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World: How Far Away Is 'The Day After Tomorrow'?

The catastrophic effects of climate change depicted in the new Hollywood blockbuster "The Day After Tomorrow" has once again raised the issue of global warming and what, if anything, can be done to stop or slow the process.

Prague, 2 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The current disaster movie "The Day After Tomorrow" portrays a cataclysmic change in the Earth's climate that sends 30-meter-high waves crashing against the Manhattan skyline and leaves the Statue of Liberty up to its armpits in ice.

The movie is based on the idea that rising temperatures force the melting of Arctic glaciers. The freshwater runoff enters the Gulf Stream, slowing down the current and bringing it to a sudden halt.
The cataclysms occur after politicians fail to heed scientists' warnings that urgent measures are needed to reverse global warming.

The Gulf Stream, which runs up along the North Atlantic coast of Europe, contains warmer water and has a warming effect on Northern Europe and, to some extent, on North America.

As portrayed in "The Day After Tomorrow," the cessation of the Gulf Stream current leads to a instant drop in temperature in the Northern Hemisphere, bringing on a new ice age.

While it makes for a dramatic movie, scientists say the scenario is highly unlikely, in part because the same global warming would heat ocean water and air, and counteract any sort of interruption in the Gulf Stream current.

But even critics admit that the film, written and directed by Roland Emmerich, is a wake-up call about the potential consequences of climate change.

Samantha Smith is director of the World Wildlife Fund's Arctic Program. She tells RFE/RL that global warming -- whose impact is best observed in the Arctic -- has consequences throughout the world:

"With climate change, we're playing with a large and complex system, and the climate impact can have very serious consequences for the lives of people all over the world. We already see some of these impacts not only in the Arctic, but in other parts of the world, in the form of more extreme weather events, more storms, more hundred-year-floods, we also see a global rise in sea levels, we see insect infestations, insects carrying new diseases into new areas because warmer temperatures make it possible for them to thrive in these new areas and so forth. And I think we can expect to see more of this in the short term," Smith said.

Scientist Robert Corell is chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), an eight-nation, 1,800-page study due to be presented to officials in November.

Corell says most people think of climate change as a problem that will only have an impact in the distant future. But he tells RFE/RL the change is already well underway in the Arctic.

"Over the last 30 or so years, the climate has changed across the Arctic, in some places at as much as five to 10 times the rate the global climate is changing. For example, Alaska and Eastern Russia are changing at that order, five to 10 times faster than the rest of the planet. And the ice up there is receding at rapid rates and there is a whole bunch of evidence that suggests a very simple observation -- and that is that climate is changing the Arctic now, very dramatically, and is likely to continue to do so even more dramatically in the future," Corell said.

Corell says the study finds that, among other things, ice roads in Alaska which two decades ago used to be frozen for some 200 days a year, are now frozen only 100 days per year. The melting is also affecting buildings standing on permafrost -- that is, permanently frozen soil -- and threatening an oil pipeline across Alaska.

Corell says by observing the Arctic, scientists can learn sooner what pattern climate change will follow.

"Substantial evidence is coming out from this assessment, that if you would like to know what's going to happen on the planet over the next 25 to 30 years, keep an eye on the Arctic, because it's going to happen up there in the next 10 years," Corell said.

Environmentalists doubt that governments are ready to act based on arguments such as the ACIA report, since the United States has pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, the main international tool to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and tackle climate change.

Criticism of the U.S. stance on environment is an element in "The Day After Tomorrow, where the cataclysms occur after politicians fail to heed scientists' warnings that urgent measures are needed to reverse global warming:

Without U.S. participation in Kyoto, Russia's ratification of the protocol is crucial in order for the agreement to come into force. In an apparent sudden change of heart, Russian President Vladimir Putin said last month that he favored ratifying the Kyoto agreement.

However, the Kyoto agreement itself has come under criticism not only from some governments, but also from scientists who believe climate change fears are exaggerated and see scant benefit in spending vast sums on measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Bjorn Lomborg is the director of the Danish Environmental Assessment Institute think tank and author of a controversial 2001 book, "The Skeptical Environmentalist," which questioned the usefulness of the Kyoto Protocol

Lomborg, who admits global warming represents a serious problem, maintains the Kyoto Protocol is not the most efficient tool to fight it.

He points out that trying to stop carbon dioxide emissions now would be very difficult and expensive, and would glean few results.

Instead, he tells RFE/RL, governments should invest more in research to find alternatives to the use of fossil fuels, which are the main culprits for carbon dioxide emissions.

"By investing more in research and development, which would only be a fraction of the cost of Kyoto, we could speed that process up and that would actually mean that we could stop using fossil fuels even sooner. That would probably be a much better investment than for instance, doing Kyoto, and it would also be a much cheaper one," Lomborg said.

Lomborg says the funding needed to implement Kyoto could be used instead to successfully fight other global threats.

He argues that $150 billion -- which is the estimated yearly cost for the implementation of the Kyoto agreement -- could provide clean drinking water and sanitation to the whole world population.