith” of “primitive people” like hunter-gathers who are far removed from modernity? This is how animism is typically framed in Western orthodoxy: that it is basically an erroneous epistemology. “New animism,” a more recent school of thought, takes a more positive view, presenting animism as a useful critique of modernity. The full promise of new animism, however, has yet to be realized. For the most part, animism still remains in a specimen-like position in university anthropology departments in the West.

The global popularity of Miyazaki anime

Miyazaki Hayao, animation film director of Studio Ghibli, has a valuable role to play in inspiring deep engagement with the challenging realities of life in the Anthropocene. Animism as presented in his anime has the power to open the hearts and minds of millions of viewers to a positive reimagining of human-nature relationships. Miyazaki anime inspires our imagination with highly accessible images and stories of animism.

“You’ve got to be joking!” a colleague exclaimed at conference a few years back when I gave a paper making this same point. “Miyazaki anime is kid’s stuff. My son watched Totoro when he was five.” It’s true: Miyazaki’s work is mainly for children, but thanks to his movies, “Japanese children sense Totoro the tree spirit whenever they see trees,” observes Takahata Isao, former co-director of Ghibli. This may very well be the case for children all around the world. The global influence of Miyazaki anime has grown exponentially since Disney began distribution of Ghibli films in 1996, Spirited Away received the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003, and the films began to be streamed on Netflix and HBD Max.

Critical animism

So what has the global popularity of Miyazaki anime to do with the Anthropocene?

Representations of animism in Miyazaki anime, especially in his signature films such as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (2001), and Ponyo (2008), allow us to dig deeper into a reimagined human-nature relationship.

Reimagined? The situation is different in Japan, where animistic ontology and epistemology have continued to this day in parallel with modernity. There, animism exists as what UNESCO calls an intangible cultural heritage. In addition, a new kind of animism has evolved in response to the negative aspects of modernity, I argue, and “powered up” (like the transformation of Pokémon) to form a reflexive critique of modernity. This is what I call “critical animism” or “postmodern animism.”

Critical animism evolved from the discourse of Minamata disease sufferers: victims of one of the worst cases of industrial pollution in human history that has been ongoing since the 1950s. Filmgoers may be familiar with Johnny Depp’s 2020 film Minamata that depicts the life of Eugene Smith, the photographer who took the iconic picture “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath.”

Sociologist Tsurumi Kazuko first observed this grassroots discourse on animism as a critique of modernity. I have pursued Tsurumi’s “animism project” in my book Animism in Contemporary Japan: Voices for the Anthropocene from Post-Fukushima Japan[1] Miyazaki is one of four prominent Japanese intellectuals whose life narratives I examine in the book, exploring how these creative thinkers came up with the idea that animism could save the world.

Miyazaki Hayao maintains that animism is needed to save the world. The dissemination of animism therefore is his life project. The philosophical foundation of his work can be found in the manga version of Nausicaä in the Valley of the Wind, an epic story of over one thousand pages about human-nature relationships, which took him twelve years to complete (1982-94).

There are three components of Miyazaki’s (critical) animism. One is the beautiful illustrations of nature endowed with agency. Nature is presented as a non-dualistic combination of the life-world and the spiritual-world, as symbolized by the Kodama, the forest spirit, in Princess Mononoke. The second component is the significance of place and the local, which sets his animism apart from the ideological and jingoistic discourse of state-led Japanese animism. His positioning of animism opens the possibility for it to be loosely connected with animism in other places to form what Arif Dirlik calls “translocal alliances.” The third is the negation of dualisms, such as human/nature, good/evil, life/death, spiritual/material, seen/unseen, and light/dark, which has powerful theoretical implications.

Kodama (forest spirit) in Princess Mononoke (1997). Credit: Studio Ghibli.

Miyazaki Hayao’s animism is theoretically radical as it challenges the taken-for-granted premises of the paradigm of social science and modernity, which are all based on hierarchical dualisms: 1) humans over nature (anthropocentrism); 2) the rational over the spiritual (secularism); and 3) the European tradition over the others (Eurocentrism). In other words, his animism disrupts the existing paradigm. It presents the potential to stimulate our imagination in a new direction to envisage a different paradigm that is free from hierarchical dualisms. For details, see my paper “Miyazaki Hayao’s Animism and the Anthropocene” in Theory, Culture & Society.

