Twenty years later, we’re still talking about The Day After Tomorrow

The 2004 movie is credited with both raising awareness and oversimplifying global warming 

by OLIVIA RUDGARD 

MENTION climate change fiction, and someone will inevitably bring up The Day After Tomorrow. In the blockbuster released 20 years ago this month, disruption to the North Atlantic Current plunges the US and UK into an icy winter. Tornadoes destroy Los Angeles (LA), a wave slams into New York City (NYC) and helicopters freeze in mid-air. 

The legacy of The Day After Tomorrow is complicated. Scientists are split between crediting the movie with fostering mass awareness of climate change and criticising it for misinforming and frightening its audience. As a teenager, I remember watching it with confusion and terror. How likely was any of this to happen? And isn’t climate change meant to make the world hotter? 

Apart from the liberties it takes with climate science, the film and others like it might even harm public perception of climate change, said Pietari Kaapa, a professor of media and communications at Warwick University in the UK. “People might talk about the spectacular effects or some aspects of the storylines,” he said. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s any real change happening as a result.” Apocalyptic tales can also flatten a threat, Kaapa noted, removing it enough from reality to make it effectively useless as a tool for public awareness. 

But while the climate disaster genre is something of a staple, research suggests the climate change stories we tell are also changing over time. Good Energy, a nonprofit consultancy that researches and shapes climate change narratives in film and TV, recently put out a report that showed an overall uptick in climate change in popular films: The theme was present in nearly a quarter of films released in 2021-22, compared to 10% in 2013-14. (Good Energy is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the philanthropic organisation of Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg News.) 

Authored by Matthew Schneider-Mayer- son, an associate professor at Colby College, the Good Energy report also captures a shift in the types of climate change stories we see in films — from climate-as-antagonist in epic superhero tales to inclusion in a wider range of narratives. Climate themes have popped up in TV shows as diverse as Borgen, True Detective, Insecure and Madam Secretary. In Oscar winner Parasite, climate change is never explicitly mentioned but quietly underpins the plot, as a poor family is flooded out of their home and their wealthy counterparts barely notice. Knives Out: Glass Onion, a light-hearted Netflix murder mystery, satirises false climate solutions. In the Ari Aster horror Midsommar, a character observes that “it’s the hottest and brightest summer on record”. 

This Apple TV show, Extrapolations, follows 8 stories over 33 years, looking at climate from every angle ― including religion, tech, nature and family life (Source: Apple TV via Bloomberg)

Power of Storytelling 

So why does climate change in fiction matter? Partly, it’s about portraying the real world accurately. Films set in the present or near future that ignore global warming “should be considered what they are: Fantasy”, said Schneider-Mayerson’s report. 

But it’s also about the power storytelling has to help people come to terms with a changing world. “The more that we see it included or highlighted in all of the narratives that we’re exposed to, the more likely we are to prioritise it, to think about it as a public issue that demands attention and immediate action,” Schneider-Mayerson said. More realistic and human storylines make it easier for viewer to relate to the challenges ahead. 

The most recent crop of climate stories heeds this advice, focusing on ordinary people and their regular lives as they struggle to make the best out of what they have. In literature, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future and Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From focus on what might happen in the boardrooms, climate conferences and living rooms of the very near future. 

It’s easy to imagine yourself as Hunter’s unnamed protagonist, forced to flee her London home and fend for herself and her baby in a flooded, unstable Britain. Or to see yourself in Robinson’s stoic heroine, Mary Murphy, grimly watching as the world is overtaken by climate calamity while trying to usher in systems and policies that might stem the tide. Both books also end on a hopeful note, merging a vision of tragedies ahead with roadmaps to better things. 

The Last City, a climate fiction podcast from Wondery, is set in a futuristic, tech-forward refuge from a climate-ravaged US. Characters all have their artificial intelligence and appear to live healthy, peaceful lives, but their community is hiding a dark secret. Lead writer Carmiel Banasky described her story, set in 2072, as a “protopia” — neither utopia nor dystopia, but a third way in which life improves in “incremental and realistic ways.” 

The Last City is a thriller and a mystery, but Banasky, who usually writes family comedy-drama, said she also wanted to show how families, friendships and romantic relationships develop in a world dealing with climate change. One emblematic tension exists between the main character Demetria and her mother, a former activist whom Banasky conceived of as a “Greta (Thunberg) all grown up”. As 

a youngster, Deme- tria was “pushed onto the stage to speak about climate when she just wanted to play”, said Banasky, a dilemma many modern activists face with their children. 

These intergene-rational relationships are also a key part of my favourite piece of climate fiction: The 2017 comedy mockumentary Carnage, made by the British comedian Simon Amstell. Climate change plays a big part in the story, which is set in the UK in 2067, when eating meat and dairy has become taboo and an older generation must face their past transgressions. The story is keenly focused on how people can come to terms with the guilt of having lived in a way now deemed wrong. It’s also set in a world that looks familiar. We can easily put ourselves in the shoes of those people, looking back and wondering what they might have done differently. 

Books, Movies, TV Shows with Climate Themes

Extrapolations (2023). With sweeping, global scope and a star-studded cast, Apple TV’s Extrapolations follows eight stories over 33 years, looking at climate from every angle — including religion, tech, nature and family life. 

3 Body Problem (2024). Based on the books by Liu Cixin, in this Netflix series, ecological destruction pushes one major character to a momentous decision. The central question it poses — how to deal with intelligent and potentially hostile aliens coming to colonise Earth 400 years from now — makes for a powerful climate allegory. 

The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson (2020). A climate policy nerd’s bible, The Ministry for the Future offers a chorus of global voices describing suffering and salvation as a near-future world muddles its way through climate catastrophe. 

The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter (2023). This movie, based on Hunter’s moving novel, is a quiet antidote to bombastic, big-budget disaster films. How might one new mother and her baby survive through a catastrophic flood? The answer is unexpectedly beautiful. 

Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver (2012). Many of Kingsolver’s books have environmental themes, but here it’s right at the centre of the story. A poor Appalachian housewife discovers that a valley near her house is full of Monarch butterflies displaced by climate change — opening the door to a new life but also complex questions about how best to live it. 

Parasite (2019). Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning movie is about class, wealth and inequality, but it’s also (subtly) about climate change. A poor family’s basement home is destroyed when a rainstorm leads sewers to overflow, while a rich family simply suffers a ruined holiday. 

The Commons (2019). This Australian drama, starring Joanne Froggatt of Downton Abbey fame, follows a woman’s struggle to have a baby in a world affected by climate-related disease and disaster. 

How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2022). An against-the-clock thriller that follows a highly organised band of activists as they attempt to sabotage an oil pipeline. Loosely based on Andreas Malm’s nonfiction book, it brings to life his radical ideas about the case for property destruction in response to the climate crisis.

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer (2014). This creepy, atmospheric sci-fi horror novel, adapted into a movie in 2018, is about a mysterious fungal force causing bizarre mutations in the natural world. It covers themes including humanity’s frailty and disconnection from nature.

Fortitude (2015). An unsettling slowburn horror series, Fortitude is set in an Arctic community in which nothing bad ever happens — until environmental collapse brings gruesome results. — Bloomberg


  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition