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Climate Change: Three Portrayals

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Nathan Otto

Three Portrayals

“You are what you eat.? We’ve all heard the old saying, reminding us that what we take in, we can’t help but manifest. A similar axiom might apply to other things we take in, like information. Granted, “you are what you read, hear, and/or watch? just doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it’s operating along the same lines.
But, in yet another difference between humans and food, (P1) creative artists use a variety of techniques to influence how we take in what they are telling us. By creative artists I mean writers, directors, and performers, and more specifically I refer to those involved in the works The Day After Tomorrow (DAT), An Inconvenient Truth (AIT), and Field Notes from a Catastrophe.
Some go for the most sensational images and the loudest sounds. Others go for the slideshow presentation. Josh Schoolmeyer – in his article “Lights, Camera, Armageddon? notes, “[E]xperts get it right; Hollywood delivers the crowds…[various media portrayals] linger in the collective conscious of the public,? (Schollmeyer p. 259). (P2) Such different techniques demonstrate an intent to pursue different audiences, or at the very least, to pursue different roles in the same audience. For example, a particular series of nightshow jokes on current events may not be meant to serve as people’s primary news source, although it uses politics and news as its substrate, and could very well bring up a story or issue that the viewer was unaware of.
(X) By comparing and contrasting Field Notes, DAT, and AIT
(Y) this paper will evaluate their respective techniques, goals, and intended audiences,
(Z) in order to examine how media sources specifically present the issue of climate change.

The Day After Tomorrow
“You have to get out of there…the temperature is falling at 10 degrees per second!? With that terrible line, The Day After Tomorrow cemented its place in my mind as one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, and left its protagonists with a mere 30 seconds until absolute zero was reached, rendering any motion, molecular or otherwise, completely impossible.
In the beginning, it is possible that this movie was originally intended to do some good. Though Hollywood reeks of opportunistic capitalism, many of the writers and directors probably had some truly artistic roots and intentions deep inside them somewhere, at some time. But ultimately, any semblance of respectably artistic, persuasive, or credible characteristics were horribly mutated in the name of sensationalism.
The idea for DAT may have been centered on climate change, but the writers quickly tacked on a love story, dad-son issues, crappy science, and man-hunting wolves on top of the instantly-induced ice age plot. As such, the movie sacrificed an originally plausible appeal to environmentalism for people who like a little less talk, a little more action.
The movie was not all bad. One interesting technique was to cast the concept of climate change as inducing colder temperatures. I think that one of the leading reasons that global warming is not being confronted more forcefully is that – seriously - people generally like warm weather. And, in an extra twist of irony, the nations that are contributing the most greenhouse gases to the earth’s atmosphere are generally in cooler climates, where warmth is celebrated and enjoyed. Vladimir Putin has already joked about global warming possibly benefiting Russia (commondreams.com), and much of China, Europe, and the US – the three primary contributors to climate change – probably wouldn’t mind being a little warmer. By recasting climate change as something that would induce snow, wind, and chattering teeth, DAT paints a far more chilling picture of anthropogenic effects.
Another point to notice about the movie is how the relationship between the industrialized nations and other parts of the world is portrayed. Besides some table scrap footage of hail in Tokyo, the movie focuses almost exclusively on America, the UK, and Mexico – three of the only countries people who enjoy movies like this could probably find on a map. The developing world is cast as basically detached from the whole situation. This seems to focus the consequences of climate change more acutely: not just vague reports of flooding in Bangladesh and droughts in Sudan, the problem hits New York and Los Angeles, two of the only cities people who enjoy movies like this could probably find on a map. This is another possibly effective – yet nauseously superficial – technique.
Ultimately, DAT serves a role of action movie meant mostly to entertain.
Environmental activist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot called The Day After Tomorrow "a great movie and lousy science." (film.guardian.co.uk). What is frightening, of course, is that movies like this somehow make their way – either consciously or not – as a substitute to actual discussion, reflection, and research of serious issues for many lay audiences. Of course, movies can serve as a catalyst for getting people interested in an issue, but - since some audiences will undoubtedly come away misinformed - the issue has to be more accurately represented than DAT’s portrayal to do any good.