With these theoretical implications, the global popularity of Miyazaki anime constitutes a significant sociological phenomenon. Miyazaki projects powerful images of animism into the hearts and minds of millions of viewers, just like Totoro planting tree seeds with children. The massive popularity of Miyazaki’s work may suggest an intuitive grasping or hunger for his animistic stance. It is possible that his films of a re-enchanted world prepare viewers (including social scientists) to be more attuned to animistic epistemology and ontology, in a way that redresses Ghosh’s crisis of imagination. In that sense, Miyazaki Hayao provides a “perfect story” for us to respond to the “perfect storm” of the Anthropocene.

[1] Yoneyama, S. (2019) Animism in Contemporary Japan: Voices for the Anthropocene from Post-Fukushima Japan. Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Monday, January 10, 2022

3561. Film Review: Don’t Look Up Doesn’t Get the Climate Crisis

By Eric Levitz, New York Magazine, January 5, 2022

Don’t Look Up is an obscenely overlong, occasionally funny satire of American media and politics. But it aspires to be something more.

As he has emphasized in interviews, director Adam McKay conceived of the film as an allegory for the climate crisis. His aim was to render the absurdity of our collective response to global warming more visible by likening the problem to a starker existential threat: a “planet-killer” comet on a collision course with Earth. Don’t Look Up portrays a United States so intoxicated by decadent consumerism, and so corrupted by polarized, plutocratic politics, that it cannot make deflecting a doomsday rock a national priority. Even as the Dibiasky comet bears down on Earth, media outlets carry on spotlighting frivolities and fomenting culture wars, while politicians keep privileging the whims of billionaire donors over the needs of humanity writ large.

The film strikes plenty of true notes. Although written before the pandemic, many of its social criticisms feel sharper in 2022 than they would have in 2019. The notion that a threat as immediate and universally menacing as a descending comet could become culture-war fodder — thereby turning the mere act of “looking up” into a litmus test for partisan allegiance — is a bit too plausible at a time when anti-vaxx identity politics has pushed U.S. COVID deaths over the 800,000 mark.

Nevertheless, Don’t Look Up badly misconstrues the crisis it’s meant to illuminate. Climate change isn’t much like a planet-killing comet. And the pathologies of for-profit media and campaign finance aren’t the primary obstacles to rapid decarbonization. McKay’s film skewers social media for privileging ideologically flattering, identity-affirming narratives over honest reckonings with inconvenient truths. Yet Don’t Look Up is itself a transparent product of its authors’ immersion in social-media echo chambers. It is a cinematic elaboration of liberal Twitter’s most ideologically flattering, identity-affirming narratives about climate change.

In the film’s populist, polemical account of the ecological crisis, there is no genuine technical or logistical obstacle to neutralizing the threat, no need for Americans to tolerate significant disruptions to their existing way of life, no vexing question of global redistribution, no compelling benefits from ongoing carbon-intensive growth, and thus no rational or uncorrupted opponent of timely climate action. Don’t Look Up casts the conflict between minimizing climate risk and maximizing near-term economic growth as one pitting the interests of billionaires against those of everyone else — or, in a few moments, as one pitting Americans’ base interest in retail therapy against their repressed longing for a less materialistic and more communitarian way of life. This is a narrative fit for winning the retweets of middle-class American liberals but not for understanding the world we live in or the forces threatening to end it.

To elucidate the problems with Don’t Look Up’s satirical vision, we first need to spoil its plot. The film begins with two Michigan State University astronomers — graduate student Kate Dibiasky and (long-unpublished) professor Randall Mindy — discovering that a “planet-killing” comet is six months away from colliding with Earth. They try to alert the White House to this threat, but President Janie Orlean’s administration would rather keep the comet under wraps until after the midterm elections. So Dibiasky and Mindy take their story to the media, which promptly vilifies the former as a mentally unstable worrywart while celebrating the latter mostly for being handsome (unlike many other films that cast beautiful men as nebbish professors, Don’t Look Up is refreshingly forthright about the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio is hot even with a beard and a bunch of nervous tics). President Orlean proceeds to change her tune. The U.S. launches a bunch of nuclear weapons at the comet, and the mission is poised for total success when Orlean abruptly calls it off.

