Feel lucky?

Thursday, May 6th, 2004

God works in mysterious ways. A bogus flap about an unrealistic disaster flick may wind up … oh, it might be a little grandiose to say “saving the human race from its endtime scenario,” but why rule that out?

The movie is “The Day After Tomorrow,” which is scheduled to hit theaters on Memorial Day weekend and has reaped a gold mine of free publicity over what initially seemed to be yet another Bush administration assault on the integrity of science.

Last week, The New York Times reported on a memo that had been e-mailed to dozens of scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center, which is part of the National Aeronautics and Space administration, instructing them not to do interviews about “or otherwise comment on” this movie — which dramatizes the mayhem resulting from an instant ice age brought on by global warming.

A Goddard scientist leaked the memo to the Times, seething about what seemed to be an attempt to muzzle researchers on an issue George Bush has written off as a hoax. And the movie does have some wicked fun with a Bushlike administration. The presidential motorcade, for instance, is flash frozen; a veep who looks like Cheney gets his comeuppance; and the U.S. has to beg Mexico to allow refugees fleeing the cold to cross its border.

You can just picture some political appointee at NASA trying to rein in climatologists who might want to mouth off on global warming, right? Only two months ago, after all, 60 leading scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, blasted the Bush administration for distorting scientific studies and suppressing inconvenient reports.

And about the same time, Britain’s The Observer published a story on a secret Pentagon report the Bush administration had been sitting on for four months, which predicted drastic climate change by as early as 2020, leading to global chaos: war, famine, drought, floods, massive death and displacement, the collapse of social order.

If Bush minions are willing to bury a report of such mind-numbing consequence (forget 9/11) because they’re soft on emissions control, why wouldn’t they try to repress side chatter about an embarrassing $125 million Hollywood doomsday concoction?

The funny thing is, I don’t think they did. I called Goddard, which specializes in environmental science, and wound up talking with oceanographer David Adamec, who read me the memo that preceded the
disastrous “zip it, you guys” e-mail someone leaked to the Times.

Memo No. 1, addressed to a few high-level NASA public affairs people, is pretty innocuous. It simply reminds them that “The Day After Tomorrow” team never signed a “space act” form, meaning NASA lacked a formal agreement with them and therefore couldn’t assist in pre-release publicity for the film. No big whoop.

Not signing that form turned out to be the smartest move the producers could have made, because it spawned Memo No. 2. This one tersely warned Goddard scientists not to talk about the movie, giving no context and sounding an awful lot like censorship. Suddenly, wow, the movie was “banned in Boston.” You can’t get a bigger boost than that. But as far as I can tell, there was no actual censorship at Goddard.

Well, that clears that up, though we still have global warming.

Adamec, as well as being an expert on climate, is a really nice guy, it turns out, and spent the bulk of our hourlong conversation patiently walking me through the mechanics of climate change. It is very real, though its consequences — such as burgeoning mosquito populations and the spread of infectious disease — will manifest themselves incrementally over decades, not all at once, like in the movie.

“If you decide that (global warming) isn’t really a problem, you’d better be right,” he said, “because the lifetime of those (greenhouse) gases is decades and decades. It’s like the line in ‘Dirty Harry’: ‘Do you feel lucky?'”

So maybe we’ve got an energy-industry-beholden president who “feels lucky,” but it’s Adamec’s view that the power to change the world lies not with presidents but with the general public. Not that long ago, he noted, we voluntarily gave up using aerosol sprays because we were alarmed by the hole in Earth’s ozone layer. Only after aerosols were no longer commercially viable was legislation passed banning them.

Will a similar sea change in public opinion occur about our fossil-fuel addiction and the pollutants it produces that lead to global warming? Ironically, “The Day After Tomorrow” — which subordinates science to a doomsday melodrama, and wasn’t really censored — might make a big enough splash to hasten that day.