NASA Curbs Comments on Ice Age Disaster Movie

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 movie.

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."