The Climate’s Shock and Awe

You’re likely reading this The Day After Tomorrow. Maybe you’ve already seen the movie, with its shock-and-awe images of Manhattan hit by a deep freeze, and tornadoes bearing down on Los Angeles. Through it all, Professor Adrian Hall (Dennis Quaid) is a Cassandra whose words of doom are unheard until disaster strikes. They’ve made movies with that basic plot before and they"ll make "em again. But this is the first one that deals with global climate change.

Environmental groups have been vying with each other to tie their global warming work to the movie. recently held a town meeting in New York (ground zero, apparently) to coincide with the movie opening. Natural Resources Defense Council sent out e-mail. All of these missives admit that the science of the movie is flawed. And that’s because it’s highly unlikely that New York will freeze overnight, or that events of disaster-movie proportions will occur in the near-term.

But what’s actually happening is even scarier. The reason that you don’t see headlines about global warming effects already underway is that the effects are subtle and incremental. Problems that are slow to develop and ongoing, like population growth, sprawl and air pollution, are a media blind spot.

For a complete rundown of the actual effects, take a look at E Magazine’s recent book Feeling the Heat: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Climate Change (Routledge), the preface of which is posted on our website. Briefly, the book details disappearing beaches in Antigua and Barbuda, melting ice in Antarctica and the Arctic, threatened dikes in Holland, "brown clouds" in Asia, migrating species in the Pacific Northwest and California, and emerging threats from diseases like West Nile (spread by drought-stricken birds) in New York City.

Not all the global warming effects are catastrophic, but all are at least body blows to our quality of life. For instance, James Gustave Speth, dean of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies at Yale, writes in his book Red Sky at Morning, "My hometown, the old colonial town of Guilford, Connecticut, is full of sugar maple trees. Their red and yellow magnificence in the autumn is a small part of the show that draws thousands to this region during that season. Yet the results of ecological modeling show that climate change in the second half of this century, if it is not slowed, will largely eliminate maple trees and the maple sugar industry from New England."

As American news consumers we’re fixated with reports from Iraq and the latest on the war on terrorism. But as UN weapons inspector Hans Blix points out, "The question of the environment is more ominous than that of peace and war…I"m more worried about global warming than I am of any major military conflict." No less an authority than the Pentagon came to the same conclusion in its recent report on the possibilities of abrupt climate change. The report featured several dangerous security scenarios resulting from the droughts, heat waves, crop loss and severe storms that will—and already are—accompanying climate change.

OK, maybe The Day After Tomorrow is just a popcorn movie. But global warming is all too real.