Lights, Camera, Climate


In the spring of 2002, multiple movie studios were bidding hard over the right to make an action movie with an unusual adversary: climate change. For Fox, which snagged the deal, the haggling was worth it—when the film was released two years later, The Day After Tomorrow took in more than $550 million in worldwide box office sales, roughly four times its budget.

And yet.

“A movie like The Day After Tomorrow would probably not be made today,” says Roland Emmerich, the director and cowriter of the film. Emmerich’s name may be unfamiliar, but not the many blockbusters he has cowritten and directed, including Stargate, Godzilla, and Independence Day.

Emmerich has a point. Film and television never quite picked up on global warming’s star turn as the bad guy in The Day After Tomorrow. When it comes to popular TV and film, climate change is still riding the bench even as it shows up elsewhere: in music, dance, theater, cli-fi fiction, and even a subgenre called solarpunk.

So why, even as climate change has worsened, displacing millions of people worldwide and costing hundreds of billions of dollars in damage, is it still missing from our screens? Hollywood producers love to turn disaster into entertainment. Why not climate disaster?

When climate change does appear in big-budget productions, its effects are subtle. Think Blade Runner, Mad Max: Fury Road, Interstellar, The Road, and Elysium. In those movies, climate change is like a secret menu at a fast-food restaurant. If you know, you know, but you can enjoy the movie without connecting it to what’s happening in our world.

The problem is, film and television don’t only reflect culture; they also shape it.

The Day After Tomorrow both entertained and shifted perceptions. A 2004 study, completed after the movie’s release and published in the journal Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, found that people who watched the film became more engaged in the issue of climate change and more concerned about it. The film made them more aware of the effects of climate change, from severe storms to food insecurity to declining living standards. People who had seen the film were more likely to say that their next car would be fuel-efficient and that they felt comfortable talking with friends and family about climate change.

“I would argue that the film had a bigger impact on American public opinion than [Al Gore’s] An Inconvenient Truth in terms of just pure numbers,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, now the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, who conducted the study. “The people who saw the film did get engaged, and they actually did learn some important new ideas.”

But that consciousness-raising came with a price: a certain scientific inaccuracy. The film’s central disaster—a rapid weather shift that envelops half the world in ice—bears only a passing resemblance to our warming world. In The Day After Tomorrow, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, a conveyor-like ocean current that brings warm water from the equatorial regions to Europe and the North Atlantic, stops. When it does so, it almost immediately ushers in a new ice age from which the characters must escape. It is true that the circulation is slowing down, that it is likely caused by climate change, and that its arrest could lead to more extreme-weather events. But scientists estimate that the shift would take close to 400 years.

Still, when it comes to the implications of climate change, such as climate migration, the film was on solid ground. The Day After Tomorrow includes a scene in which Americans flee the ice by crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico. When producers prescreened it, Emmerich recalls, the migration scene was polarizing. “The liberals liked it a lot, but the conservatives hated it.”

The film also foreshadows something that is now commonly recognized in our culture and even has its own idiom: climate grief. In one scene, a teenager named Laura Chapman, played by Emmy Rossum, is waiting out a storm in the remains of the New York Public Library, where she and a motley cast of other New Yorkers have huddled together, burning books for warmth. Surveying the scene, she tells a classmate, “Everything I have ever cared about, everything I’ve worked for, it’s all been in preparation for a future that no longer exists.”

Chapman’s words practically predicted the testimony of Jamie Margolin in 2019 at the congressional hearing on the global youth climate movement: “Everyone who will walk up to me after this testimony saying I have such a bright future ahead of me will be lying to my face.”

It’s unclear whether Margolin ever saw The Day After Tomorrow (over email, Margolin’s father said that he was almost certain she had never seen the movie). But the parallels speak to the power of fiction: It can help us see things before they arrive.

So why, even as climate change has worsened, displacing millions of people worldwide and costing hundreds of billions of dollars in damage, is it still missing from our screens? Hollywood producers love to turn disaster into entertainment. Why not climate disaster?

Emmerich doesn’t have a single definitive answer, but he does have some theories. Climate change is relatively slow-moving, and Hollywood blockbusters tend to rely on action, a fact that Emmerich circumvented in part by playing loose with the science. Emmerich admits that he cribbed heavily from the structure of Independence Day to craft an entertaining film about the climate emergency. Both movies have an ensemble cast, glimpses of how the disaster is playing out in other regions of the world, characters trying to reunite with loved ones, and even a scene where a dog is briefly placed in peril by the disaster.

“I always said I had to trick Hollywood to get the movie made,” Emmerich says, adding that perhaps climate change, with its slowly unfurling time span, might find its niche in television, over multiple episodes.

At least one television show has proved that to be the case. The Amazon series The Expanse successfully merges the science of climate change with stunningly visual storytelling. The show is an epic space drama set several hundred years in the future. Humans have colonized the moon and Mars as well as the asteroid belt and are under the rule of a unified Earth government run by the United Nations.

The Expanse’s opening credits chronicle the time shift through the lens of a warming climate. The ice caps melt, the oceans rise, and the Statue of Liberty is submerged before reappearing surrounded by seawalls. In the future of The Expanse, New York City endures, but the Hamptons are an island. So is Anchorage, part of the Yukon archipelago. In Copenhagen, a seawall has been erected around the old city; the rest is underwater. The scenarios are so carefully plotted, there are entire Reddit threads devoted to sussing out all the impacts of climate change in the show.

“I love hearing that,” says Naren Shankar, The Expanse’s co-showrunner. Before becoming a screenwriter, Shankar earned a doctorate in applied physics and electrical engineering. “It’s nice, in a show like this, to put those ideas out there and to deal with these subjects in this unique, dramatic fashion. I love the connection between science and media.”

What’s the secret sauce for dramatizing global warming on-screen? According to Shankar, simply the willingness to reflect it.

“People ask me about the realistic depictions of space and gravity [on the show], and our response is, we always try to make space a character—the hostility, the environment—obeying the real physics, because that gives you interesting, dramatic visual possibilities that you typically don’t see,” he says. “We can say much the same thing about climate change. It’s so much easier to go into that utopian-dystopian vision where the world is apocalyptic or you solve all the problems.”

Hollywood producers’ need to solve all the problems and have a pat ending is reflected in feedback the Fox executives gave Emmerich. The Day After Tomorrow ends with the film’s central tension—a father trying to reunite with his son—happily resolved. They are airlifted to safety. But the studio wanted a happier ending. It wanted Emmerich to reverse climate change.

And that’s not so easy to do, on-screen or off.

This article appeared in the Summer quarterly edition with the headline “Lights, Camera, Climate.”, 19 June 2021