sábado, mayo 29, 2004


Practically all my environmentalist friends are talking about The Day After Tomorrow, a fictional film set in the near future about a worst-case scenario of climate change. Many colleagues tell me it's great that this film comes out because it will trigger a long-overdue debate on global warming, and maybe this public debate will compel the Bush administration to face the scientific facts and sign the Kyoto Protocol. Well, I'm not so sure.

When I saw the Statue of Liberty submerged in the movie trailer I got the feeling that the movie is probably simple-minded, sensationalist and even downright irresponsible. Not even the direst, most wild-eyed, gloom and doom global warming prediction has suggested that such a thing would even come close to happening.

The scientific consensus on the effects of global warming is that there won't be anything as Hollywood-ish as what the film depicts, we are much more likely to see a slow, long term deterioration of the planet's capacity to sustain human life... a decades-long process. And film directors and producers know full well that decades-long processes do not make good material for a blockbuster movie.

(As for the Kyoto Protocol, it has almost nothing to do with taking action against global warming and a lot to do with privatizing the atmosphere and selling "pollution permits".)

On a brighter note, the Union of Concerned Scientists published an educational dossier on The Day After Tomorrow. It makes for very good reading.

Climate science: Abrupt Climate Change

Two high-profile events are putting the issue of "abrupt climate change" squarely in the public eye. The first is a February 2004 Fortune Magazine article that broke the news of a report prepared for the Pentagon on abrupt climate change and its implications for U.S. national security. The Pentagon report describes a scenario in which human-caused global warming leads to a near-term collapse of the ocean's thermohaline circulation, which brings warm surface waters from the tropics to the North Atlantic, warming parts of Western Europe. The authors propose dramatic impacts, including rapid cooling in Europe, greatly diminished rainfall in many important agricultural and urban centers and consequent disruptions in food supply and water supply with enormous geopolitical and security implications.

The second is the May 2004 release of The Day After Tomorrow a 20th Century Fox blockbuster disaster movie with a similar premise. With a dashing paleoclimatologist as the action hero, The Day After Tomorrow depicts a world careening toward an ice age over a few weeks time. Here too, the culprit is the warming-induced shutdown of the thermohaline circulation.

The authors of the Pentagon report and the producers of The Day After Tomorrow caution readers and viewers against treating these extreme scenarios as serious possibilities. The Pentagon report intentionally considers the worst possible scenario, one that stretches the boundary of scientific plausibility. The Day After Tomorrow leaps beyond that boundary to unleash a collection of climate catastrophes intended to thrill audiences and showcase the latest special effects. Yet underlying even these extreme scenarios are the sober facts of human-caused global warming and the real opportunities to minimize climate change by reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases.

UCS views the publicity generated by these events as an opportunity to help the public and decision-makers better understand what we know about the causes, consequences and solutions to climate change. Toward that end, we provide the following answers to "frequently asked questions".

Q: Can what happens in The Day After Tomorrow happen in real life?

A: No. The dramatic, virtually instantaneous and widespread cooling envisioned in the film is fiction. But like all good science fiction, the film is premised on several important scientific facts. We know with great certainty that the Earth is already warming, largely because as we burn fossil fuels and clear forests we are releasing carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. This warming is expected to continue in the coming decades, accompanied by changes in rainfall patterns and rising sea levels. The possibility of an abrupt shift in the climate system is only one feature of a changing climate that is expected to become more erratic, with extreme weather events like droughts, torrential rainfall, and extreme heat becoming more common. We can slow down global warming and reduce the likelihood of future abrupt climate changes by reducing our emissions of heat-trapping gases.


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