Big Screen Vs Big Oil

The climate-change disaster film premiering worldwide next week, The Day After Tomorrow, makes more people think about and act upon the real dangers of global warming. We give it two thumbs up

Feature story - May 25, 2004
HOLLYWOOD, United States — Anybody who has watched an X-wing fighter explode in a luminous fireball in the vacuum of space knows that Hollywood is fast and loose with science. But if Hollywood has an iconic specialty, it's aiming the spotlight. And if the climate-change disaster film "The Day After Tomorrow" makes more people think about and act upon the real dangers of global warming, we'll give it two thumbs up.

Day After Tomorrow

The film has run into entirely justifiable criticism for exaggerating the speed at which cataclysmic changes might happen to the world's climate. The film-makers themselves acknowledge that they compressed changes that are foreseen occurring over decades into a scientifically implausible quick-freeze that descends over North America in hours, a couple of hundred-year storms that descend simultaneously, multiple tornadoes hitting Los Angeles, and a tidal wave that engulfs New York City. No climate scientist would say this many extreme events in this close a time period is a likely scenario, or that some of these events, in particular a Northern Hemisphere freeze, could ever happen at all.

But most agree an underlying premise: extreme weather events are already on the rise, and global warming can be expected to make them more frequent and more severe.

Real deaths already

More than 14,000 people died in France last year in an extraordinary heatwave. The World Health Organisation estimates that 160,000 people a year are dying of extreme weather and disease events caused by global warming, and that this number could double by 2020.

Thomas Loster, of Munich Re, one of the world's largest reinsurance companies, told the Guardian in December "We used to talk in terms of floods and heatwaves being one in 100 year events, but in the south of France this year we have had a one in 100 year heatwave, and last month one in 100 year floods - all in the same year. This is climate change happening now and a big headache for the insurance industry."

Bill McKibben, who wrote the first layman's book about global warming, The End of Nature, has been clamoring to get popular attention to the issue since the 1980s. We all know that politicians aren't going to take a step until something pushes them, and McKibben laments the absence of a widespread popular understanding of just what we're facing: the extinction of up to a quarter of the world's known species within the lifetime of children being born today; whole populations fleeing floods in low-lying areas; malaria in North America; killer storms; disruptive changes in agricultural patterns and deep reductions in the Earth's overall food production capacity.

Fear is justified

There's no real remedial action happening to address this, McKibben states in an issue of Granta entitled "This Overheating World," because "hardly anyone [...] has fear in their guts." And there's the problem: until the public knows enough to care, politicians are going to follow their self interest.

And these days, that self-interest is dictated by campaign funding and large lobbying efforts by corporate interests like the world's largest oil company, ExxonMobil, and its cronies from the school of "Problem? What problem?"

It's interesting to note who's angry about this film.

In a scathing review, Patrick Michaels of the Cato Institute calls the fact that the globe is today warmer than in the 19th Century a "benign truth" and dismisses not only the film, but the science which indicates extreme weather is on the increase. And who funds the Cato Institute to pay Mr. Michaels? ExxonMobil for one, the world's top environmental enemy.

Robert Balling, at Tech Central Station, pooh-poohs the film as well, and in the process makes the case against ratifying Kyoto: "the climate impact would be undetectable for many decades to come. Of course, the undesirable economic impacts of the Protocol would be easily detected immediately." So much for stewardship of our planet for future generations. Who funds Tech Central? Why, here's a statement from their own website:

"Tech Central Station is supported by sponsoring corporations that share our faith in technology... and so we are grateful to AT&T, ExxonMobil, General Motors Corporation, Intel, McDonald's..."

Iain Murray of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) dislikes the film almost as much as he dislikes Al Gore. He claims that the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is guilty of bad science when it warns about global warming, and trots out a panel of four "experts" sponsored by the "Cooler Heads Coalition" to prove it. He neglects to mention that the Cooler Heads Coalition was started by his own institute, or that CEI is funded by... no, wait ... surely this is coincidence? ExxonMobil again!

Truth and fiction

It's one thing to dismiss the film as fiction. It's quite another to deny the fact of the problem it's trying to illustrate.

Fiction is a legitimate part of civilization's radar, and has a valid place in shaping democratic debate. When the film "China Syndrome" debuted in 1979, the title itself was an exaggeration based on the premise that a nuclear meltdown would burn through the Earth's crust. Yet the original script was written by an engineer who was all too aware of the real dangers of nuclear power, and who simply amplified on actual problems that had already occurred to make a point. Eleven days after the movie premiered, the accident at Three Mile Island proved the movie's baseline premise to be well-founded: the nuclear industry's claim that redundant safeguards guaranteed nuclear power to be entirely safe was hubris. No new nuclear power plant has been approved in the US since.

And what about "Dr. Strangelove"? The "doomsday machine" was utter fiction, but it spoke truth about the insanity of "Mutually Assured Destruction." And while we can only hope that no real-life militarist has ever lived up to Kubrick's fantastic General Jack D. Ripper, with his paranoia about communist infiltration of America's "precious bodily fluids," Ronald Reagan's flip open-mike gaff that the Soviet Union had been outlawed and 'the bombing begins in five minutes' wouldn't have been out of place in Kubrick's absurdist vision.

The challenge

Civilisation is shaped by stories. Stories use imagined events to raise difficult questions about real issues. The Day After Tomorrow is a movie. It uses fiction to highlight a fact: global warming needs our attention. Now.

It's too late to stop it; people are already dying, and the world is already permanently altered. But it's not too late to save future generations from the real horrors and real disasters which we bring closer with every day of inaction.

The challenge is to end our world's dependence on fossil fuels within four decades. That's the message that ExxonMobil doesn't want you to hear, and the agenda they pay big money to ensure George Bush doesn't act upon.

The day after tomorrow will be too late. The time for action is today.