Silver screen stories

Perhaps the most prominent fictional film that addresses global warming, The Day After Tomorrow (2004), is a well-intentioned movie that's scientifically credible . . . for the first 15 minutes. The movie opens promisingly — the film's hero, a climate scientist played by Dennis Quaid, briefs a world conference on his theory: When Arctic ice melts, the fresh water released will interfere with the oceans' thermohaline currents, slowing them down and leading to climatic disasters. (Chapter 7 discusses the actual computer modeling of this possibility.) The fictional U.S. vice president reacts realistically, demanding to know who would pay the costs of Kyoto (see Chapter 11).

But after this believable beginning, the plot becomes completely driven by special effects, and the real science is lost in the (literal) deluge. We can't deny the coolness of watching freak tornadoes obliterate Los Angeles, snow pummel New Delhi, and killer hail devastate Tokyo — but by the time a deep freeze destroys the entire northern half of the planet, we're no longer noting scientific accuracy. Although special effects dominate the movie, the producers acknowledge the liberties taken and include useful interviews with scientists in the DVD's special features.

Science fiction films dominate the list of fictional movies that deal with global warming. In terms of quality, they're a mixed bag:

l A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001): This post-disaster film takes place after all the polar ice caps have melted and most coastal cities are entirely flooded, pushing civilization inland. Although humanity might never see a robot with feelings, which is the subject of Steven Spielberg's film, flooding of low-lying cities is a realistic possibility. If people keep producing emissions at the current rate, coastal waters could rise 8 to 24 inches (20 to 60 centimeters) by the year 2100.

I The Arrival (1996): This little-seen movie is heavy on suspense but light on science. It turns out that global warming is the work of aliens, who have come to Earth and are working secretly to transform the planet to suit their own needs.

I Waterworld (1995): Kevin Costner starred in the ill-fated Waterworld as a mariner sailing the Earth after global warming triggered flooding, which has covered almost all land. The only ground still above water, called Dryland, turns out to be the summit of Mount Everest. Sadly for the movie's credibility, the world doesn't have enough water to flood the whole thing. The highest estimates of how far sea levels could rise from global warming max out at about 650 feet (200 meters). That's a lot, but the Waterworld scenario would need something like 30 times that depth.

One rare exception to the special-effects-driven Hollywood take on climate change is Rob Reiner's The American President (1995). This romantic comedy uses the climate issue as an effective backdrop without hitting a single false note on the science. The film depicts the unfolding love story between the president (a dishy widower played by Michael Douglas) and an earnest lobbyist (Annette Bening) for a big, mythical environmental group. The lobbyist isn't satisfied with the president's commitment to cutting energy use by 10 percent, even back in the mid-1990s. With no special effects required, the script stays relatively error-free and helpful — for example, when the president gives his lover his phone number, it's the actual White House line.

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