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19 May 2004Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Science, and fiction
The Day After Tomorrow confuses fact with fiction. That's fine for Hollywood. But why are scientists going along with the story?

by Sandy Starr

A vision of the White House being destroyed by aliens in Roland Emmerich's 1996 blockbuster Independence Day wowed moviegoing audiences around the world.

Emmerich could not have anticipated that following the attacks of 9/11, Independence Day would be held up as an example of Hollywood's irresponsible habit of revelling in spectacles of destruction. Now, a chastened Emmerich brings us a new blockbuster, The Day After Tomorrow, which depicts a form of apocalypse that is more acceptable to current sensibilities - environmental disaster.

Independence Day was an unashamedly silly film, aspiring to little more than to entertain. The Day After Tomorrow, however, is being touted as carrying a serious message about climate change. Emmerich says 'the threat of global climate change is the only problem big enough to force all the countries of the world to stop fighting and work together to save the planet' (1). The studio behind the film has organised special preview screenings for scientists, and has successfully sparked off a serious debate in scientific circles about the scenario that the film depicts.

Unlike the scientists, I have yet to see the film. But going by the blanket promotion and the debate over its accuracy, the scientific aspects of the plot are as follows. Greenhouse gas emission has caused global warming. This global warming causes the polar ice caps to melt. This melting of the ice caps causes an influx of fresh water into the salt water of the world's oceans. This influx of fresh water causes the Gulf Stream, the ocean current that carries warm water from the equator into the northern hemisphere, to stop. This stopping of the Gulf Stream causes three hurricanes to drag cold air from the upper atmosphere into the lower atmosphere. This influx of cold air into the lower atmosphere initiates a new ice age. And that, give or take a few sequences depicting extreme and aberrant weather conditions around the globe, is it.

According to the film's producer Mark Gordon, 'this is science fact, although we have collapsed the time period to make the coming of this ice age happen much more quickly' (2). You can say that again - environmental changes on this scale generally take centuries to occur. And far from being 'science fact', there is significant scientific debate about whether or not each of the stages in the film's doomsday scenario, upon which each subsequent stage depends, is a) possible, b) likely, and c) necessarily disastrous for humankind.

None of which should be an impediment to making a piece of spectacular film entertainment. As the environmentalist George Monbiot points out, 'a film about the slow-rolling, complex transformations induced by climate change would be about as gripping as a speech by Geoff Hoon'. Statistician Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, concurs: 'If The Day After Tomorrow had no claims to be anything more than another cheesy Hollywood movie with some fabulous special effects, we could happily turn a blind eye to its bogus science.' But, as Lomborg says, 'the film claims to be offering something more than this' (3).

The film's official website offers a set of assertions about the real world. Under the heading 'Global wake-up call: there's more truth than hype', elaborate Macromedia Flash animation mixes footage from the film with images of real-life climate extremes, and intersperses the result with a relentless series of alarmist facts and figures, presented without context. Summing up the thinking behind this scaremongering, a senior executive behind the film says that it's 'not a documentary, but it's very scary to think that it could be one' (4).

Elsewhere on the website, the filmmakers admit that 'at some point during the filming we looked around at all the lights, generators and trucks and we realised, the very process of making this picture is contributing to the problem of global warming!' (Fortunately for the studio's profits, this thought only occurred to them after they had started filming.)

The filmmakers go on to explain that they are sponsoring 'a mix of energy conservation and tree planting' to 'offset the greenhouse gases released during the making of The Day After Tomorrow'. They have even allowed Greenpeace to piggyback on the film's publicity, by turning a blind eye to a Greenpeace website with a near-identical address to the film's official website - 'www.thedayaftertomorrow.org', rather than 'www.thedayaftertomorrow.com' - which combines the branding and design of the official film site with Greenpeace content (5).

Are disaster movies going to become the new currency of scientific debate?
So is this film the work of an inventive bunch of storytellers out to entertain, or the work of environmentalist crusaders out to debate science? The answer you get from the filmmakers depends on whether they stand to gain publicity from a scientific debate about the film (in which case, it's serious), or whether you're taking them to task over the film's scientific accuracy (in which case, it's just entertainment). You have to hand it to the marketing department - the blurring of fact and fiction is an ingenious promotional technique. But serious scientists wouldn't fall for it - would they?

