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Global Warming Goes to the Movies

Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Heat

Global Warming Goes to the Movies
Scene from ‘The Day After Tomorrow.’ (AP)

Hollywood is at it again, with its latest take on global warming. First we had Kevin Costner’s version of “Mad Max” with gills, in a post-apocalyptic “Waterworld” of melted polar ice caps. Now we have the tidal wave that swallowed Manhattan — aka, “The Day After Tomorrow” — brought to you by the makers of “Independence Day.” But you don’t have to be a devotee of disaster flicks to recognize that serious consequences — indeed consequences of epic proportion — could befall us if our political leaders continue to ignore the mounting evidence of global climate change.

Indeed, you don’t even have to go to your favorite green website to find out how bad things could get. You only have to look to…the Pentagon. In their October 2003 study, “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security,” Pentagon analysts actually focus on something similar to the underlying scientific premise (yes, there is one) of “The Day After Tomorrow,” absent the movie’s popcorn silliness. The premise of the Pentagon study, in a nutshell, is that melting of the Greenland ice sheet pours enough fresh water into the North Atlantic Ocean that the density of the waters there declines to the point of producing a sharp slowing and then collapse of the ocean current systems, including the Gulf Stream, that warm the climate of Northern Europe and eastern North America.

The scenario assumed in the Pentagon study is that this kind of development occurs rapidly, hitting a tipping point, in the 2010-2020 period. Not the three days of the movie’s fantasy, but still very different from the more gradual, longer-term danger usually associated with climate change. Although not a celluloid apocalypse, the effects outlined in the Pentagon study are more than scary enough. Consider:

  • “…average annual temperatures [in Europe] drop by 6 degrees Fahrenheit in under a decade….The climate in northwestern Europe is…more like Siberia.”
  • “Mega-droughts begin in key regions in Southern China and Northern Europe around 2010 and last throughout the full decade….depleting fresh water reserves.”
  • “China…is hit hard by a decreased reliability of the monsoon rains….Widespread famine causes chaos and internal struggles…”
  • “Persistent typhoons and a higher sea level create storm surges that cause significant coastal erosion, making much of Bangladesh nearly uninhabitable.”
  • “Military confrontation may be triggered by a desperate need for…energy, food and water rather than by conflicts over ideology, religion, or national honor.”
  • “The United States turns inward, committing its resources to feeding its own population, shoring-up its borders, and managing increasing global tension.”
  • “With inadequate preparation, the result could be a significant drop in the human carrying capacity of the Earth’s environment.”

Okay, but this is just a scenario, Washington’s version of the disaster flick, right? Well, here’s what the Pentagon says about whether this could really happen:

  • “Ocean, land, and atmosphere scientists at some of the world’s most prestigious organizations have uncovered new evidence over the past decade suggesting that the plausibility of severe and rapid climate change is higher than most of the scientific community and perhaps all of the political community is prepared for….[P]aleoclimatic evidence suggests that such an abrupt climate change could begin in the near future.”
  • “The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute reports that seas surrounding the North Atlantic have become less salty in the past 40 years….This trend could pave the way for ocean conveyor collapse or slowing and abrupt climate change.”

But even assuming the really bad stuff doesn’t happen really fast, what we already know is happening should be more than enough to seize one’s attention. After all, the evidence of climate change is overwhelming. Average temperatures are clearly rising — the 12 warmest years on record have occurred since 1990; the last 50 year period appears to be the warmest half-century in 6,000 years. Evaporation and rainfall are increasing; glaciers are retreating; sea ice is shrinking; sea level is rising; permafrost is melting; wildfires are increasing; storm and flood damage is soaring. The canary in the coal mine is singing for all she’s worth.

So now comes the part of reality that really does resemble a Hollywood disaster pic — the reaction of our political leaders. Because somehow, in the face of warnings not just from the Greens but from his own Pentagon (not to mention reports from his own EPA and the National Academy of Sciences underscoring the seriousness of the problem) President Bush’s policy on climate change is to do…nothing. Nothing internationally since he walked out on Kyoto in March 2001, rather than trying to fix it. And nothing at home — the administration opposes any real effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as the bill proposed by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT) — and supported by 41 others — to use the free-market model that was successfully deployed to control acid rain.

The administration doesn’t even pretend to have a policy other than more research. Research, of course, is a good thing, but when it comes to climate change, you’ve got to start acting to reduce emissions at the same time you seek to learn more. Otherwise, it may be too late. Greenhouse gases build up slowly in the atmosphere and last a long time. The only way to preserve the option of avoiding a concentration of those gases that may turn out to be truly dangerous is to start taking real action now. But that would require this administration to take its head out of the sand and make some of its prized corporate backers unhappy. Don’t hold your breath.

Hollywood, at least, can always dream up a hero to put things right when leaders are too blind, stubborn or worse to heed warnings. Washington isn’t so good at that. Then again, Washington, like Hollywood, is addicted to the ratings, and the surest way to get Washington actors to change their lines is for the audience to stand up and say, “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

Todd Stern is a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering and a senior adviser to the Center for American Progress on climate change.