Born Yesterday

Review of The Day After Tomorrow

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 14th May 2004

Perhaps it was a mistake for 20th Century Fox to invite a group of scientists to the preview of its new disaster movie. Before it began, the climatologist Mike Hulme asked the audience to consider whether good science and good film making could go together. A few minutes later, it became pretty obvious that the answer was no. The Day After Tomorrow (1) is a great movie and lousy science.

Like all science fiction, it extracts and magnifies a few fragments of scientific truth. The upper northern hemisphere remains habitable partly because of the global circulation of ocean currents, which drags warm water up from the tropics. The currents start in the North Atlantic when the dense, salty surface waters sink to the ocean floor and begin to roll southward. Between Greenland and the Faroe Islands there is an undersea waterfall thirty times the size of the River Amazon.

About 8200 years ago, as the last major glacial period was coming to an end, and the great global thaw had permitted humans to move back into northern Europe, an ice dam in north-eastern Canada burst. Behind it was a vast body of meltwater, which roared through the Hudson Strait and into the North Atlantic. The story of what happened after that is now a matter of dispute, but some researchers suggest that the surface waters of the ocean became so dilute (and therefore so much lighter) that they stopped sinking, and the global circulation pattern shut down. The result, they say, was a 200-year ice age, during which humans once more were driven out of northern Europe.(2) The Day After Tomorrow starts with the premise that it could be about to happen it again.

As the ice surrounding the North Atlantic melts, there’s a possibility that part of the circulation system will be disrupted. A paper published in Science last month suggested that the giant vortex around the Labrador Sea in the north-western Atlantic is slowing down.(3) This could be a natural fluctuation, or it could be the result of global warming and the melting of sea ice. If so, it might presage a more general wobbling of the current pattern, which in turn might reduce the temperature in northern Europe and cause more droughts in Africa. (4)

Would it start another ice age? No. It now seems that there simply isn’t enough freshwater to shut down the circulation system, and no means, such as the bursting of the great Canadian ice dam, by which it could enter the ocean quickly enough to cause a dramatic effect. (5)

But movies, of course, are all about dramatic effects, and a film about the slow-rolling, complex transformations induced by climate change would be about as gripping as a speech by Geoff Hoon. I suppose we just have to accept that a major movie house would never dream of tackling this subject if it had to stick to the facts.

What we get instead is one of the best disaster movies ever released. Dennis Quaid plays that stock sci-fi figure, the dissident scientist battling against the odds to persuade politicians to take his data seriously. Having researched the last great oceanic shutdown, he warns that the next one could happen within 50-100 years. No one wants to know, and no one wants to know less than the sinister, corporate-friendly US vice-president, whose physical resemblance to Dick Cheney is surely no accident (the president, confusingly, is the spit of Al Gore).

The effects of climate change are already making themselves felt – commuters in Japan are felled by hailstones the size of grapefruit, there is snow in New Delhi and the geese start migrating south in the summer – when the North Atlantic weather buoys begin behaving rather oddly. One by one they start to record a temperature fall of 13 degrees. It’s inexplicable – unless Quaid’s model is correct.

Soon magnificent tornadoes are ripping Los Angeles to shreds. In the eye of a freak storm in Scotland, the temperature drops to -150 degrees, freezing the fuel lines of helicopters, which crash into the mountains. For no good reason (other than that it provides one of the most awesome sequences ever filmed) a vast tsunami decides to engulf Manhattan. At last the authorities turn to Quaid to find out what on earth is going on.

Within weeks, his model predicts, a gigantic global storm will trigger off the next great ice age. Two men inexplicably stuck in an orbiting weather satellite watch as the face of the earth is blotted out by hurricanes. The storms cut straight through the troposphere, dragging down columns of freezing air from the upper atmosphere. And one of them, inevitably, is heading towards New York.

So Quaid gets his audience with the president, and tells him that the only option is to abandon everyone in the north of the country, and evacuate everyone in the south. The sinister Cheney twin tells him not to meddle with politics. But (and it’s hard to believe that Murdoch paid for this), Quaid retorts that if the politicians had listened to the science, the scientists wouldn’t have had to get political. When Cheney suggests that Quaid doesn’t care about the people in the northern states, he is told that his son is trapped is New York.

And there indeed is the scientist’s only child, played rather well by Jake Gyllenhaal, stuck in the Manhattan Public Library with the girl he fancies and the handful of character parts he persuaded not to try to walk south, with nothing but M&Ms to eat, but no end of rare books to burn.

The Quaid character, of course, has promised his son that he will come to the rescue. With his Antarctic survey team he crosses the frozen wastes of Philadelphia, desperate to reach New York before the ice storm strikes. Meanwhile, in the municipal library, the heroine is dying of septicaemia, which the boy can cure only if he can venture out for long enough to find the penicillin she needs. Needless to say a bunch of wolves has escaped from the zoo with the single purpose of complicating his task.

Yes, it’s slushy and corny and predictable. Yes, every TV report in the film has Murdoch’s logos plastered all over it. Yes, as Mike Hulme pointed out after the show, the plot repeatedly breaks the laws of physics. But none of this stops it from doing everything a disaster movie is supposed to do, and quite a bit more. At times even the climatogolists stopped laughing at the story and started laughing with it, especially when American refugees started fleeing across the Rio Grande after the Mexicans closed the border (they reopened it when the US promised to cancel the entire Latin American debt). Though of course the sinister Cheney man comes round in the end, and his government in exile sees the error of its ways, this is a curiously subversive story, whose plot revolves around the climate change which Fox News and the rest of the Murdoch press has tried so hard to deny, and the reluctance of the powerful to respond to the needs of the people.

So will The Day After Tomorrow wake people up to the realities of global warming? The danger is that the movie bears so little relation to the science that it will encourage people either to dismiss the entire climate change story as fantasy, or to keep waiting for the effects they have seen in the film before they accept that climate change is really happening. On the other hand, the film makes the subject much harder to ignore.

I think it is fair to assume that audiences know the difference between a movie and a scientific paper. They don’t expect to learn anything useful about reptile physiology from Godzilla, or about life in outer space from Independence Day. People watch films like The Day After Tomorrow because they love to see treasured places smashed to bits while heroes struggle against impossible odds. If The Day After Tomorrow leaves them no wiser about climate change, that scarcely distinguishes it from the rest of the mainstream media. But at least we’re now talking about it.

George Monbiot’s book The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order is now published in paperback.


1. A film directed by Roland Emmerich, May 28th 2004. 20th Century Fox.

2. D.C. Barber et al, 22nd July 1999. Forcing of the Cold Event of 8,200 Years Ago by Catastrophic Drainage of Laurentide Lakes. Nature, vol. 400, 344-348.

3. Sirpa Hakkinen and Peter B. Rhines, 23rd April 2004. Decline of Subpolar North Atlantic Circulation During the 1990s. Science, vol 304, 555-559.

4. Richard A. Kerr, 16th April 2004. A Slowing Cog in the North Atlantic Ocean�s Climate Machine. Science vol 304, 371-372.

5. Andrew J. Weaver and Claude Hillaire-Marcel, 16th April 2004. Global Warming and the Next Ice Age. Science vol 304, 400-402.