ENVIRONMENT AND ENERGY MAY 15, 2004
The preposterous "science" of The Day After Tomorrow.
In 1993, CBS aired a miniseries of preposterous exaggeration about global warming, The Fire Next Time. A smart writer--okay, me--wrote of the show:
The CBS miniseries depicted a man and boy attempting to travel the Mississippi River in an ecologically ruined United States of the year 2007, a world of searing warmth, sustained droughts, hyper-storms and dangerous exposure to bad dialogue. Conservative critics were aghast, saying the film indoctrinated audiences with greenhouse scenarios far worse than any projected by the most pessimistic computer model. My reaction was the opposite. By trivializing the greenhouse effect into a subject as ludicrous as the premise of a television miniseries, The Fire Next Time served mainly to convince audiences the prospect of global warming is just another Hollywood gimmick, which unfortunately it may not be.
Preposterous Hollywood mistreatment of global-warming science is about to return in the movie The Day After Tomorrow, a big-budget disaster flick that premieres Memorial Day weekend. Directed by the guy who did the big-budget sci-fi disaster flick Independence Day, the new film--you can watch the trailer here--is being promoted as based on science. Will this have the backfire effect of making the real and troubling science of artificial global warming seem like science fiction?
In The Day After Tomorrow, climate change caused by artificial greenhouse-gas accumulation initiates a preposterous instant planet-wide calamity. Enormous mega-tornadoes larger than any ever actually observed in nature appear from nowhere to level the city of Los Angeles. Hail larger than any ever actually observed in nature smashes Tokyo to ruins. The Antarctic ice sheets melt essentially instantaneously, creating a global tsunami that floods the world's coastal cities. Then, just three days after the instantaneous melting of the ice caps, an instantaneous ice age hits northern latitudes, freezing the seawater that flooded coastal cities and leaving Manhattan under an instant glacier.
In a moment we'll return to the imbecile-caliber "science" of The Day After Tomorrow and to my fear that, by presenting global warming in a laughably unrealistic way, the movie will only succeed in making audiences think that climate change is a big joke, when in fact the real-science case for greenhouse-gas reform gets stronger all the time. Let's first pause to note that Al Gore and MoveOn.org appear to be planning a promotional event in conjunction with the movie's release. Once Gore was a serious thinker on environmental issues, and diligently sought out top-notch scientific advice; say what you will about his 1992 Earth in the Balance--it's an earnest, conscientious work by someone concerned with getting the details straight. Now Gore appears ready to affiliate his reputation with a cheapo third-rate disaster movie that makes Fantastic Voyage seem like a peer-reviewed technical paper. It's easy to see why MoveOn.org wants the reflection of the new movie's limelight; wild exaggeration is a good fundraising tool. But if Gore associates himself with this mindless flick, he will have completed his descent from serious thinker and national leader to MoveOn.org's sock puppet. Why would Al Gore do this to himself?
Back to the science. Could Antarctic ice melt overnight? Studies suggest that past melting cycles of large ice sheets required millennia. So far global temperatures have increased one degree Fahrenheit in the last century--a reason to take greenhouse effect theory seriously, but nothing remotely close to what might be required for a historically unprecedented super-fast melting. In the last decade, the surface of the enormous Larsen ice shelf lost about one foot to melting, another reason to take greenhouse theory seriously, but an amount that liquefied a minute fraction of the ice shelf's mass. Even if global air temperatures somehow shot up by dozens of degrees Fahrenheit, which no global-warming scenario predicts--the worst-case warming forecast is about 10 degrees, plenty bad enough on its own--ice caps would require at least years to liquefy. Meanwhile the meltwater tidal wave that hits New York City is depicted as hundreds of feet high. A 2002 National Academy of Sciences study of possible "abrupt" climate change estimated that complete melting of austral ice would raise sea levels from 16 feet to 30 feet, not hundreds of feet. Sixteen feet would be plenty bad enough.
However paradoxical it may sound, there is a chance global warming could lead to lower temperatures in parts of the world, mainly Europe. Bear in mind that most of Europe lies to the north of Maine, yet is more temperate owing to prevailing ocean currents that carry warm equatorial water north toward the Old World nations. If prevailing ocean currents changed, temperatures in Europe might decline even as the world overall grew warmer; this is a genuine concern. That recent science suggests Europe might be hardest-hit in the short term by climate change is a reason European Union governments pressed hard for the Kyoto greenhouse-gas treaty while the Clinton administration refused to submit the agreement to the Senate and the George W. Bush administration abrogated it entirely.
