Hollywood and Climate Change (Part 1): a Bad First Date

The beginning of Hollywood and Climate Change’s relationship is more embarrassing and awkward than how most lasting relationships start, I’m sure. While film and climate experts may quibble about the key date I’ve chosen here, I would suggest that Hollywood and Climate Change’s began their torrid affair on May 28th, 2004. That is the day that The Day After Tomorrow was released in U.S. Cinemas and taught North American filmgoers a bit about Climate Change, many of them for the first time.

And man, that could not have been a worse first date. Where to even begin?

Okay. The Day After Tomorrow is set in the mid-2000s. Things are grand, nothing to worry about, and suddenly… climate change happens! Like, over the course of an hour. The dreaded changes that are happening and will continue to affect our climate over the next several hundred years happen over roughly the length of a thorough dentist appointment, a stunning feat that is further complicated by a head-scratchingly bizarre take on what climate change entails. Does the world get warmer, you know, the core problem of climate change, in The Day After Tomorrow? Hell no! But a bunch of other freaky stuff happens!

Instead of getting a few degrees warmer, seeing more severe storms, and a half meter in sea-level rise, which is what is currently expected by 2100, Manhattan gets hit by 20-meter tidal wave and freezes over, reaching temperatures so low that our protagonists need to burn books to prevent freezing to death. Which is rather fitting considering how proudly bereft of knowledge the film is overall. Sorry, that was perhaps a bit snarky. But The Day After Tomorrow is a touch aggravating to examine in any detail, as it marvels in two minor aspects of climate science, ignores everything else, and creates a funhouse-mirror understanding of climate change that misses, well, everything. And it grates me that such an influential film about climate change shows the world getting colder. If you take nothing else from this article: that’s the opposite of what is going to happen. Thank you.

Okay, so, climate change will cause rising sea levels. That is a given. Warming temperatures, which are increasing rapidly in the Arctic, mean temperatures above zero for longer durations, meaning sea-ice melts. So more water in the oceans. The other thing to know is that warmer water is less dense than cold water, expanding in volume as it warms, a process called thermal expansion. Basic chemistry, basic logic. This melting of sea-ice could cause sea-levels to rise could be anywhere from to .5 meters to 3.5 meters, by 2300. Why mentioned 2300, 278 years from now? Because sea-ice melting takes a very long time, the atmosphere needs decades or even centuries to catch up to the effects of greenhouse gasses, and sea ice is especially slow to react. So while in a worst-case scenario, we could see over six meters levels of sea-level rise by 2500, the tidal waves that hit Manhattan over the course of an hour are impossible. The polar ice caps simply can’t melt that quickly, even under extreme climate change. Extreme climate change, by the way, is unlikely. So don’t panic about that.

And the bone-chilling cold that our heroes endure in The Day After Tomorrow after the oceans rise? That is kind-of, sort-of, based on climate science. A side-effect of melting sea ice is that the oceans become less salty, less dense, and ocean currents weaken due to the additional water and change in density. Currently, (no pun intended) the Atlantic ocean brings warm water from the Gulf of Mexico up to the North Atlantic, where it cools, sinks, and flows back down to the Gulf to be warmed up again. This flow of warm water is what gives the UK it’s rather mild and rainy climate, despite being on the same latitude as Northern Ontario in Canada (if you’re not familiar, it’s cold for 10/12s of the year). But, to the film’s limited credit, it is correct that rising sea-levels could drastically slow or even halt ocean currents. This would have a further warming effect on the Gulf of Mexico and a cooling effect on the North Atlantic as the warm/cold water would stay were it is, causing cooler climates in some of North America and Europe.

However, this is not likely to cause an ice age, and could be mostly cancelled out by the warming of the planet that comes with climate change. It just means Europe and North America wouldn’t warm as rapidly as the rest of the world. But how, when, and to what extent ocean currents could stop is still somewhat uncertain and being studied by scientists. The film decides this, too, can happen in 45 minutes or so and that it turn the planet into a snowball earth. Which is silly.

So yes, The Day After Tomorrow is mostly bunk. Climate change does not mean a tidal wave and a new ice age. It means a creeping sea-level rise over the next five centuries, warmer temperatures, changes in rain patterns, desertification, and a host of other complications. However, as bad as the science is in The Day After Tomorrow, it was a first taste of climate change for 13 year-olds like myself and I remember it vividly. Even if it tragically misinformed me about the scope and design of the problem. And, to it’s credit, Hollywood got a much better grasp of climate change over the ensuing decades. Sort of.

I was planning to cover all of Hollywood’s major dates with climate change in this article, but it’s already getting a tad long. An Inconvenient Truth, Blade Runner 2049, The Road, Cloud Atlas, and Don’t Look Up will all have to wait. But The Day After Tomorrow, as the most egregious example of a climate change film, can have a special rant dedicated to it, so we can breeze through some of the better examples.

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