Not "The Day After Tomorrow"

Did the Bush White House try to block a new Web site devoted to educating the public about climate change?

Published June 5, 2004 8:29PM (EDT)

Even after grapefruit-sized hail and monster tornadoes assault major cities in the Northern Hemisphere in the film "The Day After Tomorrow," Jack Hall, a paleoclimatologist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, still can't get the ballooning crisis of global warming through the thick skull of the vice president.

"I think we're on the verge of a major climate shift! You need to start thinking about large-scale evacuations! If we don't act now it's going to be too late!" implores Hall. To which the veep responds coolly, "That is not amusing, professor. Have you lost your mind?"

Subtle is not how you'd characterize Roland Emmerich's cinematic portrait of a fierce struggle between warrior scientists from NOAA and the oppressive powers that be -- powers personified by a vice president who happens to be the spitting image of his real-life counterpart, Dick Cheney.

In an amusing case of life imitating art (we use the term loosely here), Bush administration officials stalled the release of a Web site on abrupt climate change that had been developed by a team at NOAA's paleoclimate program to coincide with the release of the film, according to insiders who worked on the project. The site had been developed to make years of paleoclimate research on abrupt climate shifts accessible to "The Day After Tomorrow" viewers to help them make sense of the fact and fiction behind the movie's misleading science.

"We thought this movie presented an incredible education opportunity to create a public dialogue that would demystify these widely misunderstood problems and showcase some of the things we do here at NOAA to help observe the earth system," said Mark McCaffrey, a NOAA science communications specialist and lead author of the site.

After all, a blockbuster thriller starring a NOAA scientist that grosses $86 million in U.S. theaters on opening weekend is not the kind of pop-culture glory that comes often to the world of paleoclimatology.

But the White House apparently didn't share McCaffrey's enthusiasm. After he got permission from high up the chain of command at NOAA to go live with the Web site, McCaffrey then got word that the site was "indefinitely on hold -- with no further explanation," he said. Several staffers at NOAA who spoke on condition of anonymity said the embargo came directly from the White House.

Bob Hopkins, communications director for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to which NOAA typically reports, however, told Muckraker that his office had no part in stalling the launch of the Web site. "If there was a holdup, it wasn't coming from this office," he said.

Whatever realm of authority imposed the delay, it had a change of heart. As a media storm gathered around the film and NOAA was hit with repeated inquiries about the abrupt climate change Web site rumored to be in development, the agency finally got the green light from above.

"In hindsight, it's not much of a surprise given that [weeks ago] NASA scientists had been ordered to keep mum about the film," said a paleoclimate scientist who worked with McCaffrey on the site and asked to remain anonymous. "But we're out here in Boulder and somehow we never got the message that we weren't supposed to be doing this."

You can see why the Bush administration would want to avoid the subject of the film. At times, it seems that Emmerich is trying deliberately to get the administration's goat and capitalize on controversy to boost viewership. And it was only four months ago that the Bush administration took a media blow when word got out about a Pentagon report suggesting that abrupt climate change could pose a threat to the world "greater than terrorism," with famines, riots, and plenty of social and political unrest.

And then there's the fact that the White House wants to chop the fiscal year 2005 budget for NOAA's paleoclimate program, which was actually started during the first Bush administration.

"I really enjoyed the movie -- even with the questionable science -- how could I not?" said one staffer in NOAA's paleoclimate program. "But the sad thing was that it makes this program look really robust, when it's being significantly de-funded. In fact, the 2005 budget all but eliminates research on abrupt climate change."

While the Bush administration plans to boost funding for NOAA to develop a much-needed global observing system to track evidence of climate change, it wants to cut base funding for NOAA's climate-change program, which includes paleoclimate research, by 15 percent, from some $70 million in fiscal year 2004 to $59 million in fiscal year 2005.

McCaffrey will be one of the first to go. "He's already on his way about the door because they've decided that education outreach on climate-change science isn't necessary or financially doable," said one of McCaffrey's colleagues. "So when you see Dennis Quaid fighting the White House trying to get the word out, it's hard not to think of the bizarre parallel that in the real world our own leadership is making that very difficult."

Happily, members of the media and environmental world are doing their part to stoke the public dialogue. "We've seen the talk shows, radio shows and newspapers leading a much more sensible conversation on the underlying science behind global warming in response to the movie than we ever expected," said John Coifman, spokesperson on climate change for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

To help educate movie viewers, NRDC has created the website, and FAQs about the science behind the film have been released by the Union of Concerned Scientists (here), the National Snow and Ice Data Center (here), and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (here).

Better yet, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., are rumored to be preparing to bring their Climate Stewardship Act up for consideration again in the Senate in the next few weeks, defiant after the bill's closer-than-expected loss last October and buoyed by increased public attention to the issue.

At the conclusion of Emmerich's splashy blockbuster, the veep-turned-president admits that America's natural resources were misused and that climate change warrants dramatic action, saying, "We were wrong. I was wrong."

Now if only we could hope for a Hollywood ending.

By Amanda Griscom

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