Sustainability is about ecology, economy and equity.- Ralph Bicknese

Film & Sustainability Series: The Day After Tomorrow and Climate Change


The movie that brought environmental issues to popular film — The Day After Tomorrow (2004). Though nearly a decade old, The Day After Tomorrow still reverberates in cinematic and the American psyche. This movie was one of the first blockbusters ever to center around a man-made ecological disaster.

Though it tends towards the didactic, this film greatly impacted our cultural awareness of global warming, and made the topic open for public discussion without political interference. Though The Day After Tomorrow does contain ideological points that are influenced by politics, the main concern is our impact upon the environment.

The film begins with a snap of action as a huge chunk of glacial ice breaks off of Antarctica, nearly killing the paleoclimatologist Jack. This catalyzes not only Jack’s pursuit for environmental awareness, but also drastic climate shifts around the world. The Atlantic ocean’s temperature drops, wind increases to tornado levels in California, and a gigantic storm starts brewing. In less than a week, the violent weather begins to encase the earth in another ice age.

This superstorm makes Sandy look like a drizzle. New York City, where Jack’s son is, suffers a flash flood and terrible snowstorm. And similar tempests rip the entire country apart, killing countless people. Even the president of the United States dies in one while trying to travel to Mexico.

I want to clarify that this film is a sci-fi, and its disastrous events probably won’t ever happen. At least not as this movie portrays it.

There’s little doubt that the earth’s climate is currently deviating form historical norms, though more gradually than The Day After Tomorrow depicts. The UCAR states that “At the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), scientists who study the impact of rising industrial emissions on the world’s climate say it is impossible for an ice age to strike within days, as happens in the movie. They warn, however, that climate change may have significant consequences for society in coming decades.” What these consequences are, we can only speculate. 

Despite its hyperbole, this movie is somewhat based upon real facts. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions confirms that “Since 1979, the minimum size of the ice cap during the summer has decreased in response to increased air and ocean temperatures.”

Though it may come off as just one in a long string of apocalyptic films (note: the zombie phenomena), The Day After Tomorrow is not just another disaster movie. It delivers an ecological message.  And it’s delivered it in a way that makes us receptive to hearing it. One research report relates that although critical responses to the film were mixed, the American public generally liked it even though it raised their anxieties about global warming.

However, this global aspect is one of the few redeeming qualities of the film’s disastrous weather. One of the characters states that it brings hope of crossing geographic and cultural boundaries, for “The threat of global climate change is the only problem big enough to force all the countries of the world to stop fighting and work together to save the planet.”

The movie aims at, what Vice President Becker says, “humility in the face of nature’s destructive power.”

But we still must take responsibility for our agency in increasing nature’s destruction and destructive power. As Becker continues to say, “For years, we operated under the belief that we could continue consuming our planet’s resources without consequence. We were wrong.” This powerful declaration is meant for the audience as much as for Becker’s public. We too are using up our planet in increasingly unsustainable ways. And one day, we might have to pay a hefty price for it.

Jack Hall says “if we do not act soon, it is our children and our grandchildren who will have to pay the price.”


Author: Sara Kenning

Sustainability Assistant at Seattle Pacific University's Office of Facility and Project Management

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