But though cooling of the European climate is a troubling possible impact of artificial global warming, such change would almost certainly be gradual. Wallace Broecker of Columbia University, the world's preeminent authority on ocean currents, who first proposed that the dagger of abrupt climate change would be pointed at Europe, recently noted "there is no reason to believe that the impacts could occur in a mere decade ... the time required for this to happen is more likely a century." Atlantic Ocean currents, Broecker's research has found, changed dramatically about 12,700 years ago and again about 8,200 years ago, probably because large amounts of fresh water melting from the retreating Canadian ice sheet altered salinity patterns in the seas. Broecker fears something similar could be caused by artificial global warming, and thus supports greenhouse-gas restrictions--but adds that "exaggerated scenarios serve only to intensify the existing polarization" on greenhouse reform. The real science is plenty worrisome enough.
Next, while artificial global warming might cause cooler climates in some northern latitudes, there appears little chance global warming would trigger an ice age. Regrettably, the notion that global warming might provoke snap global glaciation may trace to this 1998 article in The Atlantic Monthly. The piece declared that disruption of ocean currents may usher in an ultra-fast ice age, causing "a catastrophe that could threaten the survival of civilization." Written by a man identified as "a theoretical neurophysiologist at the University of Washington at Seattle," the Atlantic's cover story essentially took the worst-case analyses of ocean-circulation outcomes, multiplied them together, discounted natural forces that resist climate flip-flops, and arrived at the warning that ice-age climate might resume "within a decade." Previous ice ages are believed to have taken from centuries to millennia to form large ice sheets. Atlantic Monthly articles are almost always of exceptionally high
But, well, nobody's perfect. Did producers of The Day After Tomorrow draw their conclusions about climate science from the writing of a theoretical neurophysiologist?
This recent paper in Science, the world's leading technical publication, summarizes what science knows about the Atlantic Meridian Overturning--a fancy name for the currents that carry warm water northward--and concludes that "in light of the paleoclimate record and our understanding of the contemporary climate system, it is safe to say that global warming will not lead to the onset of a new ice age." Europe might be harmed by the ocean-current consequences of artificial global warming, the researchers also speculate. This recent paper in Science presents the evidence that an aspect of ocean circulation called the subpolar gyre began to weaken in the 1990s, perhaps owing to the gradual warming that is indisputably in progress. These kinds of findings are legitimate science, and where the legitimate worries lie.
The Day After Tomorrow veers into total science illiteracy in its depiction of the instant freezing of New York City. Seawater sloshing over Manhattan solidifies in little more than moments, leaving the island's skyscrapers encased in hundreds of feet of ice; people and vehicles are blast-frozen into place. This is beyond laughable. Suppose all transit of warm weather northward via ocean currents ceased, a much worse outcome than any global warming model projects: Even if this happened, air temperatures in New York City would take perhaps months to decline, and the decline would be incremental. Blast-freezing city-sized volumes of seawater--assuming this is physically possible at all--might require air temperatures of absolute zero or something close to it. The lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth, minus 129 degrees Fahrenheit, happened in Antarctica, which is colder than the Arctic. Even air at minus 129 degrees might be insufficient to blast-freeze a tsunami the size of Manhattan, especially bearing in mind that the liquid in question is freeze-resistant seawater. And even if there were some strange wind that blew frigid air from the South Pole all the way to Manhattan, such air would have to cross the equator, warming in the process. In The Day After Tomorrow, Manhattan is suddenly hit by gusting winds at hundreds of degrees below zero--where does this super-cold air come from? (There is very cold air high in the Arctic atmosphere, but no global-warming models envision creation of a new natural mechanism that pushes such air downward in large masses to ground level, while redirecting it thousands of miles.) If the northward flow of warm equatorial water stopped, this would not create northern super-cold, but rather gradually declining boreal temperatures.
Readers interested in the serious science of global warming and the serious case for greenhouse reform might consult the work of the Energy Future Coalition, a bipartisan organization--its big names include Democrat Timothy Wirth, Republican C. Boyden Gray, and the energy expert Robert Fri--that advocates transition to greenhouse-friendly energy production. Its practical, not pie-in-the-sky, "hurry the future" policy recommendations for greenhouse gas reduction are here.
When The Day After Tomorrow crash-lands in theaters, some commentators are sure to say that the Bush administration will dread the movie because it will raise global-warming consciousness. To paraphrase myself from a decade ago, my reaction is the opposite. By trivializing the greenhouse effect into a subject as ludicrous as the premise of a scientifically illiterate disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow may serve mainly to convince audiences the prospect of global warming is just another Hollywood gimmick. Unfortunately, it may not be. The real science behind the need for greenhouse gas reform is plenty troubling without preposterous exaggeration.
Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor for The New Republic specializing in public policy issues.
By Gregg Easterbook