L. Neil Smith's
Number 275, June 13, 2004

"The Sovereign in this country is the people themselves"

Beyond Tomorrow: Some Not So Special Effects
by Lady Liberty

Special to TLE

Memorial Day marks not just the start of summer for many, but the start of the summer movie season for Hollywood. Traditionally, there are a couple of major action or disaster flicks that open on Memorial Day Weekend, and this year's offering in that genre is the critically maligned The Day After Tomorrow [link]. In the case of this film, however, there's much more at stake—or at least, some assert that there is much more at stake—than a diverting couple of hours in a movie theatre.

The Day After Tomorrow focuses on the end result of global warming: a catastrophic climate change that will see the entire northern hemisphere plunged into an ice age. Obviously, great loss of life and infrastructure occurs; habitat and animal extinctions are certain; and the cost to humanity is substantial on virtually every level. We can doubtless all agree that this would be a very bad thing if it were to happen. The problem, of course, arises due to the fact that there's some question as to whether or not it will actually happen, and if it does, how much we can control matters either way.

In the movie, it's shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that humankind is responsible for much of the global warming, and that the climate change will take place at an extraordinarily rapid pace once the delicate natural balance is pushed over the edge of equilibrium. Explanations for the devastating storms are offered (a significant change in the Atlantic current generated largely by the melting of ice at the poles), and storm effects explained (super cold air sucked downward from the upper atmosphere among them). In the unlikely event you still don't get the point that a) it's our fault, and b) it'll be very, very bad if we don't do something right away to stop it from happening, there's a speech near the end of the film that makes it abundantly clear for even the most obtuse in the audience.

The obvious thing to say about a movie like this is that it's "just a movie." And it is. Movies are allowed to take the poetic license to exaggerate—even almost beyond recognition—to make a scene more dramatic or a plot more plausible. The Day After Tomorrow shamelessly does just that. The problem is that too many people have jumped on the movie's storyline as either a call to environmental action or as a political vehicle when the reality of the film is, well, completely unreal.

Former Vice President and long time environmental crusader Al Gore has endorsed the movie as a banner around which to rally the environmental cause. MoveOn.org is promoting the film and calling it "the movie the White House doesn't want you to see." A British newspaper has reportedly projected that John Kerry will win this November's presidential election due in large part to the effects of American reaction to The Day After Tomorrow. Instead of letting these dubious claims and campaigns stand on their own shaky legs, the Bush administration has given its opponents—and incidentally the movie —added credibility by forbidding members of the administration as well as NASA (the prohibition to NASA has only just been rescinded) from commenting on the film.

Meanwhile, for anybody with the slightest interest, the truth of the science behind the movie is easy enough to find on the Internet or in the library. The bottom line: Global warming almost certainly exists. But in ages past, it's proved to be cyclical. The fact that we happen to be at the beginning of such a cyclical up tick has nothing to do with fossil fuel burning or anything else. The effect of humanity on global warming, according to the vast majority of scientists, ranges from the negligible to the barely measurable. In other words, even reversing every little bit that we might contribute to global warming would make just about the same amount of difference, that being approximately none.

As for the movie's disaster scenario, well, that's where truth and science utterly depart from Hollywood's script. There's no question that, as CNN put it, the movie is more science fiction than fact, or as the Christian Science Monitor says, it's chock full of bad science. But herein lies another problem, and this is the one at the crux of my point: Most people these days know so little of science in general, or of climatology in specific, that the movie is utterly plausible to them. And when environmentalists endorse it, the current administration refuses comment, and onscreen characters offer wild explanations with straight faces, the general public often swallows it whole.

It doesn't matter whether or not manmade pollution has a significant effect on global warming. No one can possibly argue that pollution is a good thing, either for the local environment or for the biosphere as a whole. It seems obvious that we should work to curtail toxic emissions of all kinds, to develop cleaner technologies, and to remember that recycling isn't a bad idea, either. But there are plenty of solid reasons that we should do these things. We don't need the irrational hype of a Hollywood movie to scare us into such responsible behaviors.

In fact, it would be irresponsible to take any precipitously drastic action. The damage to the economy alone would be dramatic, and the economic fall-out would unquestionably have a detrimental effect on those companies currently working to develop those wonderful clean technologies of the future (the movie condemns economic concerns, showing the scriptwriters' knowledge of economics to be almost as inadequate as their understanding of physics).

Should we have concern for our environment? Absolutely. Should we protect our air, water, and various biological species? Again, the answer is an unqualified yes. Even rewards (whether it be tax breaks, loan forgiveness, or something else) to companies that develop products and technologies to assist in such efforts might be perfectly appropriate. But there's a real danger in basing our actions—both in kind and in scope—on mistaken science.

Hollywood has long tried to influence politics, sometimes successfully (Michael Moore just recently won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his documentary Fahrenheit 911—this despite the fact Moore has not yet grasped that "documentary" means "non-fiction"). But in the case of The Day After Tomorrow, Hollywood goes beyond politics and into the realm of science. I don't imagine it was trying all that hard to do so, but the credibility given the movie by its famous endorsers (and detractors) lends impact to its onscreen claims. And given our woefully undereducated public school students where the sciences are concerned, the accompanying spread of misinformation offers a much more likely—and at least as scary in its own way—scenario than the one actually depicted in the movie.

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