Movie Depicts Extremes of Climate Change

Just how serious are the consequences of the world not pushing towards lowered emissions and increased deployment of renewable energy? Pretty dire if you’re a sucker for the suspended disbelief necessary to watch Hollywood Blockbusters. While the ice-age disaster scenario depicted in the forthcoming film “The Day After Tomorrow” is fictional and quite exaggerated, human-caused changes in climate, including possible abrupt climate change, will have serious consequences for humanity, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

Washington, D.C. – May 13, 2004 [] The UCS welcomed the film as an opportunity for the scientific community to help educate the public and decision-makers about the known causes and consequences of climate change as well as the solutions at hand. New fact sheets on climate change, including the potential for abrupt change, were posted to the UCS Web site. With a dashing paleoclimatologist as the hero, “The Day After Tomorrow” depicts a world careening toward an ice age over a period of a few weeks. The culprit is the global warming-induced shutdown of the thermohaline circulation that currently warms parts of Europe by pulling warm surface waters from the tropics to the North Atlantic. “The dramatic, virtually instantaneous, and worldwide cooling depicted in the film is fiction,” said Peter Frumhoff, senior scientist and director of the UCS Global Environment Program. “But like all good science fiction, the film has at its core some important scientific facts. We are indeed changing the Earth’s climate by burning fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gasses to the atmosphere,” Frumhoff added. “Barring swift action to reduce our emissions, the Earth will continue to warm and extreme weather events will become more common. But by acting now, we can slow down global warming and reduce the likelihood of future abrupt climate changes.” Abrupt climate change is by no means a certainty, but human-caused climate change makes abrupt events more likely. As the Earth warms, melting of ice caps and glaciers, increased precipitation and other inflows of fresh water to the North Atlantic Ocean could weaken or shut down thermohaline circulation. Contrary to “The Day After Tomorrow,” such a change in ocean circulation would not result in another ice age, in part because the cooling effects are regional and would be superimposed on the global warming that is already underway. “Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher today than they have been for 400,000 years”, said UCS staff scientist, Julia Verville, who specializes in climate impacts. “The Earth is already warming, and will continue to warm in the coming decades as a result of our emissions of heat-trapping gases. The film carries an important message about our responsibility to rein in human-caused climate change. We believe this message will not be lost on the movie-going audience and we have an important part to play in delivering the scientific facts to an increasingly concerned public.” While the events in “The Day After Tomorrow” are greatly exaggerated to thrill audiences, the potential global impacts of human-caused climate change are alarming enough, according to UCS. Higher temperatures and extreme heat conditions will affect human health, energy demand, water supply and demand and agriculture. Rising sea levels will impact coastal communities as flooding happens more often and damage from coastal storms becomes more severe. Some regions will become much drier, while others will become much wetter, affecting agriculture, water supply and the spread of diseases. Many of these impacts will be most severe in developing countries, the least adequately equipped to deal with them. “The Day After Tomorrow” is a summer blockbuster, not a documentary,” said Frumhoff. “But the drama of the movie reminds us that the damage humans are already doing could have catastrophic consequences and that we should do all in our power to prevent them and the human tragedy that would be the inevitable result of inaction.”

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