"The Day After Tomorrow" is one of the only true climate change films. Why do scientists hate it?

Salon spoke with the director and co-writer of the 2004 sci-fi blockbuster about scientific accuracy in Hollywood

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published June 22, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

US actors Jake Gyllenhaal (L), Dennis Quaid (2nd L) and actress Emmy Rossum (2nd R) share a light moment with German director Roland Emmerich (R) during a photo session before a press conference to promote their movie "The Day After Tomorrow" in Tokyo, 31 May 2004. (TORU YAMANAKA/AFP via Getty Images)
US actors Jake Gyllenhaal (L), Dennis Quaid (2nd L) and actress Emmy Rossum (2nd R) share a light moment with German director Roland Emmerich (R) during a photo session before a press conference to promote their movie "The Day After Tomorrow" in Tokyo, 31 May 2004. (TORU YAMANAKA/AFP via Getty Images)

Like many successful screenwriters and directors, Jeffrey Nachmanoff resides in Southern California. As a result, Nachmanoff has lived through much of the extreme weather caused by climate change: record-breaking wildfires, surreal red skies, suffocating smoke and deadly heat waves.

"Interestingly, a movie like 'The Day After Tomorrow' would probably not be greenlit today."

"It's not an exaggeration to say that it feels apocalyptic," Nachmanoff said about life in the Golden State. It also reminds him of his most commercially successful movie, "The Day After Tomorrow," a 2004 sci-fi disaster flick directed by Roland Emmerich and co-written by both the director and Nachmanoff.

"The Day After Tomorrow" is seemingly the only official box office blockbuster ever made that unambiguously features climate change as its overt "antagonist." And audiences flocked to see it, powering it to a gross of more than $552 million (in excess of $917 million in 2024). But while Emmerich's brand is indelibly associated with disaster flicks in which the world is all but demolished — think "Independence Day" or "2012" — "The Day After Tomorrow" is unique for making climate change the central focus of its plot.

Most often, when climate change appears in major motion pictures, it is as either mere background noise and set dressing or through elaborate metaphor, with "Waterworld" (1995) and "Don't Look Up" (2021) being prominent examples of the former and latter. Even though a climate-oriented version of the "Bechdel test" was recently created to rank films on their eco-awareness, it too does not focus on having movies use climate change as their explicit villain.

Given the existential risks of global heating, one might think a rare film depicting this crisis directly would be widely beloved by scientists, who could uphold it as a cultural touchstone that illustrates how chaotic and dangerous our planet is becoming. Indeed, because it turned a large profit, these same people can use sound financial arguments when clamoring for more movies to be made that follow in the example of "The Day After Tomorrow."

Instead, as Salon learned when speaking to experts, the opposite is true: "The Day After Tomorrow" is viewed by many scientists not as a triumph, but as a failure that perpetuates misinformation.

The problem isn't with the plot. "The Day After Tomorrow" raises awareness about the scientifically verified problem of climate change and correctly establishes that it threatens the future of our planet. Even better, its heroes (Dennis Quaid, Jay O. Sanders, Dash Mihok and Tamlyn Tomita) are all unapologetically nerdy scientists whose plight is to convince America's climate change denier vice president (Kenneth Welsh, an obvious nod to real-life Vice President Dick Cheney) that global collapse is coming.

Specifically, an Atlantic Ocean current system known as AMOC (the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation) is going to fall apart, triggering a new ice age. As the planet in our world continues to break temperature records for heat, the movie's focus on extreme cold stands out as a fittingly ironic juxtaposition with the reality of humanity's global heating-linked tribulations. So where did the film go so wrong that it gives scientists such mixed feelings?

"In some ways, it trivializes concern about the climate crisis because it presents such a caricature of the science," Dr. Michael E. Mann, a climatologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told Salon last year. Although he praised the movie for details like depicting the real-life collapse of Antarctica's Larsen B ice shelf in 2002, Mann also said the film "gets a lot wrong."

