Climate change and global warming have been a concern for decades now. What has also been consistent, are the critics and government officials who deny the existence of climate change, humanity’s role in such changes, and whether it is concerning enough to invest time and money into preventative measures. Analyzing the years leading into the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow gives us an in-depth look at how the debate stood then, and some takeaways for today, 17 years later.

The film is a climate crisis science fiction film, in which paleoclimatologist Jack Hall and his team of researchers predict global warming will lead to lowered salinity levels of the ocean and result in another major ice age. He presents this data to a panel at a UN conference, and is questioned by government officials. Notably, the Vice President of the US questions the urgency of the issue and the cost of preventative action. Hall admits he cannot say exactly when this ice age would occur but effects could be seen by, “our children and grandchildren” (Emmerich.) Such an uncertain timeline results in the government officials brushing Hall off as “sensationalist.” Within days of this meeting, Hall’s predictions come true, and freshwater deposits result in numerous storms that rapidly freeze the northern hemisphere. While the science of the film has been criticized for fantastic inaccuracies, many praise it for its attempt to address the pressing issue of climate change in 2004 (Bowles.)

The Day After Tomorrow was released following the 1980s and 1990s, decades which both saw record-breaking climate phenomena. In the early 1970s global temperatures did cool somewhat, only to again continue their steady climb by the mid-1970s (History.) In fact, when the ‘80s began there was a sharp increase, then 1988 became the hottest year on record (History.) This news was followed by increased wildfires and droughts around the US (History.) