Climate Doomsday Films Debunked

Debunking The Top 5 Environmental Disaster Films by Julianne Geiger at Oil Excerpts below in italics with my bolds.

It’s 1983, and the height of the Cold War. The more thoughtful Gen-Xers were contemplating the chances of surviving a nuclear war in a leaky cellar, wondering if the actor-turned-president really knew what he was doing.

They weren’t thinking about whether they had to choose between a world with oil and gas or no world at all due to climate change. There was little polarization.

Climate change seemed far away, indeed. Nuclear war was the clear and present bogeyman.

It was difficult to roller skate with any enthusiasm after watching ABC’s TV movie The Day After.

As far as movies go, the nuclear-war-based film definitely wasn’t an Oscar-winner, but it did manage to horrify an entire generation.

The conclusion of nearly everyone after watching this film: That’s it. We’re screwed. And the most horrifying aspect of apocalypse-by-nuclear war is that we can’t blame it on anyone but ourselves. Alien apocalypse movies are so much easier to take.

Since then, given our addiction to anything apocalyptic, a long line-up of environmental disaster films to feed our self-fulfilling prophecies of destruction have made their way through the box office.

While The Day After back in 1983 was, by all accounts, a realistic portrayal of our pending doom, many others that have followed have been about as realistic as an alien invasion.

It’s difficult, after all, to stuff catastrophic climate change into a couple of hours.

Let us debunk some of the best ones for you in the increasingly popular ‘Cli-Fi’ genre:

#1 The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

Attempting to leech off the wildly dark popularity of the 1983 doom-and-gloom, The Day After Tomorrow (2004) managed to take home the second-place trophy in an IMDB poll for favorite ‘Cli-Fi’ movie of all time (which we don’t understand).

And that is despite being simultaneously recognized as a work of highly implausible global warming fiction. It doesn’t matter: movie-goers crave catastrophes galore, and this film has a new one every minute.

But it has also been ripped apart by the scientific community–including many climate scientists–for violating nearly every law of thermodynamics.

It’s always one man against the world in movies like this. In this case, it’s a paleoclimatologist who uncovers a climate shift in ice core samples. Predictably, he is ignored and a superstorm plunges the world into catastrophic disaster upon disaster. In other words, the whole premise of the movie is that an ice age is upon us–suddenly.

To add to the hero aspect, the paleoclimatologist must travel across the US–by foot–to save his son, braving the superstorms.

Prior to the movie’s release, scientists worried the plot was so extreme it would lead people to dismiss global warming as a complete fantasy. In all likelihood, the film succeeded in sucking some legitimacy out of the climate crusade.

Wacky science will do that, and in this case, our favorite implausibility is the entire premise of the movie which suggests that a network of massive hurricane-shaped snowstorms covering entire continents deposits enough snow to reflect sunlight and create an ice age within a matter of days. This is a development that the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) debunks categorically. While temperatures in parts of the world could drop, it wouldn’t create an ice age in a matter of days. Of course, the movie only has an hour and a half to lay out the earth’s demise.

Temperatures that dropped suddenly at a rate of 10 degrees per second; or 600 degrees per minute (satellite readings themselves take even longer than this)

Helicopters crashing to the ground because their fuel froze at -150 degrees F (the tropopause, the coldest part of the troposphere, never reaches this temperature)

People freezing in place so quickly they don’t have time to exit their vehicles.

#2 Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar is definitely one of the better cli-fi movies ever made, and the science is particularly … sciencey.

Some of the science portrayed in the movie was spot on, according to scientists themselves, but some was … theoretical, at best.

The movie starts with a grim picture of an earth no longer able to sustain the growing of crops due to “The Blight”. With the world about to run out of food and humanity on the brink, a few brave souls travel to the outermost reaches of space to find a more suitable home for mankind.

The movie covers the science of a microorganism called the blight–a scenario that is particularly unlikely given that it would span across multiple types of crops, which are all genetically dissimilar.

The film also covers space-time warps (true), slingshotting around a neutron star (unlikely), and beings that can live in five dimensions in the bulk (false).