"The animation of the 'ocean conveyor' that Dennis Quaid shows to the rapt audience at the international climate conference is actually going in the wrong direction," Mann said. "A collapse of the conveyor wouldn't cause another ice age, it would just slow the warming in some regions surrounding the North Atlantic. And it would play out over decades, not days. You don't drill an ice core on the ice shelf as he and his crew were doing in the opening scenes, but inland where you get a much longer record back in time. And an ice core record is just a series of measurements. There's no physics in it. So you couldn't use it to build a 'forecasting model' as he does in the film."

Some climate scientists are even harsher than Mann. When asked if the film could be considered a work of art, Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth, a distinguished scholar at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, replied "You are kidding?"

"I don't recall a lot except that the whole science was incredibly wrong," Trenberth went on, criticizing the movie's central premise of a rapid ice age by noting that "one does not get an ice age out of global warming."

Scientists in 2004 had similar criticisms of the movie: Climatologist Patrick Michaels told NBC News at the time that “this movie exaggerates the basic scenario" and argued "while I love the special effects of the movie, it does a disservice to public policy, like Jane Fonda did in 'The China Syndrome.' We have never made another nuclear power plant due to that movie.” Eight years later, British Antarctic Survey ocean modeller Dr Kaitlin Naughten summed up the criticism by writing that "the list of serious scientific errors in 'The Day After Tomorrow' is unacceptably long. The film depicts a sudden shutdown of thermohaline circulation due to global warming, an event that climate scientists say is extremely unlikely, and greatly exaggerates both the severity and the rate of the resulting cooling."

When it comes to the scientific inaccuracies, both screenwriters Emmerich and Nachmanoff told Salon that "The Day After Tomorrow"'s primary goal is to entertain audiences. This means that, when they decided how to represent extreme weather in their plot, their priority was doing so within the structure of a compelling and engaging three-act story. One cannot easily do this while strictly adhering to the facts, and as such Nachmanoff did not dispute the inaccuracies noted by scientists like Mann and Trenberth.

"Those are all correct, and I'm well aware of all of them," Nachmanoff said with a laugh. He added that the only inaccuracy he was not aware of prior to turning in the screenplay was that the animators had reversed the arrows of the thermohaline circulation. "It is a great little Easter egg, by the way, for climate nerds to see that in the movie," he said. "I love that it's reversed. Sometimes when I'll do a talk about the movie, I'll point it out and ask to see if any of my sharp students can identify, 'What is wrong with this picture?'"

The other inaccuracies exist out of dramatic necessity. "We were well aware that a movie that took place over five decades to show a climate shift over that timeframe would not really work," Nachmanoff said. "We absolutely knew we were taking certain liberties with the science, but it was all in the service of kind of showing the overall point, which is that the climate is fragile, that anthropogenic forces can disrupt it." Emmerich confirmed Nachmanoff's recollection.

"Climate change is a relatively slow-moving process, so in order to move the plot forward, certain things were expedited to tell the story and amplify the threat," Emmerich said. "The message of the film is important here and I wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible to have an impact — and a blockbuster achieves that."

From Emmerich's perspective, to succeed the movie needed to both engage audiences and prompt them to think more critically about environmental issues.

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"I was lucky enough to be invited along with Roland to the international premier in Mexico City... I just remember this huge cheer going up at one moment, and we both knew that was the moment in the movie that the audience was watching."

"The intention behind 'The Day After Tomorrow' was to spark a discussion on environmental issues and climate change, so that audiences would reflect and take action," Emmerich said. "Big blockbusters reach a lot of people, making pop culture a powerful tool in shaping and influencing public opinion in an effort to provoke a reaction on pressing global matters."

In fact, one could argue that the sheer potency of cinema as a medium of persuasion makes producers gun shy about making blatantly pro-climate activist motion pictures, perhaps explaining the dearth of subsequent movies as boldly plotted as "The Day After Tomorrow." Emmerich himself alluded to this possibility.