An Inconvenient Truth…
…is a far more educational, accurate, intriguing, and useful movie on almost every measurable level. The data is examined much more thoroughly; heck, first of all: there is data. Additionally, although Al Gore describes climate change as “a planetary emergency? the movie’s claims and portrayals of disasters are much milder and more believable - there is nowhere near the scale of DAT’s sensationalist apocalypse.
This makes AIT a more credible film almost by default. It seems that the common rhetorical technique of calmly telling people we are on the brink of annihilation is for some reason more persuasive to audiences than shaking them by their shirt collar.
Gore uses a variety of other techniques persuasively in the film. His remarkable intelligence – both in terms of academic material and socially – is evident within the first few minutes of hearing him talk. He begins by acknowledging his elephant-in-the-room status “I used to be the next president of the United States?, but quickly emphasizes moving past that to the greater issue at hand.
To a significant extent Gore’s persuasiveness probably varies proportionally with people’s pre-existing political convictions, but thoughtful audiences will be able to distinguish the more objective material from the more politically-influenced. As an example, Gore at one point notes that should the western Antarctic ice sheet melt completely, sea levels could rise by as much as 15 feet. Here, it is easy for critics to point out that the 15 feet is a highly-contested number, and that in reality, the rise in sea levels could be much lower. Gore uses a high number in order to encourage urgency and - ornery people would say – to inflate his importance and status. This does not, however, detract meaningfully from Gore’s more fundamental points: that humans are responsible for rapid warming, that rapid warming has physically observable consequences, that such rapid and observable consequences will probably have some immediately negative effects, and that further effects are unknown and thus, should be minimized to avoid unpredictable environmental changes. All of this is backed up with generally well-established scientific evidence. The Associated Press contacted climate researchers and questioned them about the film's veracity. All 19 climate scientists who had seen the movie and responded said that Gore conveyed the science correctly (washingtonpost.com)
Gore himself might say that whether his film is successful or not will be answered in the coming years by what measures we take to reduce climate change. But judging success on a smaller scale, I think it is fair to say that it was quite successful. The film won the 2006 Academy Award for Documentary Feature, has grossed over $24 million in the U.S. and over $49 million worldwide as of June 3, 2007 (boxofficemojo.com). On top of that, Gore was just recently awarded a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his exemplary commitment to raising awareness of climate change, largely due to AIT and his traveling presentations.
AIT is intended for a much different audience than DAT. Whereas the latter goes straight for the jugular with sensationalist action scenes, AIT is basically a slideshow presentation with outstanding editing. One remarkable quality to AIT, however, is its accessibility; the material presented is scientifically rigorous, but Gore integrates examples, corollaries, and helpful anecdotes and comparisons. The audience is really anybody interested in world issues who is not so politically biased that they refuse to listen to a person of the opposite party speak.

Field Notes from a Catastrophe
Field Notes from a Catastrophe is roughly divided into three main parts: i) anecdotal and statistical case-studies, ii) a more scientific approach and explanation of the anticipated problems, and iii) how relevant politics and individual actions affect climate change.
Organizing and devoting more time to each of these aspects than either DAT or AIT, Field Notes is in a category unto itself. By printing relevant data, graphs, and figures, Field Notes allows the audience to absorb the information at their leisure, taking as much time as they need to understand the discussion at hand. Such a phenomenon is an inherent strength of printed media. Whereas, a movie whisks you along whether or not you were paying very much attention to the last line, you can go back and re-read if you get to the end of a paragraph and realize you weren’t concentrating.
Additionally, the material is made quite accessible such that reading and/or re-reading is not threatening to the audience. Kolbert does an excellent job of providing easy-to-follow examples with what she is talking about: Never heard of the Keeling Curve? There’s a graph on page 43 illustrating the idea. And Kolbert can delve into a level of detail that neither an oral presentation nor a Hollywood action film would go into. “A kilowatt-hour of electricity delivered from a coal-fired plant will produce slightly more than half a pound of carbon, while if the power is origination from a plant that runs on natural gas, it will produce roughly half that amount.? (Kolbert p. 135)
Such a statement coming from Jake Gylenhall would have production companies choking on their coffee, and Al Gore already has to fight off a perception – albeit dwindling - as a boring speaker.
Overall, Kolbert’s audience probably overlaps with that of AIT substantially. In both cases, readers or viewers are going out of their way to absorb information that is going to be, much to Elvis’ chagrin, a little more talk, a little less action. And they probably like it that way. Kolbert shares a goal with Gore – and arguably much of their audiences - in using their work to raise attention to an issue that they both know is bigger than their careers, and the audience that they are both appealing to is generally aware of that.
Kolbert ends up delivering a very well-rounded book that uses its variety and accessibility to effectively illustrate several important points in the climate change discussion. Again, she would probably argue that the ultimate success of all three of these works will be determined by the actions the world takes in response to this challenge.

Other Pieces of the Puzzle
Ultimately, each of these forms of media presents just a part of the entire picture – in this case of climate change. There is still much of the issue that is not addressed by these three works. Indeed, in her article “Connecting Dinner Plate to Climate Change?, Claudia Deutsch illustrates PETA’s frustration at the lack of attention given to the impact that livestock raised specifically for food have on our atmosphere.
Much has been written about climate change. It is important to recognize the probability that no one source is going to give us all the data, interpretation, and perspective we need to develop our knowledge on a given issue. In some senses an emphasis on one aspect of the situation often comes at the expense of another, e.g. technical detail for emotional appeal. For an issue like climate change, a balance of media is crucial for illustrating both the importance and methodology of this immense challenge to our future.

Works Cited:

An Inconvenient Truth. Dir. Davis Guggenheim. Perf. Al Gore. Paramount Classics

Box Office Mojo. 2007. Box Office Mojo Movie Review. 18 Oct. 2007

Guardian Unlimited. 14 May 2004. The Guardian Newspaper. 19 Oct. 2007

Kolbert Elizabeth. Field Notes from a Catastrophe. New York: Bloomsbury, 2006.

The Day After Tomorrow. Dir. Roland Emmerich. Perf. Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal,
Emmy Rossum. 20th Century Fox 2004

Washingtonpost.com. 27 Jun 2006. The Washington Post Newspaper. 18 Oct. 2007