Her change of heart comes courtesy of Peter Isherwell, the billionaire CEO of tech firm BASH and super-donor to Orlean’s presidential campaign. Isherwell’s corporation has discovered that the comet contains trillions of dollars’ worth of rare-earth elements that could greatly expand the capacities of its smartphonelike products. Instead of pursuing a strategy that guarantees humanity’s survival, Isherwell persuades Orlean to embrace a high-risk, high-reward alternative: Allow BASH to use its proprietary technology to fragment the comet, divert its pieces into the ocean, and then collect them for mineral mining. BASH’s tech is unproven and its proposed procedure non-peer-reviewed. It’s an insane gamble. But the government silences Dibiasky’s dissent through the threat of imprisonment. And it co-opts Mindy by making him the national science adviser.

This subordination of the truly valuable (human survival) to crass longings (niftier gadgets) is mirrored in Mindy’s own character arc. Once an unheralded scholar toiling in East Lansing’s obscurity, Mindy finds himself transformed into an international celebrity. Soon, he betrays his fealty to the truth to maintain White House clout and forsakes his adoring midwestern family for a hot, rich talk-show host who is openly incapable of love. Eventually, Mindy becomes mad as hell and decides he can’t take it anymore. He surprises his mistress by delivering an unvarnished condemnation of Orlean’s policy on live television. Mindy then flees the corruption of the big city for the wholesome heartland, hoping to reconcile with his wife. At about this time, the comet becomes visible in the night sky. Mindy leads a “Just look up” campaign that implores the people of the world to literally observe the doomsday rock hurtling toward them and demand policy change. But this quickly prompts a “Don’t look up” countermovement from the president’s supporters. Russia, India, and China mount a last-minute effort to deflect the comet themselves (after the U.S. denies them an opportunity to get in on mining the comet), but it fails. BASH’s does too.

As the “planet-killer” makes contact, Mindy enjoys a final family dinner. Surrounded by his wife, children, and friends, the astronomer sighs, then says, “The thing of it is we really did have everything, didn’t we?” Then all humans are annihilated (save for the 2,000 most powerful people on the planet, who lie cryogenically frozen on a spaceship programmed to seek out an Earth-like planet hiding somewhere in the ether).

There are a lot of reasons why this is a poor allegory for the climate crisis. We’ll focus on four big ones:

1. Climate change provides no do-or-die deadline.

Most of Don’t Look Up’s deficiencies as a climate parable derive from a simple fact: Climate change isn’t really analogous to a planet-killer comet.

McKay hit upon this analogy in a conversation with the left-wing journalist David Sirota. And one can understand the metaphor’s appeal: Like climate change, a comet can threaten all of humanity, reveal itself first to scientists, and become more difficult to address the longer that action is delayed. Unlike climate change, however, a comet operates in a manner and timescale conducive to a Hollywood narrative. Whereas the former threatens a diffuse, nonlinear, and gradual worsening of ecological conditions, the latter presents a clear-cut ticking-time-bomb scenario: Knock the space rock off its path and all is saved; act too late and a fiery apocalypse destroys everything in an instant.

Climate change is not remotely like this. Contrary to rhetoric popular with some progressive politicians and social-media users, climate change provides us with neither a hard deadline nor a clean binary between success and failure. Environmentalists cannot promise that if we act now, everything will be fine, since we have already burned an unsafe amount of carbon and nothing we do now from here on out is likely to prevent the climate from growing ever more inhospitable for the rest of our lives. Nor can Greens warn that if we don’t act soon, all will be lost. We do not know exactly how much carbon we can burn without tripping over a globally catastrophic tipping point. The United Nations’ 1.5- and two-degree warming targets are informed by science but still inescapably arbitrary. All we really know is that the more we limit warming, the less suffering climate change is likely to produce. At the same time, if our concern is merely for averting near-term human extinction, it’s not actually clear that we need to do anything at all. Today, the business-as-usual emissions path is expected to yield three degrees of temperature rise, a scenario that few scientists consider an existential threat to the human species.

