WHHL Movie Club: The Day After Tomorrow

Alt: A family of doodles is piled on a couch watching a movie. One says, “I wish Dennis Quaid was MY dad.” Another cowers behind a pillow, wondering, “Is this our future?!” A third says, “Now that’s what I call a Statue of Li-brrr-ty…”

Climate change is one of the most important public health issues of our time. And that means we all need to talk about it! But it can be hard to confront problems that seem so hopeless and overwhelming.

So today, we’re broaching this stressful subject from the Hollywood angle. What better way to approach our own real-life disaster scenario than with a blockbuster disaster movie? What better way to confront actual global warming than by watching an imaginary Ice Age rapidly descend on the northern United States? That’s right, dear readers, we’re talking about 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow.

In this pseudoscientific action flick, a rogue paleoclimatologist (Dennis Quaid, burly science dad) begs world leaders to address climate change before it’s too late. Shockingly, they refuse. And the very next day, climate change arrives to rub their noses in it.

Just as Dennis predicted, glacial melt makes the ocean a tad less salty, disrupting currents and triggering an unprecedented storm system (hurricanes forming over land!) that plunges the northern hemisphere into a new Ice Age. Oh, and it all happens in a matter of days.

So will climate change really turn Manhattan into a walk-in freezer in less than a week? No, not really. But the possibility of so-called “abrupt climate change” is science fact, not science fiction. These events, when major climate shifts play out on a scale of years or decades rather than centuries, have happened before. And recent human-caused climate change makes these abrupt events more likely to happen in the future.

The real-world stakes are high — that much is clear. But what can The Day After Tomorrow teach us about climate change and public health?

  • Keep pushing for policy changes. The world leaders in the movie fail to take action before disaster strikes — just as many world leaders today are dragging their heels on climate action. But as the movie shows, delaying tough decisions on climate change leads to far greater political costs — not to mention loss of life — in the future.
  • Be ready for community-level action. When political leaders fail to act, the responsibility to find solutions falls on regular people. In the movie, we see a band of strangers work together to survive in the New York Public Library, burning volumes of tax law to stay warm and scavenging medicine for a girl with an infected wound. Hopefully, you won’t have that particular experience. But we all need to be thinking about local responses to these global problems.
  • Remind decision-makers that we all have skin in the game. The vice president scoffs at Dennis’s plan to abandon the entire northern United States to the ice — until he learns that the climatologist’s own son is in Manhattan. And no matter where you live on planet Earth, your kids will be affected by real-world climate change.
  • Don’t count on Dennis Quaid to save everybody. His son may survive till the end credits, but plenty of other people get frozen solid. So if Dennis Quaid is your dad, maybe he can be your climate emergency plan. The rest of us are going have to save ourselves. And that means talking about these unpleasant problems and working together to find solutions.

The bottom line: Watch The Day After Tomorrow for some truly wild weather — and some serious motivation to confront the impacts of climate change on public health.

Tweet about it: What can disaster flicks teach us about climate change and public health? @CommunicateHlth goes to the movies: https://bit.ly/2Q8gqGi #HealthLit


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