April 2004


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Phil Gasper <[log in to unmask]>
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Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 27 Apr 2004 19:22:36 -0700
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April 25, 2004

NASA Curbs Comments on Ice Age Disaster Movie

"Urgent: HQ Direction," began a message e-mailed on April 1 to dozens
of scientists and officials at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in
Greenbelt, Md.

It was not an alert about an incoming asteroid, a problem with the
space station or a solar storm. It was a warning about a movie.

In "The Day After Tomorrow," a $125 million disaster film set to open
on May 28, global warming from accumulating smokestack and tailpipe
gases disrupts warm ocean currents and sets off an instant ice age.

Few climate experts think such a prospect is likely, especially in
the near future. But the prospect that moviegoers will be alarmed
enough to blame the Bush administration for inattention to climate
change has stirred alarm at the space agency, scientists there say.

"No one from NASA is to do interviews or otherwise comment on
anything having to do with" the film, said the April 1 message, which
was sent by Goddard's top press officer. "Any news media wanting to
discuss science fiction vs. science fact about climate change will
need to seek comment from individuals or organizations not associated
with NASA."

Copies of the message, and the one from NASA headquarters to which it
referred, were provided to The New York Times by a senior NASA
scientist who said he resented attempts to muzzle climate researchers.

Late last week, however, NASA appeared to relax its stand on
discussing the movie. Though she did not disavow the e-mail, Gretchen
Cook-Anderson, a spokeswoman at NASA headquarters, said on Thursday
that the agency would make scientists available to discuss issues
raised by the film.

"We've decided not to proactively speak out on anything related to
the movie," she said. "But when asked, we can certainly provide some
of our experts to answer questions about the validity of the science."

Several days ago, NASA scientists produced a list of questions and
answers about abrupt climate change, but the information has not yet
been approved for public release.

"The Day After Tomorrow," from 20th Century Fox, is directed by
Roland Emmerich, whose "Independence Day" in 1996 depicted an alien
invasion of earth and included such memorable special effects as the
White House exploding in flames. The new movie's script contains a
host of politically uncomfortable situations: the president's
motorcade is flash frozen; the vice president, who scoffs at warnings
even as chaos erupts, resembles Dick Cheney; the humbled United
States has to plead with Mexico to allow masses of American refugees
fleeing the ice to cross the border.

The initial efforts by NASA headquarters to limit comments angered
some government researchers.

"It's just another attempt to play down anything that might lead to
the conclusion that something must be done" about global warming, one
federal climate scientist said. He, like half a dozen government
employees interviewed on this subject, said he could speak only on
condition of anonymity because of standing orders not to talk to the
news media.

Along with its direct criticisms of a Bush-like administration, the
movie also could draw attention to a proposed Bush budget cut.

The lead character, played by Dennis Quaid, is a paleoclimatologist,
an investigator of past climate shifts, for the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration. President Bush has proposed sharp cuts to
the agency's paleoclimatology program, which began under the first
Bush administration.

On Friday, NOAA officials said they saw the movie mainly as an
opportunity, not a problem.

"Any time anybody can focus on this little agency that nobody ever
pays attention to and talk about what we do, that's a good thing,"
said Jordan St. John, the agency's director of public affairs.

Dana Perino, a spokeswoman for the White House Council on
Environmental Quality, which handles policy on environmental issues,
said she was "not aware of any White House discussion about this
movie with anyone - none at all."

Some leaders of nonprofit environmental groups are also distressed
about the movie, though for different reasons. In conference calls
and e-mail exchanges, they have said it so overstates the issue -
turning a decades-long or century-long threat into one that explodes
over five days - that it might cause people to simply laugh off the
real questions.

The film's creators said they were puzzled by the concerns of
environmentalists. "If they can get their act together, all they need
to be saying is the drama of this movie is fictional but the fact is
that global warming is real," said Mark Gordon, the producer of the

If environmentalists distance themselves from the movie, they will be
squandering a gift, said Dr. Daniel B. Botkin, an emeritus professor
of ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"I think it is a good educational opportunity, and that we should
treat a disaster movie as entertainment and not get upset that it is
a distortion," Dr. Botkin said. "But $125 million on global warming
must be a record for publicizing the issue."