Love in a Cold Climate

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Review of 'The Day After Tomorrow', director Roland Emmerich

Sam has problems. He can't tell schoolmate Laura about his crush on her, and his dad's never there for him. Oh - and the world's about to be consumed in a succession of devastating cyclones, floods and the onset of an ice age.

It won't come as much surprise that character interplay and dialogue come a distant second to the extraordinary spectacle of instant climate change in this breathtaking near-future disaster movie. The performances are all passable - with Jake Gyllenhaal (as Sam), somehow managing to be even more laconic than in Donnie Darko, the most likeable - but the special effects have the starring role. The director who had aliens zap the White House in Independence Day now delights in obliterating the Hollywood sign, flooding Manhattan and turning the drips of the British royal family into icicles.

The latter 'tragedy' is the result of the sudden switching off of the Great Conveyor, the deep water current that propels the Gulf Stream of warm water up the Atlantic and ensures that northern Europe is several degrees warmer than countries at a similar latitude. The melting of the polar icecaps has pumped huge quantities of freshwater into the Atlantic, diluting the salinity of the surface water - and thus reducing its density, its propensity to sink and its progress along the seabed.

So far, so mainstream. Studies on seabed deposits suggest that this process has already begun to slow the conveyor. But at this point the film-makers, inspired by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber's 1999 book The Coming Superstorm, begin to exert some pretty dramatic licence. Firstly, most climate scientists believe that the disruption of the Gulf Stream will take place gradually over the next few decades (and not instantly while Ryan Giggs is still playing for Manchester United). Secondly, few believe that this will precipitate a global ice age.

The Day After Tomorrow posits a scenario where this chill wind triggers a global superstorm which sucks supercooled air from the troposphere and visits extreme cold on the rest of the world (with the eye of these storms freezing people solid with implausible temperature drops of 10 degrees Celsius per second). The premise of such feedback mechanisms is familiar to climate scientists, but it is far more likely that such feedback will exacerbate global warming. The film points out that newly frozen ice would reflect the heat from the sun rather than absorb it in the oceans. But this is likely to be dwarfed by the effects of widespread flooding. These would include the destruction of habitats that would otherwise turn the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into oxygen through photosynthesis, and the release of huge quantities of water vapour - which also traps warming infrared radiation. If this heats the world enough to melt the permafrost storing vast amounts of methane then things will really start hotting up. The world we have to fear - and which is already emerging - is probably not a frozen one, but one of temperate regions turned arid, major tracts of land going the way of Atlantis and extreme weather events becoming ever more common and catastrophic.

Nevertheless, if the questionable science of the film raises the profile of such debates then it will have served a useful purpose. We should retain a healthy dose of cynicism about figures such as Al Gore, who plans to co-opt the film in public rallies, but whose environmental credentials were found completely wanting while in office. But we should relish the discomfort that The Day After Tomorrow is causing the Bush administration.

Having rejected the Kyoto Protocols, the tame treaty to limit the worst of greenhouse gas emissions, it has since censored an Environmental Protection Agency report as part of a concerted effort to question the overwhelming evidence of human-induced climate change. Indeed, the fictional vice-president of the film bears an uncanny resemblance to oilman Dick Cheney as he dismisses the impending crisis for the sake of 'the economy'.

So we may not live to see a Stars and Stripes badge wearing president freeze in his motorcade. And the future may not offer the poetic image of Mexico closing its borders to Americans desperately migrating south. But there is a real life disaster movie in the offing - so we better start acting.