TCS Daily

I've Seen This Movie Before...

By Duane D. Freese - June 2, 2004 12:00 AM

"The Day After Tomorrow" -- or TDAT, for short -- premiered Friday. It could have amounted to just another rip-snorting science fiction thriller with a thin plot, thinner characterizations but loads of great Hollywood special effects. That is what German film director Roland Emmerich is known for best, in such films as "Independence Day" and "Stargate." But this time, rather than merely having fun, Emmerich decided to load his film with pretensions -- pretensions about science and politics and man's wastefulness.

What happens? Not to give anything away, but a lone climatologist played by Dennis Quaid takes on a blindly economic-minded White House -- particularly an antagonistic, balding, eye-glass wearing vice president bearing no slight resemblance to you-know-who -- to save humanity from global warming.

But in this instance global warming isn't sending everybody to Hades. Heat, as Phoenix and Las Vegas demonstrate, we can take. Instead, the warming Earth in this instance leads to the melting of the polar ice caps, desalinization of the oceans, and the shutting down of the Atlantic current. This leads to snow in New Delhi, bowling ball size hail in Tokyo, tornadoes in Los Angeles (the audience gets to cheer the churning up of the HOLLYWOOD sign), rain storms followed by a tsunami in New York City, and, finally, heavy snows culminating in a flash freeze new Ice Age. All is happy in the end, though, because Quaid saves his son, his son's girlfriend, a dog, a homeless man, a preppie, an electronics nerd, a librarian and an atheistic Guttenberg Bible enthusiast.

The X-Men couldn't have done any better. But where is Ray Romano when you need him? In place of his Mammoth humor and that of a prehistoric squirrel we get Nature's editorial board telling climatologists to nuzzle up to the media and tell them how this picture's grand exaggerations possess some acorn of truth. Like what? That weather happens? And we get National Public Radio having entire programs about the movie saying what an important film it is. Of course, so was "Them" with its giant grasshoppers. It prepared us for an invasion of cicadas.

As Eddie Izzard would say, "It's just a movie! It's just a f***ing movie!" But that's what Hollywood is about, movies, and Emmerich's pretentiousness in this instance merely echoes that of Hollywood past about another burning/freezing issue -- nuclear war.

"The Day After" and "The Day After Tomorrow"

It is no accident that Emmerich named his film "The Day After Tomorrow." "The Day After," starring Jason Robards, never made it to the big screen, but it was a big event back in November 1983 when ABC aired it as part of sweeps week.

The nation -- or at least the liberal section of it -- was in the grips of nuclear paranoia. Three Mile Island, despite no death, injuries nor illness, had killed nuclear power in this country. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan. And double digit levels of inflation along with nearly double-digit unemployment combined with the hostage crisis in Iran to propel Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood B-movie star, into the nation's highest office.

Reagan's alleged failure to appreciate the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, his support for a shield against nukes, along with his naming the Soviet Union "the evil empire," set off the liberal left, including some scientists such as astronomer Carl Sagan. The Strategic Defense Initiative was quickly dubbed "Star Wars," and a 750,000 person march on the nation's capital, including die-ins outside federal offices, supported a nuclear freeze and disarmament.

It was into this milieu, Hollywood and ABC dropped "The Day After," or TDA. It grabbed half the television audience on the night it was aired, half of the show running without commercials because no advertiser wanted to sell products in a part of the film depicting the aftermath of a nuclear war.

"Nuclear Winter"

And after the movie, Ted Koppel of "Nightline" brought together a panel of experts to talk about the film and its meaning, including Secretary of State George Schulz and Sagan. It was in that segment that Sagan brought up a favorite topic for him, "nuclear winter," which was depicted in the film. He and colleagues Brian Toon, Thomas Ackerman, James Pollack and Richard Turco modeled nuclear winter in a study called "Global Atmospheric Consequences of Nuclear War," a work generally referred to as TTAPS for the first initials of the last names of the authors.

Sagan wrote at the time:

"We considered a war in which a mere 100 megatons were exploded, less than one percent of the world arsenals, and only in low-yield airbursts over cities. This scenario, we found, would ignite thousands of fires, and the smoke from these fires alone would be enough to generate an epoch of cold and dark almost as severe as in the 5000 megaton case. The threshold for what Richard Turco has called The Nuclear Winter is very low."

Nuclear winter wasn't the result of radiation but of the burning of cities. That put enough particulate into the air to block out much of the heat from the sun. "In the baseline case, the amount of sunlight at the ground was reduced to a few percent of normal-much darker, in daylight, than in a heavy overcast and too dark for plants to make a living from photosynthesis. ... Even more unexpected were the temperatures calculated. In the baseline case, land temperatures, except for narrow strips of coastline, dropped to minus 250 Celsius (minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit) and stayed below freezing for months -- even for a summer war."

The good news was there would be no Ice Age. "The oceans, a significant heat reservoir, would not freeze, however, and a major ice age would probably not be triggered." But then came the big "but":

"But because the temperatures would drop so catastrophically, virtually all crops and farm animals, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, would be destroyed, as would most varieties of uncultivated or domesticated food supplies. Most of the human survivors would starve."

So, while 1 billion would be killed by the initial blast and another 1 billion from radiation poisoning, much of the rest of the world might starve to death from nuclear winter.

Talk about scary. And it was such fear that Emmerich was trying to top.

But as Karl Jaspers wrote in "The Future of Mankind" a quarter century before TDA appeared, "Fear for life, and the foundation of all life, need not pass everywhere into blind fear that simply wants to prevent war at all cost ... a fear that vaguely tends to submit to force peacefully ... and to endure slavery if only human life remains."

Fortunately, TDA did not provoke the kind of head-long dive into nuclear disarmament, but a measured set of steps by the Reagan administration in which the president refused to simply do anything to satisfy the Soviets, instead requiring that disarmament be based on "trust, but verify." And by sticking to his guns while dismantling bombs, Reagan helped bring an end to the evil empire and the Cold War. Hollywood has never forgiven him.

As it turned out, too, the model for nuclear winter Sagan and his colleagues put together was flawed. It ignored such factors as rainfall dissipating the dust. By 1990, Sagan and crew admitted that instead of nuclear winter there likely would only be a chilling effect equal to a nuclear autumn. And in the wake of the Kuwaiti oil fires from the first Gulf War producing none of the effects Sagan claimed they would, there is ample evidence that nothing like even the autumn would occur.

None of which makes nuclear war less objectionable. Death by the initial firestorm and by radiation surely ought to provoke enough of a deterrent. But the notion of a non-resilient Earth by a previous group of scientists using slipshod models provoking a Hollywood film seeking to undermine another conservative administration ought to provide perspective to the current pretensions with which some scientists with their Hollywood friends march forward again.

Global warming amounts to a product substitution for Hollywood's old bugaboo, nuclear war. And while TDAT is only a pale imitation of TDA, the anti-conservative, anti-free market clique plays on. Can't they learn a new tune?


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