If climate change does not threaten to end the world at a predictable date, it also does not threaten all Earth dwellers equally. The warming we’ve already bought ourselves is enough to “end the world” from the perspective of some low-lying island nations. Yet it is possible to imagine the top 10 percent of America’s income distribution living relatively comfortably in a two- (or perhaps even three-) degree-warmer world. Thus, different regions and class strata each have their own discrete (albeit uniformly unknowable) deadlines for action.

2. The technology necessary for eliminating climate change — at no cost to human flourishing — isn’t fully developed.

In Don’t Look Up, the tech required for diverting the Dibiasky comet is already fully operational. And the only economic incentive to delay action is a previously unanticipated commodity-extraction opportunity, which the film suggests will mostly serve to increase the profitability of predatory tech firms.

It is true that fossil-fuel interests have stymied the full deployment of existing green technologies. But it isn’t actually the case that the tech necessary for nullifying the climate threat, all without diminishing existing living standards or growth prospects, is just sitting on the shelf. To eliminate our dependence on carbon energy while enabling the electrification of all automobiles, we’ll need to improve energy-storage technologies to compensate for the intermittency of renewables. To remove fossil fuels from heavy industry, we need cost-efficient electrified cement and hydrogen-powered steel plants. To maintain global travel in a zero-emissions world, we need electric airplanes.

Until these and other technologies are developed, the costs of rapid decarbonization will be neither negligible nor exclusive to the rich. In Don’t Look Up, Isherwell argues that mining the comet will facilitate the abolition of poverty. This is portrayed as the specious rationalization of a self-interested villain. But in the real world, there is a genuine trade-off between minimizing climate risk and maximizing near-term human welfare. Don’t Look Up’s obsession with America’s decadent consumerism is, in some respects, narcissistic. The United States has contributed more to the climate crisis than any other nation. But it will likely account for only about 5 percent of global emissions over the coming century. The battle for a sustainable planet will be won or lost in the global South, where carbon-intensive growth is still needed for much more than improved smartphones. More than 700 million humans still don’t have electricity in their homes. In China and India, carbon-powered growth has been steadily liberating the global poor from grievous deprivations. Technological breakthroughs should eventually make it possible to reconcile the competing goods of mitigating climate risk and lifting global living standards. But they aren’t here yet.

3. Rapid decarbonization will require Americans to tolerate real changes to their ways of life. And some have good reason to resist those changes.

Decarbonizing the American economy is a vital endeavor. But drastically cutting our nation’s exceptionally high per capita emissions will require Americans to accept policy changes that impinge on our lives a lot more than a nuclear-missile launch. Minimizing agricultural emissions requires people to eat less (non-lab-grown) meat. Reducing household emissions requires municipalities to tolerate the construction of high-rise housing developments near mass transit. Dramatically increasing public investment in the green transition will require higher taxes or, in the short run, higher inflation.

And for certain U.S. communities, the costs of a rapid transition would be especially profound. Late in Don’t Look Up, Dibiasky returns to her blue-collar hometown, where her parents promptly condemn her politics. “Your father and I are for the jobs the comet will provide,” her mother explains. This is the film’s sole (metaphorical) representation of working-class opposition to climate action. And it casts that opposition as insane. A comet is weeks away from destroying all life on Earth, and these people are prioritizing entirely hypothetical employment opportunities, implicitly because they’ve been brainwashed by the right-wing media.

In real life, however, blue-collar resistance to a green transition is often quite rational. In many parts of the U.S., the fossil-fuel industry is the primary, if not only, source of middle-class employment available to non–college graduates. The average annual wage in West Virginia’s coal industry far outstrips that of any other private industry in the state. Over the past decade, shale booms brought high-paying jobs to places long forsaken by industrial capital. At present, green energy does not promise comparable gains. In 2019, the median annual wage for a solar-photovoltaic installer in the U.S. was $44,890, while that of a wind-turbine technician was $52,910. Median wages in the fossil-fuel power sector, by contrast, paid between $70,310 and $81,460. Meanwhile, fossil-fuel construction projects tend to be higher paid and more labor intensive than renewable ones.