"Interestingly, a movie like 'The Day After Tomorrow' would probably not be greenlit today," he said. "As far as the film's legacy is concerned, it was ahead of its time and now is perceived as prophetic. There should be more movies and TV shows on climate change, so we need more stories tackling this urgent and important concern. Every bit helps to show people that this is going to happen. Art can wake up people, especially whenever it is an end-of-the-world scenario about life and death, where the stakes are really high, so it intensifies and heightens everything. You have to frighten people to usher in change. This is what the film aims to accomplish."

"The Day After Tomorrow" makes no attempt to hide its political leanings. Take Nachmanoff's favorite scene, which shows Americans trying to illegally cross the border into Mexico to escape the climate change-caused superstorm.

"It's a great scene, especially today when you still have all this conflict over immigration," Nachmanoff said. "I will never forget, I was lucky enough to be invited along with Roland to the international premier in Mexico City, and he and I were outside the theater. I just remember this huge cheer going up at one moment, and we both knew that was the moment in the movie that the audience was watching."

Nachmanoff added with a laugh, "We both got a big smile on our faces."

Of course, given the unpredictability of climate change-induced extreme weather, it is entirely conceivable that the joke will one day be on residents of the United States. Emmerich evoked this possibility when recalling that controversial movie moment.

"That was a very polarizing scene," Emmerich said, noting that liberals loved it but conservatives did not. He warned that climate change could result in "a massive exodus of uninhabitable areas. In that case, I think that refugees should be taken in, allowing them to have a better life, guaranteeing their survival."

When I suggested that, for all of its scientific liberties, the most inaccurate part of "The Day After Tomorrow" is that it shows Republicans apologizing for being wrong about climate change, Nachmanoff laughed and agreed. Ironically, though, the Cheney stand-in was intentionally developed to depict the conservatives of that time when they were at their most ignorant.

"I literally paraphrased something that I'd read that Dick Cheney said in the paper and put it in the mouth of the character when he says it's too expensive to implement the climate agreement," Nachmanoff said. "Then I gave Dennis Quaid's character the appropriate response, which was that the cost of doing nothing is even higher."

According to Emmerich, the reactionary attitudes of Republicans like Cheney impedes humanity's ability to protect itself through the drastic measures necessary.

"Many are still in denial about climate change, which is a problem," Emmerich said. "Nobody is really doing anything radical because nobody can do anything radical. This shows you how the whole of politics is basically in the hands of and controlled by oil companies and coal lobbyists. Also, business is a determining factor in a for profit-driven economy, where fiscal results currently outweigh the need for actions."

The director, who is currently in post-production on "Those About To Die," his ancient Rome miniseries, also said that Hollywood productions like those he helms must practice what they preach in terms of environmental sustainability.

"There are already initiatives in place for sustainable productions and reducing carbon emissions," Emmerich said. "Raising awareness is key and every effort helps, such as saving on paper, meaning not printing the script, but having it digitally available as opposed to physically."

Making Hollywood more sustainable is one thing, but empowering producers to create a movie that directly confronts climate change is quite another. When discussing why most climate change-themed films use an indirect approach — whether by stuffing the concept into the background or only addressing it metaphorically — Nachmanoff recalled that the Fox producers who agreed to finance "The Day After Tomorrow" did not want the words "global warming" used when promoting it.

"We went in for the very first marketing meeting after we had sold the script," Nachmanoff said. "And the producer, Mark Gordon, director Emmerich and I were at a big table, and we met with the entire Fox marketing team, which felt like it was a hundred people at a big long table. And one of the people at the table, I can't remember which one was in charge of marketing, said, 'Just to be clear, as per Fox's policy, we will not be using the words 'global warming' when we market this film.' I almost spit my water out!"

