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Science & Space

Climate flick favors fantasy over fact

By Michael Coren

New York City is in a deep freeze in the movie
New York City is in a deep freeze in the movie "The Day after Tomorrow."
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A new movie is raising awareness on environmental issues.
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(CNN) -- There was a time when talking about the weather was a safe topic of conversation.

Since global warming received its Hollywood makeover, such talk has stirred up controversy in political and scientific circles.

The much-hyped movie about climate change, "The Day after Tomorrow," which opens nationwide on May 28, depicts a series of catastrophes as the world plunges into a new ice age. In terms of accuracy, the movie is more science fiction than fact.

Scientists have given it a drubbing for its inaccuracies, but the movie has also garnered cautious endorsements for raising the profile of an important issue.

The premise -- rapid climate change -- is the subject of plenty of scientific studies, including a report commissioned by the Pentagon that deemed the event unlikely, "but plausible."

Yet the movie's depiction of the fallout from climate change stretches reputable science to apocalyptic proportions.

A few choice scenes from the movie include a presidential motorcade flash-frozen on the streets of New York, hail the size of grapefruit demolishing Tokyo, a mass migration of Americans into Mexico and a tidal wave that smashes New York City.

All of which is nonsense, scientists say.

Science or advocacy?

"I think that someone watching "The Day after Tomorrow" should realize that when they come out of the movie they should know, that is not going to happen," said Dr. John Christy, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Not that the producers dispute that -- at least, not yet.

"The movie is fiction," states Roland Emmerich, Mark Gordon and screenwriter Jeffrey Nachmanoff on the movie's website, but add, "We'd like to keep it that way."

The movie clearly runs on more adrenaline than accuracy. It is not above a bit of lobbying either. The website links to organizations that tackle global warming and offers ways to learn about the issue.

Some have seized on this sensationalism as evidence that the movie's portrayal of global warming -- and the threat of climate change -- is alarmist.

"This movie takes a grain of truth and turns into a mountain of apocalypse," says Patrick Michaels, a senior fellow in environmental studies with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

The other end of the political spectrum also joined the fray. Former Presidential contender Al Gore recently condemned the White House's handling of environmental issues at a meeting sponsored by the liberal-minded political group It was called "Town Hall on Global Warming and Hollywood's 'The Day After Tomorrow.'"

Science weighs in

As the movie becomes more politicized, what are scientists saying?

"The consensus is probably that humans are having an effect on the climate that is marginally detectable," says Alabama professor Christy, adding that other scientists believe the evidence is stronger.

He says that the catastrophic consequences of climate change are debatable, particularly how much humans have a hand in it.

"The majority of scientists would lean toward the middle range of prediction," forecasting a 5 degree Fahrenheit rise over the next 100 years, says Christy.

Few scientists dispute evidence the world is warming.

Eleven of the warmest years on record have occurred since 1990, according to the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

Sea levels have risen 0.3 to 0.7 feet over the last century along with a 0.4- to 0.8-degree Celsius rise in average global temperatures, reported the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations committee. During that time, the concentrations of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide have reached their highest levels in 420,000 years NASA climatologists reported.

"There is no doubt that humans are warming the planet," says Dr. Jeffrey Severinghaus, a geoscience researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "That's very clear now. The data is very strong. Humans are changing the climate and we're expected to change it a lot more in the future."

Severinghaus, who studies gas bubbles in ancient glaciers, says the possibility of an abrupt change -- while unlikely -- is grim.

A worse-case scenario over the next 200 years could lead to shifts in historical climate patterns, devastating agriculture in developing countries, says Severinghaus. Flooding from rising sea levels -- depending on the extent of polar melting -- would threaten low-lying islands and coastal cities.

The study commissioned by the Pentagon also suggested that destabilizing effects from rapid climate change could spark wars between developing countries vying for food and fresh water and were "a U.S. national security concern."

Future fallout

The biggest schism in the scientific community comes over how to interpret the warming data, but even skeptical scientists concede humans are probably driving some of the rising temperatures.

Dorothy Hall, a glacier researcher with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, says data on how human activity affects climate is incomplete.

"Humans are probably enhancing a natural global warming that started at the end of the 'Little Ice Age' in 1850," she says, referring to a historical period of colder climate between 1300 AD to about 1800 AD.

Research over time will be needed to precisely gauge the extent of climate change. Some researchers say they are not concerned just yet.

Christy says climate models are "over-predicting." Energy innovations in the coming years -- from nuclear power to burying carbon dioxide underground -- may change the climate equation.

But others point out the dire consequences of ignoring the potential for global warming.

"It's like your house burning down," says Severinghaus. "You don't think your house is burning down, but you go ahead and buy fire insurance."

CNN intern Josh Wilcox contributed to this story.

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