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“Global Warming, the Movie” Starring: Freezing

Why do global warming movies cast freezing as their featured star?


A funny thing happens when Hollywood tries to portray the horrific negative consequences of global warming: they tend to end up showing an Earth that has frozen over.

I noticed this the first time in 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow, where global warming supposedly leads to a global atmospheric inversion that buries New York City under a mountain of snow. It was a striking image: a global warming movie whose poster features the hand of the Statue of Liberty poking out of the top of a glacier. The image was seemingly repeated from Stanley Kubrick’s A.I., when our future robotic progeny (I would apologize for the plot spoiler, but no one ever watches a Kubrick movie for its plot) unearth the film’s protagonist, who was last seen in a New York City swamped under rising oceans but is now at the bottom of a glacier.

And now we see it again in Snowpiercer, a much-praised new film that tries to be a parable for both favorite leftist causes of the day: economic inequality and global warming. The premise is that a “geoengineering” experiment intended to stop global warming has gone out of control and frozen the planet, so that the last remnants of humanity for some reason constantly circle the Earth on a train where many live in squalor in the tail while the few live in luxury in the front.

Note to anyone who knows anything about science, engineering, meteorology, economics, railroads, or rational thought: please, for the sake of your own sanity, do not examine the premises of these movies too closely.

So why is it that “Global Warming, the Movie” so often tends to have freezing as its featured star?

Perhaps it’s because a suspenseful movie needs something that is actually deadly, and freezing weather is deadly. By contrast, the actual, projected consequences of global warming—presuming they will come to pass, which is looking very unlikely—are relatively mild and beneficial. A few degrees of increase in average temperatures will not be deadly, assuming we still have the electrical generating capacity to power air conditioners during heat waves. A small, gradual rise in sea levels will not be visually or dramatically catastrophic, not compared with any reasonable projection of the benefits of another century of industrial and technological progress. Look, New York City has to be protected by dikes—which we see as we travel above them in our flying cars. It would be like one of those old Soviet newsreels that was supposed to impress its Russian viewers with everything that was wrong in the United States, except that they couldn’t get past the fact that everyone was driving around in shiny new automobiles.

In all seriousness, slightly warmer weather would generally have beneficial effects for humanity, as would an increase in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, which is basically airborne plant fertilizer. More important would be the enormous benefits to humanity from the greater wealth and technological progress made possible by not shutting down all our power plants and not crawling into an ecologically friendly cave.

The main effects of global warming would be: sun, warmth, lush vegetation, and lots of water. So global warming is basically like a day at the beach. Which is a problem if you want your movie to tell people that global warming is no day at the beach.

No wonder Hollywood keeps re-casting their horror film with snowstorms and glaciers as incongruous stand-ins for the not-so-frightening monster of global warming.

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