Friday, May 14, 2004

Has it really come to this?

"Never mind the weather overkill: scientists praise Hollywood's global warning," is the headline of this article in the "Guardian." (May 13).

As a leftist anti-American newspaper, the "Guardian's" delight in the upcoming Hollywood blockbuster "The Day After Tomorrow" is hardly surprising. Even though the editors seem piqued that Europe, too, gets wiped out, they enjoy the destruction of New York and Los Angeles and the humiliation of a "Cheney lookalike" U.S. leader in this "strongly anti-Bush" movie about catastrophic effects of global warming.

But what's appalling to me is that, even given the movie's "scanty relationship with scientific fact" (the "Guardian's" phrase), it "won praise from both the British research establishment and the environment movement."

Among the film's unexpected fans after a sneak preview are the government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, and Geoff Jenkins, head of the Hadley Centre for Climate Change, who both regard the film's stunning special effects as good fun and welcome the blockbuster as raising public awareness and debate about a vital issue.

Sir David, who recently stirred political debate on both sides of the Atlantic by saying that global warming was a greater threat than terrorism, said the beginning of the film was particularly realistic - both scientifically and politically.

In this movie, tens of thousands of years of climate change are condensed into a week. Impossible consequences, like killer hurricanes forming over dry land and tornadoes ripping up Los Angeles, are yanked out of the special effects hat. It's worse than junk science. "The Day After Tomorrow" may make a great disaster movie, but it is to science what "Death Race 2000" is to driver's education.

"[F]act and fiction are tangled," the "Guardian" demures. Yet the "scientists" don't mind a bit. King spoke about justifiable poetic licence.

Not all the scientists who screened the movie were impressed. Some pointed out that by grossly exaggerating the real risks of climate change, the film isn't likely to raise public awareness. Rather the opposite. The atmosphere of gross exaggeration, for the sake of attention, is more likely to make people heed those equally unthinking voices that advise shutting out the doomsayers as untrustworthy.

The fact is, the world's climate is prone to change over time. Our impression of its stability is based on an unusually consistent run of predictable weather for the past 300 years or so. But to assume that the world always was, and always will be, thus is the sort of fiction usually favored by Creationists.

The fact is, we just don't know enough about what drives long-term climate change to make accurate predictions about it.

The fact is, humanity is a part of nature, and we have strong evidence that human activity has contributed to climate change. How this will interact with the natural shifts in the climate is difficult to predict.

But to say that, just because the earth changes anyway, people shouldn't worry about the impact of pollution, is downright silly. Yet some on the right, who oppose environmentalist reflexively as a force from the "left," do this. And the more the academic community and the policy-makers align themselves with Hollywood junk science, the more they play into the "loony left" trap that discredits them in the eyes of many people who might otherwise accept them.

Yet that is likely to be the result in many minds when scientists, given the chance to draw the line between legitimate work and lurid entertainment, choose to embrace the latter as a teaching tool.