While Fox's decision was likely motivated by a combination of kowtowing to conservative Fox CEO Rupert Murdoch and a desire to avoid turning off audiences with a "boring" science-heavy message, Nachmanoff speculates that their cautious strategy may have ultimately worked out for the best, at least in terms of the movie's ability to reach a large audience.

"I would say we were lucky, because the movie was not marketed as an issue movie or a political movie in any way," Nachmanoff said. "It was marketed as a fun action movie, just a big, dumb spectacle adventure. As a result, it was seen by people of all political stripes" and could more effectively spread awareness.

The evidence suggests it worked. Because "The Day After Tomorrow" was a box office hit, it had a quantifiable and provable influence on public opinions. In his 2007 book "Hollywood Science," Emory University Physics Professor Sidney Perkowitz pointed out that a survey by environmental science and policy expert Anthony Leiserowitz found the movie "had a 'significant impact' on climate change risk perceptions, conceptual models, behavioral intentions, policy priorities." Seen by roughly 21 million Americans in theaters, "the film led moviegoers to have higher levels of concern and worry about global warming [and] encouraged watchers to engage in personal, political, and social action to address climate change and to elevate global warming as a national priority … The movie even appears to have influenced voter preferences."

While it may seem absurd to claim that a movie can strike such a deep chord with people, there are many films which have moved viewers so deeply that their lives were forever changed. "Top Gun" (1986) is linked to a boost in military recruiting; "Wall Street" (1987) seemingly inspired a generation of stockbrokers; "Jurassic Park" (1993) motivated many fans to pursue careers in paleontology; and "Legally Blonde" (2001) influenced countless women to become lawyers.

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In my case, "The Day After Tomorrow" is the movie that changed my life; I am living proof of the truth behind Leiserowitz's research. I still remember walking out of my Pennsylvania suburban theater in May 2004 and telling my Dad that I needed to learn about climate change, and fast; I took it as a given that if I ever fulfilled my dream of being a professional writer, I would use my career to raise awareness about the planetary crisis. Like a stockbroker who quotes Gordon Gekko or a lawyer that tries to live up to the ideals of Elle Woods, I am a climate change journalist today because of the "The Day After Tomorrow."

This calls to mind my own favorite moment from "The Day After Tomorrow." It's actually a pair of scenes, both centering on actors Tom Noonan and Amy Sloane as patrons at the New York Public Library. With books being burned so people can stay warm and the prospect of civilization's extinction right around the corner, the two nerds quibble about whether to preserve important works like the oeuvre of philosopher Frederich Nietzsche and the first book ever printed in the West, The Gutenberg Bible. Emmerich has addressed questions of artistic immortality in other films, including "2012" and "Anonymous," which questions William Shakespeare's authorship, so it was familiar territory to him.

"It came out of a brainstorming session," Nachmanoff said. "We said, 'We're in the library. What do you burn?' It's a great sort of little metaphor. Like any artist or filmmaker or musician, you naturally gravitate towards the things that influenced you. I can't speak for Roland, but he's a very, very well-read European-raised filmmaker who probably has an affinity for German literature and language. I grew up actually, believe it or not, in England, and I have a strong affinity for the words of Shakespeare. So the idea of preserving Shakespeare would certainly be high on my list."

Personally, as I argued in my 2023 retrospective on "The Day After Tomorrow," a strong case can be made that this film warrants preservation. Not only has it inspired people like me in their careers, but it stands in remarkable solitude as the sole evidence of a supposedly liberal industry actually taking a boldly liberal stand on the single greatest existential crisis of the 21st Century. Certainly it calls to mind Emmerich's answer to Salon's question about what works ought to be preserved in the event that humanity cannot control its excesses and ultimately is set back millennia by climate change.

"Any work that is meaningful, as it is part of our history and cultural heritage as a species," Emmerich said.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Climate Change Dick Cheney Global Warming Reported Roland Emmerich The Day After Tomorrow