But, really, the quality of the film as a film is hardly the point. By engaging with climate change, the most serious and catastrophic issue of our times, it has taken on a far wider significance. Its importance lies in how it resonates with a society that is deeply conflicted and confused about the events it portrays.
The real disaster is that The Day After Tomorrow has seized public attention with an absurd and implausible theory with no scientific basis – that climate change will usher in the next ice age. This story line was taken from the best-selling book The Coming Global Superstorm, whose authors, Art Bell and Whitley Strieber, are self-publicising fantasists. Strieber wrote the bestseller Communion about the experience of being anally probed during an alien abduction. Bell dedicates his late-night radio talk show to UFOs and government conspiracies. By drawing on their version of reality, the film only strengthens the widespread perception that climate change is just another paranoid fantasy without scientific basis.
It also singularly fails to mention the causes of climate change. There is just one moment at the end of the film when the Dick Cheney-lookalike US vice-president warns of the dangers of the misuse of “natural resources”; but which natural resources? Sand? Rubber? Broccoli? Although director Roland Emmerich is labouring under the delusion that this is a politically challenging film (“I don’t think we will be invited to show this picture in the White House,” he says), there is nothing here to upset George Bush.
The credits claim that the emissions generated in the production of the film (10,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide: the equivalent to the annual emissions of 230,000 Cambodians) have been “neutralised” by tree-planting company Future Forests. The science behind Future Forests is scarcely stronger than the science behind the film; trees do absorb carbon dioxide, but they readily release it, too, when they die or burn. They are, at best, a temporary resting place for carbon on its way back to the atmosphere. Future Forests is not really concerned with stopping climate change; it offers its customers absolution for their carbon sins. They can keep burning as much fossil fuels as they like in exchange for planting a few trees. And who could object to that?
The irony is, there is no shortage of legitimate predictions about climate change that are terrifying: heat waves that burn up every living thing; new plagues; millions of starving environmental refugees on the move; desperate wars to defend water supplies and habitable land; the wholesale conflagration of ancient forests, including the entire Amazon rainforest; and, most terrifying of all, global warming triggering the rapid release of millions of tons of frozen methane hydrate deposited under the oceans, thus triggering a runaway and unstoppable greenhouse effect.
So it would have been entirely possible to have produced a disaster movie with awesome special effects in which every single event could have been referenced to a swathe of academic research. The problem for moviemakers with these story lines, and with climate change as a whole, is that they are irreversible. The disaster movie genre requires some possibility of rescue. But real climate change does not end. No one is rescued. The best we can hope for is that things stop getting worse. And the longer we delay facing the reality of what climate change is, the less chance there is of that happening.George Marshall works for the environmental campaign groups Rising Tide and the Climate Outreach Information Network.