Roughly 40 minutes into The Day After Tomorrow, after the freak ice-storm in Japan, the tornadoes in Los Angeles, and the plane-smashing thunderstorms in the Northeast, a few dozen scientists meet at NOAA headquarters to ponder what is happening with the weather. The biggest influence on the planet’s weather is the sun, but its output has not changed.
“What about the North Atlantic Current?” asks paleo-climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), who then relays news he has just received from the U.K. The current is failing, he explains, the storms will not just continue but likely get worse. Grimly, he concludes: “I think we’re on the verge of a major climate shift.”
Massive superstorms do indeed develop in the second half of Day After, instantly freezing whatever they pass over while pushing huge waves and crippling blizzards toward the coasts. Before he undertakes a treacherous journey from Washington, D.C., to New York to rescue his son (Jake Gyllenhaal), Hall makes one last attempt to explain the situation to his political bosses, including Vice President Becker (played by the Cheney-like Kenneth Welsh): residents in the northern states are trapped; those in the southern states must be evacuated to Mexico. Hall eventually finds his son in an upper-floor room of the New York City Public Library, where he and his companions have been burning books to keep warm. At the film’s end, the storms have subsided, and survivors emerge to begin life in a new ice age. The climate has shifted — “major” indeed.
If not a full-scale shift, many in the environmental community hoped that a major motion picture addressing climate change would at least push the debate on climate change forward. Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) organized actions to coincide with Day After’s release. The activist MoveOn.org used the film to highlight what it considered then-President George W. Bush’s poor record on environmental issues, hoping thereby to weaken his chances for winning a second term. Bush’s decisive win that November indicates that Day After fell short of MoveOn’s ambitions, but the film has nonetheless had a significant impact, not just within the film industry (see part 2 of this series), but also in the public sphere and in the academy.
The Day After Tomorrow and the Public Profile of Climate Science
The film unquestionably increased the public profile of climate science. Included in a November 2004 Environment article by Anthony Leiserowitz (publisher of this site) was this finding: The Day After Tomorrow generated more than 10 times the news coverage of the 2001 IPCC report.”
This result seemed to confirm what some scientists, including Michael Molitor, the primary science consultant for Day After, had predicted: “This film could do more in helping us move in the right direction than all the scientific work and all the U.S. Congressional testimonies put together. . . . Nothing I have done in the twenty-three years of my climate change career may have a greater impact than this film.” Similarly, in an e-mail exchange, Stefan Rahmstorf (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research) said his review of Day After “is consistently amongst the most-viewed items on [his] home page.”
But not all of the buzz was positive. Some scientists who pre-viewed the film, like Rahmstorf, were willing to grant director Roland Emmerich and his screenplay co-author, Jeffrey Nachmanoff, poetic license for their high-speed version of climate change. Others were less forgiving. In Geology Today, David Nowell lamented that “this highly profitable Trojan horse undermines decades of serious research and legitimate concern [about climate change].” In New Republic, science writer Greg Easterbrook decried “the preposterous science of The Day After Tomorrow.” And in a Stefan Lovgren article for National Geographic News, Janet Sawin, then director of the Energy and Climate Program at Worldwatch Institute, worried that Day After might be seen as “blow[ing] a serious issue out of proportion,” which “could cause people who are skeptical to become even more skeptical.” In their reviews of the film, “professional” climate skeptics, like the Cato Institute’s Patrick Michaels, worked to stoke that process.
Even these negative responses, however, generated interest. Many scientists and policymakers worked with the media to fact-check Day After. National Geographic News published a Q&A with Worldwatch Institute’s Tom Pugh. NBC posted Q&As conducted with National Center for Atmospheric Research and with Eileen Claussen of Pew Center for Climate Change (now called Center for Energy and Environmental Solutions, or C2ES). These and other organizations, including NOAA, posted fact sheets and/or FAQs on their websites. And in their New York Times and Wall Street Journal articles, respectively, Andrew Revkin and Sharon Begley provided scientific commentary on the public squabbles over Day After.
The Day After Tomorrow and Public Opinion about Climate Change
Despite the spirited arguments about the science and the mostly negative reviews of the plotting — “It’s Raining, It’s Boring” (WSJ), “What a Disaster!” (WP), “A Perfect Storm of Clichés” (WP), “Smart Hero, Dumb Officials, Huge Sheet of Ice” (NYT) — Day After was a success at the box office, taking in nearly $86 million over its Memorial Day weekend opening in the U.S. and more than $544 million by the end of its worldwide run. These numbers dwarf those for An Inconvenient Truth (~10X) and Age of Stupid (~100X), two films with which it has been compared by academic researchers.
So what impact did Day After have on its many millions of viewers (21 million in the U.S. alone)? Groups of researchers quickly mobilized to answer this question.
