Last month, after much anticipation, The Day After Tomorrow
rolled into theaters around the world. The latest film by director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day
) explores a new angle in the disaster genre, featuring a doozy of a catastrophe - abrupt climate change
-- that ostensibly could have been prevented. Straying away from the "we couldn't have possibly seen it coming" theme, Emmerich dives head-first into the global warming controversy with a film that not only attempts to explain the Kyoto Protocol in its first ten minutes, but also puts the blame almost squarely on the shoulders of the United States. It seems Emmerich is trying to make up for the lack of climate change awareness by hitting movie audiences over the head with it.
Much has been written about the validity of the science depicted in the film. Surprisingly, most climatologists imply that the special effects - a tidal wave engulfing Manhattan, snow in New Delhi, tornadoes in Southern California - are certainly fantastical but not entirely far-fetched. In fact, the difference between "movie science" and real science revolves around how fast climate change will occur.
While many in the conservation community
are excited that climate change has captured Hollywood's attention, there's concern that its onscreen depiction is so ridiculous that most who see The Day After Tomorrow
will treat global warming as a scientific exaggeration or a joke. Watching the movie, I couldn't shake the feeling that the true-life effects of climate change aren't spectacular enough to grab the average person's attention. Grossing nearly $450 million worldwide*, The Day After Tomorrow
certainly captures the imagination, but can a Hollywood blockbuster translate entertainment into concern about what we are doing to our environment?
I left the screening thinking that the "movie science" was more plausible than other aspects of the film (hiking through a blizzard from Philadelphia to New York City, for instance). Curious to get a sense of how people unconnected to the conservation community interpret The Day After Tomorrow
, I spent some time trolling the popular Internet Movie Database (IMDB) website.
Most IMDB user reviews not so subtly suggest that the movie is pretty terrible. From flat acting to a cliched plot, there was even debate about the quality of the special effects. I expected more flap on the validity of the science, which might indicate that at least climate change is becoming a cocktail party topic. However, since most discussion centers on the absurdity of nearly every aspect of the movie, I can't help but feel as one person suggests, "for the life of me I can't see that any agenda is well served by this mess."
I decided to consult a professional, one of CI's resident climate change experts, Michael Totten who has dedicated much of his career to combating climate change and building awareness for the cause.
Q. Michael, I have to start with the most obvious question, what did you think of the movie?
A. I went with modest expectations, having read some of the science critiques, and while I was initially swept up in the action, unfortunately it unraveled into increasingly fantastic events.
Having said that, I do think the movie is worth seeing, if only to further people's interest in climate change.
Q. Is there any truth to the science portrayed in this movie? What would you say is the biggest departure from reality?
A. The movie is a hyped and hyper version of climate science insights, distorted to fit the action disaster genre. The biggest departure has to do with the fact that triggering such wide-scale arctic conditions not only requires a shutdown of the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation, but other conditions essential for the growth of glaciers. These other conditions are absent from the film. Now, the shutdown of part or all of the thermohaline circulation would certainly cause regional cold weather conditions, but nothing remotely close to what the movie portrays.
Q. We can already see the affects of climate change on weather. The Weather Channel has enough content on file to feature a weekly weather disaster show. It seems that even in my own lifetime, weather is growing more extreme. Can you highlight some effects of climate change that we are already experiencing?
A. The Weather Channel is one of the best TV sources of information about how increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and atmospheric concentrations are driving climate instability and triggering a wide range of weather disasters. This past decade is thought to be the hottest in 1000 years. Over the past four decades, the number of great natural catastrophes, mostly floods and storms, has risen three-fold. In the Atlantic Ocean, 16 separate hurricanes developed in 2003, well above the 1948-96 average or 9.8. Hurricane Isabel, which battered North Carolina last September, was one of the strongest on record.
The economic losses associated with weather disasters have grown by a factor of nine after adjusting for inflation. Munich Reinsurance recently calculated natural catastrophic losses at $333 billion between 1993-2002. Economic losses were $60 billion in 2003, up from $55 billion in 2002. ( View the study - 2.6mb)
Scientists are reluctant to attribute climate change as the single or key driver of these increasingly frequent and more severe weather disasters because there are so many complex interactions going on. They do caution, however, that such events are consistent with projections of what we can expect from rising concentrations of atmospheric CO2.
