An apocalypse comes to movie theaters across the United States over the Memorial Day (May 28) Holiday weekend. The film is "The Day After Tomorrow." The Hollywood blockbuster envisions the consequences of abrupt climate change. The movie has, even before its release, heated up a controversy over the politics of global warming.
The Day After Tomorrow is a disaster adventure story. The villain is global warming. Rapid climate change turns New York City into an ice sheet, triggers tornadoes in Los Angeles, sends massive snowstorms to New Delhi and pounds Tokyo with grapefruit sized hail. Is the movie total fantasy? Not on the political front, according to Patrick J. Michaels, senior environmental fellow with the Cato Institute, a public policy research foundation in Washington. He says the hysteria on the big screen can create irrational fears in the real world. "It is just yet another example of a movie that takes a kernel of truth, which is that the planet is warmer than it was at the end of the last ice age. And, people have had something to do with that warming, particularly in the late 20th century. And it turns it from that benign observation into an apocalypse to influence national policy," he says.
Former Vice President Al Gore sees it another way. "This is a rare opportunity to have a national conversation," he says.
Mr. Gore, whose best-selling book Earth in the Balance examines the impact of global warming, has lent his support to a campaign sponsored by the Internet advocacy group Moveon.org. At a news conference with Mr. Gore at his side, Moveon Executive Director Peter Schurman announced his group's plans for the movie's opening weekend. "As millions of Americans leave movie theaters having just seen the film, thousands of Moveon members will be there handing out flyers that answer the questions people will have. Could this really happen? Are we responsible for global warming? What is President Bush doing about it? What can we do about it? The fact is that President Bush isn't doing anything to stop global warming, and he is actually preventing our country from stopping it," he says.
Mr. Gore says the grassroots campaign aims to correct the exaggerated notion of global warming presented in the movie and to advocate for a change in U.S. environmental policy that makes sense for the planet. "The Bush administration is in some ways even more fictional than the movie in trying to convince people that there is no real problem, that there is no degree of certainty on the part of scientists about the issue and sort of accepting the big polluters' argument that nothing should be done to change the current practices of dumping pollution in an unrestrained way into the atmosphere," he says.
Patrick J. Michaels with the Cato Institute disagrees. "There is a degree of certainty from scientists about the issue, but I don't think that Al Gore was very candid about that certainty. The warming of the next fifty years is known to a very small range of error and that it is at or below the lowest end of the range of warming given by the U.N.. It is ¾ of a degree Celsius in the next fifty years, plus or minus a ¼ of a degree. Any of these pieces of legislation such as McCain-Leiberman, or the Kyoto Protocol, would change the temperature so little that there would be no measurable effect on that temperature rise."
The McCain/Leiberman Climate Steward Act would limit the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming. Mr. Michaels calls it a waste of taxpayer money and offers an alternative more in line with Bush administration policy. "Technologies that are more efficient are developing and will continue to develop as long as people have the where with all to invest in them. As people have the capital to invest in efficient technologies then a society emits much less per capita. And, in the United States we have become efficient as our economy has gone forward. We produce a constant dollar of goods and services now with 60 percent of the energy we did 35 years ago. That is the long-term point of view as opposed to the reactive point of view that I think this movie is going to generate," he says.
Even without the movie to generate reaction, Mr. Gore says the time is ripe for global warming to emerge as a top issue for the American electorate. "I do think that more and more people are feeling it in their gut. They are listening to their parents and grandparents tell them that the weather is very different from when they were children," he says.
That, says Cato Institute's Patrick J. Michaels, is what could tip a sharply divided electorate. "Consider the state of Arizona, hot as hell, droughty as heck. What is the chance that we could have a shift there and Kerry could win it? If Kerry won all the other states Gore won and wins Arizona, it is President-elect Kerry in November. So these things can happen."
And, as the Moveon.org flyer so boldly states, "Global Warming isn't just a movie. It's your future." Whether Americans believe that is another story.