There is no reason in principle why green-energy jobs cannot be good jobs. And all workers stand to benefit from cleaner air and a stabler climate. But the past 40 years of deindustrialization have given fossil-fuel workers every reason to believe that economic change isn’t their friend. And they’re plausibly correct; at the moment, progressives do not actually have a coalition capable of guaranteeing them basic social-welfare protections, let alone highly paid, unionized jobs in a post-carbon economy.

4. Vapid news anchors and billionaire political donors are not the primary obstacles to climate action.

Taken individually, none of the aforementioned problems with Don’t Look Up’s allegory would be fatal. But when you put them together, it becomes clear that the satire’s fundamental premise is mistaken. In 2021, the chief impediments to American climate action aren’t really the news media’s frivolity, the public’s inattention, or the campaign-finance system’s corruption.

If climate change really were akin to the Dibiasky comet, then McKay’s targets would be well chosen. Which means that if (1) global warming were on the cusp of destroying all human life, (2) Americans could unilaterally eliminate such warming using existing technology, and (3) eliminating warming did not require disrupting status-quo living standards or economic arrangements in any way, then America’s inaction could only be explained by some combination of elite treachery and mass delusion — which is to say by a collective failure to “look up” and acknowledge reality.

But climate change isn’t like a comet.

In our world, the actual proposition offered by American proponents of rapid decarbonization goes something like this:

No matter what we do, the natural disasters are going to keep getting worse and more frequent. It’s not clear exactly how much longer we can delay decarbonization before we will cross a threshold that condemns your children to lower living standards or worse (this depends in part on where you live and how wealthy you are). But the longer we wait, (1) the more vulnerable people in climate-sensitive regions we will effectively kill and (2) the higher the risk that we ourselves will suffer catastrophic outcomes. Thus, responsible decarbonization is rapid decarbonization. And to achieve that, we’re going to have to accept sweeping disruptions to the status quo. Localities will need to forswear NIMBYism and tolerate the construction of massive solar farms, high-voltage transmission lines, giant lithium mines, and dense housing developments. Workers in the fossil-fuel sector will need to accept the sudden devaluation of skills they spent years developing. And the upper middle class will need to pay higher taxes and/or higher prices to facilitate the remaking of America’s energy infrastructure, development of green technology, subsidization of sustainable industrialization in the global South, decarbonization of various American industrial sectors, and (ideally) economic reforms that raise wages and benefit levels for all laborers so that displaced fossil-fuel workers enjoy a just transition.

To be clear, even if we do all this, it’s still possible that catastrophic climate change will immiserate our grandchildren anyway. But ultimately, the economic benefits of transition (let alone, the public health and ecological ones) are extremely likely to outweigh the costs. So, this is the most responsible, collectively rational course of action.

When you lay out the case for a swift green transition like this, it becomes apparent that mass delusion is scarcely necessary to impede responsible action. Even if American voters were universally well informed and deeply concerned about climate change, they would not necessarily support the measures required to minimize it. After all, those measures have some genuine costs. And the benefit of any individual measure is highly speculative (if not objectively negligible). No one solar farm, or ultrahigh-voltage transmission line, or multifamily housing development is going to make or break the green transition. But such projects do often impinge on locals’ valued nature preserves, or peace and quiet, or parking availability. Meanwhile, most people are not affluent professionals who already “have everything.” Even voters who support action against climate change tend to prioritize their more quotidian concerns about jobs, wages, inflation, and tax rates. In 2019, a Reuters survey found that 69 percent of Americans believed the U.S. should take “aggressive” action to combat climate change — but only 34 percent were willing to pay $100 more in taxes a year to finance that action.