Q. I think we all had hopes that this movie would build awareness for climate change. But instead, the focus seems to be on how bad the movie is. Do you think The Day After Tomorrow will ultimately have any impact on perceptions of climate change?
A. Yes, I think the visual storytelling helps the lay person grasp the fact that climate change is really about weather variability, not just global warming. It's counter-intuitive that heating up the earth can trigger extremely cold weather.
At the same time, I hope the movie prompts citizens to learn the real looming risks, which are quite different from Hollywood fantasy. There is a veritable library of downloadable documents accessible via the web. A few sites I periodically check include: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; US National Assessment of Potential Consequences of Climate Variability; Global Commons Institute; and the extensive sites listed at Climate Ark.
Q. Unlike other disaster movies where humans are portrayed almost entirely as victims, The Day After Tomorrow appears to come with a message " it's all our fault." While many accept the human causes of climate change without question, curiously it's not a universally accepted concept. Some even proclaim the very notion of climate change as "environmental propaganda." What do you think it is about this issue that gives people pause?
A. Interestingly, surveys show a steadily rising concern among the public about climate instability, regardless of political affiliation, gender, financial status, or education level. A recent National Science Foundation-sponsored survey found over 90% of Americans polled think the US should reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
What gives many people, especially climate critics, pause is the perception that it will be too costly to reduce emissions, or require a decline in human wellbeing. Climate critics claim actions to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of CO2 will divert so much capital that it will lower the standard of living for the well off and prevent the poor from escaping grinding poverty. This is largely misleading and unencumbered by hard examination of numerous, detailed assessments showing quite the contrary.
Q. What do you think we can do to change this perception?
A. There needs to be much better communication and education about the economically attractive ways to stabilize CO2 levels that are currently available. Other climate-friendly (and biodiversity-friendly) energy options will be available in the coming decades through dedicated, vigorous research and development efforts, combined with a range of incentives and innovative policy drivers.
Q. According to the film's website, the producers realized during the filming of the movie that the very business of making movies contributes to climate change. They decided to make their film " carbon neutral" - can you talk about what that means?
A. Director Roland Emmerich paid personally to offset around 10,000 tons of CO2 that the film production generated. The funds were used in five different projects facilitated by the UK-based company, Future Forests: conservation in the Pacific Forest Trust; reforestation of degraded land in Bhutan; energy efficient light bulbs in the Caribbean, and energy efficiency equipment in some homes across the US.
Q. The band Pearl Jam worked with CI to make their 2003 tour carbon neutral. It sounds like all the cool kids are doing it. Can you explain how individuals can become carbon neutral?
A. It is actually a cool thing for schools, communities, businesses and government agencies to do as well. In the case of Pearl Jam, the band offset 5,700 tons of CO2 emissions released from trucks, buses, airplane travel, hotel rooms, concert halls, plus the one million fans driving to and from the concerts. Pearl Jam is funding a joint project between CI and the Wildlife Conservation Society to create and manage a new protected area in the rainforest of Makira
To become carbon neutral, a good strategy is to look at it like a portfolio of stocks and bonds, and diversify. For example, only purchase Energy Star-rated high-efficiency appliances, computer equipment, lights, buildings, etc. Purchase the most fuel-efficient vehicles, use mass transit, bike, walk and telecommute. These actions save money and prevent not only CO2 emissions, but smog and acid rain pollutants as well. Then take some of the savings to offset the rest of your climate footprint by funding the protection of threatened rainforests, regeneration of fragmented landscapes into connected corridors of biodiversity, and purchase green power (e.g., solar and wind power).
Of even greater potential is for each person to engage the institutions within which they participate (local governments, religious institutions, non-profits and businesses) to commit to achieving zero net CO2 emissions.
Q. Around the office, you're well known for your low-impact approach to living. If you could pick one thing that we could all do in our daily lives to slow or stop the effects of global warming, what would that be?
A. Commute by bicycle. As H.G. Wells once said, "When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race."