By the time that disaster movies such as Twister, Volcano and Dante’s Peak were filling my childhood Saturday nights, their formula had been honed. Glamorous protagonists faced mounting special-effect danger before salvation was finally and cathartically secured. Catastrophes were ominous, yes, but with the right science they could be survived. You could reliably bet there’d be a dog involved somehow, and that it would live – even if Grandma wasn’t so lucky.
When it comes to contemplating natural disasters today, however, hope of a soothing resolution is all too rare.
Every six to seven years since 1990, the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) releases its assessment of the scientific knowledge on the subject – with progressively more alarming warnings. The update issued on 9 August is different only in extent: the world is likely to breach a devastating 1.5C of global warming by 2040, earlier than many thought. Beyond that point lie consequences from which there is no certain return.
The report’s release also coincides with a summer of fires and floods which help make its dire predictions all too easy to visualise. Scenes of people escaping by ferry on 7 August as the Greek hills blaze behind them are a documentary, not a disaster movie. Turkey is similarly burning out of control. In the US, the Dixie Fire is now California’s second largest wildfire on record. In Russia, wildfires have already released more greenhouse gases than any previous year’s total.
So how should this new era of disaster-movie-turned-documentary be met?
On Twitter, seasoned environmental scientists and commentators have anxiously anticipated the headlines that will likely accompany the latest report. As campaigners Alice Bell and David Powell note, alongside relief that the rest of the world is finally acknowledging their long-held fear and anger, there is also the evaporation of hope they might be wrong.
Scientists have notoriously steered away from alarmism, often for fear of fuelling scepticism if the worst doesn’t occur as imminently as some suggest. Julian Dowdeswell, a professor of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, said in 2016 that The Day After Tomorrow’s 2004 depiction of a collapsing gulf stream – or, more precisely, a rapid shutdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) current – is the stuff of “scientific nonsense” in terms of its flash-freezing and helicopter-crashing details. But, he also pointed out that by the time the movie was made Arctic sea ice was in alarming decline and the break-up of a major Antarctic ice-shelf had already happened. The more that sea-ice melts, the more the AMOC currents slow.
Two years beforehand, in 2001, the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report had also warned of the potential for large scale, and perhaps irreversible, changes at a global scale. Just a year after the film’s release, the very first attribution study would find that man-made climate change doubled the likelihood of 2003’s devastating European heatwave.
On a personal level, I became a journalist in large part because it felt like the logic behind The Day After Tomorrow might, slowly but surely, be starting to unfold – if not the year after tomorrow, or even the decade, then potentially in the decade or two after that. To stave off anxiety and despair, I felt I had to act.
A similarly active response is what scientists and campaigners are now rushing to press home to all those experiencing climate-anxiety. From voting, protesting, and lobbying lawmakers, social media has erupted with galvanising calls to action this past weekend: “We can absolutely 1) avoid the worst and 2) build a better world in the process,” climate scientist Kate Marvel said on 8 August.
Despair, in contrast, only risks serving the interests of those who wish to slow the abandonment of dirty industries. “The only people who benefit from hopelessness are fossil fuel executives,” tweeted the journalist Patrick Galey.
The list of suggested action-points is endless. For those who want to get their hands dirty, there are hundreds of existing initiatives to join, from anti-coal movements to lawsuits attempting to hold polluters to account. For those seeking more information, a proliferation of super climate and green-living newsletters exist, from CarbonBrief’s Daily Briefing to the environmental reporter Emily Atkin’s Heated. Every job and community arguably has the capacity to become greener, when those inside them speak up and out.
If the natural-disaster movies of the 1990s taught us anything therefore, it is that the sooner the advice of plucky scientists is heeded, the better. Politicians must carry the weight of this responsibility; ending fossil fuel exploration, winding down coal and oil extraction as soon as possible, and helping their publics to shift to green alternatives. But a further message perhaps also lies in the film Twister’s race to replace traditional tornado-measuring instruments with hundreds of smaller sensors: namely, that the solutions work best when multiple and prolific.
The 2021 IPCC report is the first to thoroughly assess the risk of “tipping points”, such as the loss of the Greenland ice cap and gulf stream collapse. In this, scientists are putting disaster-movie scenarios firmly on politicians’ minds – and the response from the world should be nothing less than a tipping point to action.
“It was a good idea” Helen Hunt’s character says to Bill Paxton at the end of Twister, after they throw everything at ensuring their effort to protect life succeeds. “Yeah,” he replies.