In truth, even the subset of Americans who are most aware of climate change (and ostensibly committed to mitigating it) routinely refuse to prioritize the problem over other concerns. Last year, Maine held a referendum on whether to approve a high-voltage transmission line that would carry hydropower down from Canada. If Mainers voted yes on the ballot measure, the project would be rejected — and any future high-voltage transmission line would require two-thirds majority support in the state legislature to be approved. If Mainers voted no, the project would go forward and greenhouse-gas emissions would likely decline by about 3 million metric tons a year, the equivalent of removing 700,000 cars from the road.

And three of Maine’s top “green” groups — Environment Maine, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and the Sierra Club — helped team “yes” carry the day, deciding it was more important to preserve Maine’s “natural beauty.”

These groups are scarcely the climate’s only fair-weather friends. In 2016, McKay’s political hero (and my preferred presidential candidate), Bernie Sanders, decided to prioritize his ideological antipathy for nuclear power over reducing emissions when he campaigned in support of shutting down Indian Point, a nuclear-power plant in New York. Last year, that source of zero-carbon energy closed, and gas-fired power plants took its place. In 2020, meanwhile, a local chapter of the Sunrise Movement protested the upzoning of Soho, thereby prioritizing … the interests of lower Manhattan’s landlords (?) … over the promotion of energy-efficient housing developments near mass transit.

In a world in which America needed to hit its emissions target for 2030 or else all earthly life would perish on January 1, 2031, I suspect that self-styled climate hawks wouldn’t feel so comfortable opposing ideologically displeasing measures that would reduce CO2 emissions. But those aren’t the stakes, so they often do.

I don’t mean to suggest that anti-nuclear environmentalists, Fox News producers, and fossil-fuel lobbies are equally responsible for our current plight. There is no question that conservative media has helped to keep America’s climate policies markedly more irresponsible than those of the typical OECD country. And big coal’s hired hands are on the cusp of single-handedly killing Joe Biden’s green agenda. It’s true that if America had begun its green transition when man-made warming first became a scientific fact, decarbonization could have been achieved with less disruption and more surefire ecological benefits. And fossil-fuel interests bear great responsibility for impeding timely action in the 1990s.

But in 2022, it just isn’t the case that the only major obstacles to responsible climate policy are big-dollar political donors and morally bankrupt media outlets. In reality, there is a lot of billionaire and millionaire money behind the American climate movement. And in any case, thanks to small-dollar online fundraising, the 2020 campaign’s leading champion of a Green New Deal, Sanders, had an easier time raising campaign funds than his more moderate adversaries.

McKay’s conception of the news media’s role, meanwhile, seems slightly deranged. In one recent interview, he suggested that careerism prevents reporters from conveying the alarming truths of climate change, telling, “It takes a lot of guts to raise your hand at that newspaper meeting and go, ‘Why don’t we have a giant headline that says, ‘Oh my God, we’re all going to die!’” But I can assure you this takes no guts at all (assuming McKay was speaking figuratively). This magazine did a weeklong climate-change series last year. And we’re doing it again later this month. The New York Times publishes large alarming packages on climate change every few weeks. Generally speaking, the left-of-center college graduates who staff mainstream-media outlets care more about climate change than the average American. And the subject’s prominence in major media reflects this ideological commitment more than it does any business imperative; as McKay’s film suggests, climate change is not surefire clickbait.

The reality is that, in the contemporary United States, a just and prudent response to climate change demands a lot more than keeping global warming in the headlines or evicting billionaire donors from the White House. It requires ordinary Americans to make real ideological and material sacrifices. Prudence demands rapid decarbonization. And rapid decarbonization demands the disruption of economic relations and natural landscapes. Justice requires reparations for those whose worlds are already ending due to our past emissions, and fiscal transfers to poorer countries that wish to industrialize sustainably. Resistance to these demands extends well beyond high-dollar fundraisers and MSNBC greenrooms. Almost no one in this country has yet summoned the requisite urgency and solidarity.

If a truly just and prudent response to climate change is therefore unattainable, we can still strive to bend policy in its direction. But to do so, liberals will probably need to stop telling themselves self-flattering fairy tales about the crisis they wish to resolve.