Despite some artistic liberties, it’s entertainment value is top-notch. Just don’t go rushing home to stock up on grains to prepare for a blight-induced famine. It’s just not going to happen.

#3 San Andreas (2015)

San Andreas wasn’t a work of Hollywood genius, but it has the requisite story of earth’s destruction, and a Hollywood hero played by The Rock. The film may be a fun two hours, but it seems the science behind the movie is a bit suspect.

In San Andreas, the world is rocked by the largest earthquake ever, triggered by the San Andreas fault.

There are so many scientific impossibilities that we’re not even sure where to begin. First, science does not exist to predict earthquakes in the manner shown. There is just no way to predict when and where an earthquake will happen. Second, the San Andreas fault is a land-based fault, and those don’t create tsunamis, let alone the major one shown in the movie. Despite the large earthquake in the film, new buildings are designed–particularly in California–to withstand large quakes.

The San Andreas fault is 800 miles long and 10 or so miles long. Because the magnitude of the earthquake is dependent on the area of the fault, anything more than an 8.3 is unlikely.

And that gaping hole in the ground left by the quake? Utter nonsense. While small crevasses may occur from landslides and such, the ground does not split apart, exposing the major chasm like the one shown in the movie.

#4 Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Can the world really run out of water? Will water someday be the new oil?

NASA’s chief water expert, Jay Famigletti, says it absolutely can, adding that California may actually see such a scenario if its drought continues.

In Mad Max: Fury Road, which is set decades after the original Mad Max, water is definitely the new oil, and drilling for it is a horrifyingly violent business.

In the Max Max world, only people with the means to pump water from deep within the earth have any access at all. Those with lesser means are left scrambling for the most precious commodity.

Toxic dust storms and other perils depicted in the movie are possibly exaggerated, but some scientists were quick to jump on the movie’s message, saying that this is the world we may be living in if we fail to work at curbing climate change.

“Our climate models certainly predict increasing ‘desertification’,” Farnigletti said of the film, adding that there were “metaphorical elements of ‘Mad Max’ that are already happening, and that will only worsen with time.”

Farnigletti was careful to add that some conditions in the movie were exaggerated.

#5 Sunshine (2007)

The year is 2057, and Earth’s sun is dying, threatening to end humanity along with it. The planet’s only hope is an internationally diverse group of eight men and women who are brave enough to venture into space with a nuclear fission bomb that is supposed to revive the sun.

The premise is that the sun is being eaten alive from the inside out by a supersymmetric particle called a Q-Ball. It’s based on a theory by Harvard physicist Sidney Coleman, who posited that the Q-Ball may have formed during the Big Bang and potentially had the ability to break down ordinary matter made of protons and neutrons.

We’re not physicists, nor will we attempt to be, but the movie’s theory that the Q-Ball is eating away at the sun like a cancer is debunked by pretty much every scientist out there, not least because the Q-Ball theory itself has never been proven. Scientists from New York University studying the Q-Ball theory say that the biggest problem with the movie is that, if it existed, a Q-Ball would actually have the opposite effect on the sun: It would not die; rather, it’s radiation would vastly increase and we wouldn’t freeze–we’d all fry.

Footnote:  I’m sorry the list excluded my favorite:

That one inspired reflections on the fact our planet is misnamed “Earth”  when it is so obviously “Ocean.”  See Climate Report from the Water World

Coming soon to your neighborhood: Watch for it!


  1. Bob Greene · October 17, 2019

    I’ve been reading sci-fi since the late 1950’s. I’ve also enjoyed quite a few sci-fi movies. A good number of them had technological gee-whiz stuff that showed up in some form a few decades later: computers, AI, Star Trek communicators, etc. So, going over the scientific top is not a big deal as long as you remember that the book/movie is entertainment (just pretend). Sit back and enjoy the yarn. When people try to turn the fantasy into propaganda, I turn it off.

    Science fiction is the only place where predictions aren’t hard, especially about the future.


    • Ron Clutz · October 17, 2019

      Same here Bob. I still keep my Motorola flip phone just like Kirk used to tell Scotty to beam him up. And I really liked the Martian for its relying on existing technology in telling a great story.


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