Apparently, they would. The UK government's chief scientific adviser, David King, told a meeting in London that the film depicts a 'highly unlikely or even impossible scenario' - but he went on to praise the fact that 'while my colleagues and I have just spent half an hour presenting you with the scientific understanding of climate change, the movie gets the basic message across in a few sentences of dialogue'. Climatologist David Viner points out that 'cooling of this sort is very unlikely with global warming', but also says 'the fact that The Day After Tomorrow raises awareness about climate change must be a good thing' (6).

Must it? What purpose can raising 'awareness' of an unlikely or impossible scenario possibly serve, other than encouraging people to be more afraid than is rational? And why would scientists, of all people, wish to encourage such irrationality?

When the best thing that George Monbiot can say about the science is that 'the climatologists stopped laughing at the story and started laughing with it', you know that the film is not eliciting plaudits on the basis of its scientific content (7). Rather, it seems that scientists and other commentators are praising The Day After Tomorrow because they think it is sending out the right message, even if that message is at odds with scientific accuracy.

Hence Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, can say that 'although the depiction of the science is exaggerated and at times misleading, the scale of the threat and the underlying politics are all too true' (8). There is a general acceptance today that assuming worst-case scenarios when predicting the future, seeing people as a problem and the environment as something that needs saving, and characterising the comforts and technologies of modern life as irresponsible, are all correct attitudes to hold. Since these attitudes are not scientific in essence, but political, they can happily find affirmation in a far-fetched film whose science is all over the place.

The Day After Tomorrow is certainly being used for political ends, as a stick with which to beat US president George W Bush - scorned by environmentalists for not signing the Kyoto Protocol - ahead of the forthcoming presidential elections. Former vice president Al Gore has encouraged people to see the film, on the grounds that 'the Bush administration's presentation of global warming' is itself 'fiction' (9). But if this is the case, surely the way to counter the fiction is with scientific fact, not more inaccurate fiction?

One commentator defends the film on the grounds that 'unless real events mirror the dramatic timescale of Hollywood movies, then no response is demanded of our politicians'. But since when is it the job of Hollywood to demand responses from politicians on questions of complicated science? If disaster movies are to be the new currency of scientific debate, who will make the case against alarmism? Bjørn Lomborg points out that 'for the cost of implementing Kyoto in just one year, we could permanently provide clean drinking water and sanitation to everyone on the planet. Of course it is unlikely that Emmerich will cast Brad Pitt as a sewage engineer in Kenya for his next glamorous movie' (10).

NASA has been accused of seeking to stifle the debate about The Day After Tomorrow, by advising its researchers not to reply to media enquiries about the film. NASA says, quite reasonably, that it does not want to do work promoting a film without coming to a formal promotional agreement with the filmmakers (11). Would that the broader scientific community had adopted a similar attitude, then we could look forward to enjoying The Day After Tomorrow for its entertainment value, rather than wasting time assessing its scientific credentials - which all scientists know, and most scientists admit, are bogus.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Global warming

spiked-issue: Film

(1) 'What can you do', in the 'Weather gone wild' section of the Day After Tomorrow website

(2) Cool reception for ice-age movie, Juliette Jowit and Robin McKie, Observer, 25 April 2004

(3) A hard rain's a-gonna fall, George Monbiot, Guardian, 14 May 2004; These Hollywood special effects may cost the world $15trillion, Bjørn Lomborg, Sunday Telegraph, 9 May 2004

(4) 'The present: right here, right now' and 'Future predictions: the day after tomorrow', in the 'Weather gone wild' section of the Day After Tomorrow website; 'Tomorrow' gets free PR from advocacy groups, Ian Mohr, Reuters, 7 May 2004

(5) 'What can you do', in the 'Weather gone wild' section of the Day After Tomorrow website. See the Day is Today website

(6) Climate film 'flawed but useful', BBC News, 12 May 2004. King and Viner are by no means the only scientists who have praised The Day After Tomorrow with faint damnation - see, for example, Scientists warm up to climate flick despite implausible plot, Andrew Bridges, USA Today, 4 May 2004

(7) A hard rain's a-gonna fall, George Monbiot, Guardian, 14 May 2004

(8) The Day After Tomorrow and abrupt climate change, Friends of the Earth, 12 May 2004

(9) Global warming ignites tempers, even in a movie, Sharon Waxman, New York Times, 12 May 2004

(10) Chill out at the Odeon, John O'Farrell, Guardian, 14 May 2004; These Hollywood special effects may cost the world $15trillion, Bjørn Lomborg, Sunday Telegraph, 9 May 2004

(11) NASA notice to all employees regarding media reports about the film The Day After Tomorrow, Glenn Mahone, SpaceRef, 26 April 2004

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