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Is Hollywood sensationalising the climate crisis? Or are we heading for a disaster movie?

Opinion | 4 November

An overflowing popcorn bucket

Jheni Osman, Lecturer in Media and Journalism, Cardiff School of Education and Social Policy and science journalist and broadcaster.

Hollywood has got it wrong.

Take the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow. The basic plot: global warming disrupts deep ocean currents, kickstarting a series of extreme weather events, with temperatures plunging to a bitter -65°C. Brrrrrr! Sounds chilly. But could it really happen?

While the film hit the mark by giving the middle finger to the environmental inaction of the political elite, the science didn't quite stack up. Yes, global warming could interfere with ocean currents and possibly cause cooling over the North Atlantic and neighbouring landmasses. But, no, this would not cause an overnight global freeze – it would take centuries to cool down. But then that scenario doesn't make for a good movie.

So often Hollywood has been guilty of clumsy interpretation of climate science. I guess it's too tempting for filmmakers not to equate environmental catastrophe with dollars for a blockbuster disaster movie. One issue is that climate science can be complicated to get your head around. So here's a brief explanation…

"Misinformation spreads confusion and paranoia, and can be used by climate change deniers to seed doubt – and line both their pockets and those of the oil industry."

Atmospheric greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, trap some of the Sun's heat which has hit the Earth and bounced back into the atmosphere. Now, we need this so-called 'greenhouse effect' to survive on this planet – without it Earth would be freezing. But we're currently generating too much CO2 and other greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels and changes to land use that mean the Earth doesn't absorb as much CO2 as before. And, over the last few decades, CO2 emissions as a result of human activity have increased dramatically. Unless, we cut carbon emissions, global warming will result in melting of ice sheets and subsequent sea level rise, and more extreme weather events, like the mega-hurricanes, ravaging wildfires and lethal flooding that we've seen in recent years.

So, in answer to the question: Is Hollywood sensationalising the climate crisis? Yes, in many films. But in answer to the other question: Are we heading for a disaster movie? Yes. Or at least, we could be.

Every decade since 1979, Arctic sea ice has shrunk by roughly an area the size of France.

The Antarctic ice sheet is also looking fragile. Glaciers around the world are melting. And, climate change is estimated to have caused an extra 4.2 million hectares of Californian forest to go up in flames between 1984 and 2015. Sobering stats.

In 2015, 196 countries adopted the Paris Agreement, which was a legally binding international treaty on climate change, with the goal of limiting global warming to well below 2°C, preferably 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. We're currently not on track. A recent analysis by the UN Environment Programme shows that countries around the world are planning to extract more than double the amount of fossil fuels than the 1.5°C target allows. This is truly worrying. Unless there is a sharp decline in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, global warming will exceed 1.5 °C in the coming decades. By 2030, we need to be 'net zero' – the amount of greenhouse gas produced has to balance the amount removed from the atmosphere. Investment in oil pipelines suggest that ambition may be a pipe dream.

The good news is that there has been an environmental awakening – and certain sectors of the filmmaking industry are helping us wake up from our slumber. The animation Princess Mononoke, and documentaries such as Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth or Leonardo DiCaprio's Before the Flood tackle environmental issues. And the BBC's The Trick dramatises the Climategate Scandal, where climate change deniers used hacked emails to claim scientists were faking data proving global warming

Of course, such documentaries and dramas won't reach everyone. And some would argue that movies like The Day After Tomorrow – the sixth highest-grossing film of 2004 – help bring the environmental message to the masses. But, as a science journalist, I take umbrage with scientific inaccuracies and manipulating the truth. Misinformation spreads confusion and paranoia, and can be used by climate change deniers to seed doubt – and line both their pockets and those of the oil industry.

What you can do to help combat the climate crisis

While the political elite wrangle over environmental action versus economic recovery, we can all play our small part in helping to fight global warming.

We've all heard how we should walk or cycle more than use the car, ditch single-use plastics, and switch to a green energy supplier. But did you know that the clothing industry generates 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions annually? That's more than aviation! So try buying more second-hand clothes. Gone are the days of charity shops only selling thread-bare items that smell of someone's attic. And fashion marketplace apps selling second-hand clothes are on trend.

Another big carbon-cutting win is to shift to a more sustainable diet. Buy more seasonal local fruit and veg, which doesn't need to be grown in energy-hungry greenhouses. Cut 'food miles' by avoiding goods with high 'carbon footprints' shipped in from exotic countries. And, if you're going to indulge in the odd meaty meal, switch to chicken from beef, as cows are big methane belchers and need a lot of land upon which to grow and belch. Or eat farmed bivalve shellfish, such as oysters and mussels, which have a lower environmental footprint than other foods, as they don't need fish feed and are good 'ecosystem engineers' – protecting other species. Plus, they are packed with nutrition.