In the November 2004 Environment article mentioned earlier, Leiserowitz reported the results of surveys taken one week before and one month after Day After’s release: “The film led moviegoers to have higher levels of concern and worry about global warming, to estimate various impacts on the United States as more likely, and to shift their conceptual understanding of the climate system toward a threshold [or tipping point] model.” The film also seems to have influenced viewers’ expressed willingness to act on the issue, including through the votes they said they would cast in the fall election.
Researchers analyzing the responses of British filmgoers reported different results. One group found that after watching Day After people were willing to allocate significantly more of a hypothetical charity budget to mitigating climate change. But the film also led viewers to believe climate science predicted a colder future for the U.K. A second group of researchers found that Day After viewers expressed increased concern about climate change, but they could not connect that concern with actions in their everyday lives.
In Germany and Japan, where the reality of climate change was already widely accepted, Day After seemed to confuse matters. The scale and speed of the impacts depicted made viewers question what they thought they knew about climate change, and whether actions at the individual, community, or national level could lessen such risks. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research sociologist Fritz Reusswig summed up the German results for Nature this way: “Most people here associate climate change with heatwaves and floods; the film has made them ask: If this is what climate change is like, then we are no longer sure it is real.”
The Twilight of The Day After Tomorrow
Since this first wave of studies, researchers have re-examined Day After from a variety of perspectives. Most have found that the poetic license taken with the underlying science made it harder for audiences to gauge the actual risks posed by climate change. But there are rhetorical strategies, some have argued, for dealing with this. Others have called attention to the film’s emphasis on individual survival or to the ways it perpetuates stereotypes about class, development, gender, and race.
Then there are the extended discussions of Day After in recent books on cinematic depictions of science and scientists. David A. Kirby (Lab Coats in Hollywood, 2011) and Sydney Perkowitz (Hollywood Science, 2007) both highlight Day After’s sharp scenes about the politics of climate science, echoing comments made at the time by Rahmstorf (“chillingly realistic”) and Sir David King (“remarkably realistic”). Perkowitz gives Day After a special award “for illustrating the conflict that can and does occur when scientific findings clash with government policies or political agendas.”
Vice-President Becker (Welsh) dismisses Hall’s (Quaid) first warnings about the coming climate shift.
Finally, Day After has become a ready point of reference for discussions of climate science. From 2004 to 2006, Nature or Science articles on climate research often included a cautionary — not-as-quickly-as-depicted-in — nod to Day After. Such references became less frequent after 2006, but they can still be found in articles specifically focused on the Atlantic Meridional Overturning. (See, for example, this article from the May 9, 2013, issue of Nature.) Perhaps not surprisingly, Day After sometimes figured in mainstream and social media responses to Hurricane Sandy. And last May, NBC used footage from the film to illustrate a news story about “National Landmarks at Risk,” a report released by Union of Concerned Scientists.
This squares with the experience of several scientists contacted as part of the research on this series. Asked whether Day After had made it harder or easier for them to communicate climate change, all said the film had facilitated their work.
I credit Day After with at least making a wider audience think about climate change as a globally and locally important phenomenon, rather than something that was only relevant to scientists. . . . I like to use pop culture references in my talks, because it helps to establish a common ground for discussion of a science or science communication topic. Day After has served that role for me in the past, and likely will again.
Sunshine Menezes, PhD., Exec. Dir., Metcalf Institute on Marine and Environmental Reporting,
Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island
I think the net impact of Day After was educational. It increased overall public awareness and some basic knowledge — to a greater extent even than An Inconvenient Truth, according to one study I recall — and, while melodramatic, it made some impacts of climate change, like the potential for big unexpected changes, more real for many people.
Ben Strauss, PhD, Vice-President for Climate Impacts, Climate Central
The film did a good job of . . . driving home the message that human activities are changing the climate and there might be unforeseen dangers associated with those changes. . . . Of course there were also misunderstandings but. . . . the events in the film were so exaggerated that I found it relatively easy to steer the conversation to more realistic climate change impacts.
Tatiana Rynearson, Associate Professor of Oceanography, Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island
For many Americans, even 10 years after its release, The Day After Tomorrow is still a ready point of reference for discussions — and visualizations — of climate change. As if it were the day before yesterday.
Download the 5-Part Series: A Review of Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi) Cinema…Past and Present
A Review of Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi) Cinema … Past and Present (Pt. 1)
Ice-Fi: The Motion Pictur-Ice-sque Legacy of The Day After Tomorrow (Pt. 2)
Interstellar: Looking for the Future in all the Wrong Spaces (Pt. 4)
(What) Do We Learn from Cli-Fi Films? Hollywood Still Stuck in Holocene (Pt. 5)