What Leonardo DiCaprio and Meryl Streep taught us about sustainability communication

By Karen Dunnicliff
Reputation Director and Sustainability Specialist at Herd MSL


The new Netflix disaster film Don’t Look Up perfectly captures the challenge of communicating the impending doom of civilisation and mobilising the world to act.

Following the discovery of a massive comet hurtling toward Earth, desperate pleas for action are met with denial, wilful ignorance, paralysis and misinformation.

Sound familiar?

It’s a cautionary tale about our inability to act on climate change despite decades of warnings from the scientific community. It is also full of truisms and lessons about how we communicate about sustainability.

1. Hope trumps fear

While fear can be a powerful and motivating tool, hope is even more powerful.

As Meryl Streep’s exasperated US president in Don’t Look Up says, “You cannot go around saying to people that there’s a hundred percent chance they’re going to die.”

We shouldn’t massage the facts on climate change to suit our agenda as President Orlean seeks to reframe the probability of a giant comet hitting earth. Nor should we “keep it light” as Cate Blanchett’s breakfast TV character seeks to. 

We need the fear and the outrage that facts and science evoke – but we also need the optimism and action that comes from having hope.

Sustainability challenges are complex, but communication needs to be simplified. People need a viable vision for a sustainable future that they can get behind and act upon.

2. Seeing is believing

The social media obsessed public don’t take the warnings of scientists seriously in Don’t Look Up until they can actually see the comet hurtling toward earth and the truth of its existence can no longer be disputed.

Without one specific event or time to focus on, climate change and other sustainability issues are even more challenging to communicate.

Imagery, design and data visualisation will help people understand and accept the immense challenges ahead and model what the world could look like under different scenarios.

We need to bring the visuals into lounge rooms and across desktops to ensure sustainability becomes mainstream.  

3. Selling a new economic ideology

The film also explores the wealth, greed and suspect priorities of corrupt governments and big business. While the plot is comically simplistic, it does speak to the need to transform our global economy to operate more sustainably and transparently.

Growth and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) have long been measures linked to improved societal and wellbeing outcomes. However, these measures are being challenged in the context of rising social and environmental problems.

Infinite growth is not compatible with finite natural resources, just as destroying the comet in Don’t Look Up is not compatible with mining the comet for precious minerals.

The Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership outlines a ten-year plan to create a more sustainable economy in its Rewiring the Economy report. While business, government and finance are the key players the plan focuses on, communication is key to successfully transition the economy for a sustainable future.

Communicators must have a good understanding of sustainability challenges, they must have a seat at the table when organisational strategies and priorities are set, and they must have the resources to help embed sustainable practices and influence stakeholders.  

4. Beware of the Kool-Aid

As Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dr Randall Mindy becomes “America’s sexiest scientist”, he loses sight of the scientific emergency and becomes a mouthpiece for a problematic administration.

His character arc becomes a metaphor for greenwashing and climate spin; a warning to organisations who overstate their sustainability credentials.

With consumers becoming more discerning, greenwashing is a huge risk to business. PR teams have a responsibility to be asking the right questions, understanding the risks and pushing organisations toward more meaningful communications underpinned by action and science.

2021 marked a turning point in our response to the climate crisis. Landmark reports gained widespread attention, delegates from COP26 agreed to the Glasgow Climate Pact and new leadership of one of the world’s great superpowers recommitted to climate action. The pandemic also continued to show us just what humankind is capable of in a crisis – making radical changes to systems and behaviours in a small amount of time, when they are necessary.

As we embark on 2022, the scene is set and communicators have a leading role to play in driving words and commitments into action, finding consensus, aligning agendas, inspiring and engaging a diverse population in a sustainable future.

As with any cautionary tale, the lesson is that we can avoid the fates of Meryl and Leo in Don’t Look Up, and it’s not too late.

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