A note to the reader: Certain scenes in the following account have been dramatized, Hollywood-style—entirely made up—but the description of the film, the scientific information and all the quotes are real.
Act 1: HOLLYWOOD
INT. MOVIE THEATER—NIGHT OF MAY 28, 2004
Camera pans a series of faces busy munching popcorn, slurping sodas, etc. Camera then rests on you, the SKEPTICAL MOVIEGOER. Your eyes roll during the previews of the space battles—
SKEPTIC: C’mon. You can’t hear explosions in the vacuum of space. . . .
And then the feature begins. It’s called The Day After Tomorrow, and it’s a spectacular disaster flick, obviously the gleeful product of someone who has thought far too much about the mechanics of global catastrophe. On screen, a climactic upheaval is brewing. Electrical storms lace the sky over New Delhi while hail pummels Tokyo. A lone paleoclimatologist scrambles to warn the world about impending disaster, yet he is too late: In Southern California, tornadoes dismantle the Hollywood sign and most of downtown Los Angeles. A massive storm surge crashes through Manhattan, followed by wind so cold people freeze to the sidewalks. Chaos follows: world-pounding, civilization-scattering chaos, all thanks to a glitch in the weather.
Camera whips back to the Skeptical Moviegoer’s face: The smirk is gone. Destruction depicted this vividly can have that effect. But more: The Moviegoer vaguely recalls that the concept of abrupt climate change served up in the film was recently on the front pages—courtesy of the Pentagon, no less—and that story didn’t have a happy ending, either.
SKEPTIC (eyes darting, feet tapping): This is just Independence Day minus the aliens. Science fiction, weak on the science—right?
FLASHBACK, THREE MONTHS EARLIER: EXT. MOVIE STUDIO—DAY
Camera zooms in on the SKEPTICAL SCIENCE WRITER, as he emerges from an on-lot screening of the film’s rough cut.
WRITER (voiceover): As I emerged from my preview screening into the light of day, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. For certain, flash-frozen pedestrians and tinseltown twisters did not have the ring of plausibility. Climate can’t change in a Hollywood minute.
But still. Ice ages happen. I’d even vaguely heard that they don’t take ages to happen. And so I decided to figure out if there was even a hint of good science in this special-effects extravaganza. And the logical first stop was the director of The Day After Tomorrow. Maybe he’d just grin and agree that the movie is a fun riff on a thin premise: show business.
ROLAND EMMERICH, director and producer of such movies as The Patriot, Independence Day and Godzilla, wheels up in a German supercar the color of a new pistol. Emmerich is handsome, graceful and well-tanned, with a glinting smile and hair that matches his car’s paint job.
INT. BUILDING 29
Emmerich shuts the door of a dimly lit editing room and settles onto a sofa. Writer settles in across from him and prepares to pounce, suspecting that Emmerich’s motivations are more political than scientific, his disaster flick a well-timed swipe at the current administration in an election year.
EMMERICH (with a moderate German accent): Your flight in was OK?
WRITER: Let’s get right to the point, Roland. Your movie purports to be built on a scientific premise, but there’s no way that the climate could change like that in a matter of days. What do you have to say for yourself?
Emmerich proceeds, with disarming candor, to acknowledge the unscientific speed of the movie’s plotline.
EMMERICH: The scientific community will say, “too fast.” And that’s OK. Otherwise there is no movie.
WRITER (voiceover): But that’s as far as he’d budge; he refused to crack on the underlying principle: Abrupt climate change could plunge the planet into an all new ice age, rendering much of it uninhabitable. And when I pushed him on the politics. . . .
EMMERICH: I started writing this script back when I was finishing The Patriot, before Bush was elected. By then it was already too late.
WRITER (voiceover): “Too late”? This guy really seemed to believe that rapid climate change is not only a real threat —it’s inevitable. But I couldn’t be sure that even a well-intentioned Hollywood director could be trusted not to mangle the science, particularly when the god of drama must be served. I needed to consult higher scientific powers. I had to visit the Oracles.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.