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Learning from Nonsense?

Doubt and About

Chris Mooney

May 18, 2004

Few summer movies have been preceded by as much controversy as Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, a global warming disaster flick opening this May 28. The film’s direct political overtones in an election year have hardly gone unnoticed (apparently you can’t miss the Dick Cheney character), and even seem to have worried the Bush administration that, in the wake of the movie, government scientists might acknowledge the existence of a problem that our current leaders have run away from. NASA experts were reportedly told that they couldn’t talk to the press about the film, only to have the apparent gag order revoked after the New York Times exposed it.

On the other side of the aisle, meanwhile, Al Gore has teamed up with the liberal MoveOn.org, which has launched a national advocacy campaign tied to the movie. The whole affair is, in essence, an anti-Bush fiesta. MoveOn.org actually lets you send the president and members of Congress citizen letters reading: “I urge you to immediately enact the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act. We can’t wait until the day after tomorrow. We've got to take action now to prevent a climate crisis.” Sure, it’s crass political exploitation of a Hollywood movie. But at the same time, you've got to admire MoveOn.org’s PR savvy.

Complicating matters further, the science depicted in the film is generally agreed, by all knowledgeable commentators, to be pretty much loony. For example, the Day After Tomorrow screen saver currently on my desktop depicts Manhattan locked in the embrace of a frozen tidal wave. Um, how exactly could that happen?

A loose grip on science is hardly surprising given the origins of the film’s plot, which apparently involves a sudden collapse of the Gulf Stream that unleashes a devastating new Ice Age. The conceit seems based on a book by UFO enthusiasts Whitley Strieber and Art Bell entitled The Coming Global Superstorm (for a devastating Skeptical Inquirer review see here). A quick refresher on these bozos: On his radio show, Bell has endorsed all manner of pseudoscientific and paranormalist nonsense, including the idea that the comet Hale-Bopp had a “companion UFO” alongside it (which may have played some role in inspiring the tragic Heaven’s gate suicides, though Bell has denied responsibility for this). Strieber, meanwhile, is an alleged UFO abductee himself, a story he tells in his bestseller Communion. Apparently the UFOs who picked up Strieber left him with an alien implant deep in one ear, causing him to hear voices. So perhaps the aliens are the ones who told him to write about climate change.

Combine this history with the usual license taken by Hollywood disaster blockbusters, and we can expect some serious abuses of legitimate climate science. Indeed, climatologists have stated clearly that the scenarios depicted in the film are absurd. For instance, on his website Stanford’s Stephen Schneider gives his take on this out-there film (see here and click “Contrarians”):

I believe that the Hollywood producers of The Day After Tomorrow, though way ahead of the Bush administration in recognition of the need for serious climate policy measures, built their cases on scenarios almost no responsible scientists would endorse as more than fanciful. The need for climate policy is easy to defend, even with less extreme mainstream climate change scenarios.

So the film is the most fictitious kind of science fiction, but serious climate change may well be in our future. And therein lies the complication. While scientists agree that the movie’s science is bogus, they also agree overwhelmingly that human-caused climate change is real and will have real impacts, such as rises in sea level, species extinctions, dangerous heat waves (like the one that killed thousands in Europe last summer), and so forth.

This raises an inevitable question of tactics: Should mainstream climate scientists and responsible environmental advocates seize upon The Day After Tomorrow as an opportunity to talk about the real issues that we're facing, as Gore and others have done? Or will any association with the film’s ridiculous scenarios discredit them by association?

During a recent trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts, I interviewed several scientists with expertise in climate, and ask them, among other things, about The Day After Tomorrow. I generally found them in agreement about the film’s scientific plausibility (i.e., slim to none), but somewhat differently disposed in other respects.

On the one hand, physicist Robert Frosch, a former administrator of NASA during the Carter administration and now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wasn’t so psyched about the film. “Even some of the guys who figured out what the big disasters might be are getting very impatient with the disaster merchants,” said Frosch, who has contributed to several National Academy of Sciences reports concerning climate change. “I think the whole community is annoyed with whoever the producers of the new Hollywood thing are.”

But James McCarthy, the Alexander Agassiz professor of biological oceanography at Harvard and a lead contributor to the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, saw things somewhat differently. “In the actual production of the movie, some people have said, ‘Are we creating such a farcical image of future climate that it will serve to distract people from the real climate news?',” said McCarthy, an expert on climate change impacts. “Others have said, ‘No, anything you can do to get people’s attention on climate is worth doing.'”

It’s not hard to see the strength of this argument. The fact is, climate change, like many science issues, only rarely rises to the top of the media or political agenda, and usually at times of clear drama or conflict. Thus, for example, over the past four years there have been several occasions when the Bush administration has been more or less broadsided by expert reports showing that climate change is happening—and when that happens, the press has seized upon the gaffe, at least for a little while.

Sustained attention to the issue, however, has been unjustifiably rare, given the potential ramifications. And that’s why, unlike climate change contrarian Patrick Michaels, I’m not inclined to slam the science of The Day After Tomorrow and simply leave it at that. It seems to me that while climate scientists have a responsibility to explain that the film rests on bad climate science, they should also explain that there’s good climate science out there that’s very worrisome. Al Gore himself may have put it best when he stated, with respect to The Day After Tomorrow, that “there are two sets of fiction to deal with. One is the movie, the other is the Bush administration’s presentation of global warming.”

Chris Mooney

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Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund.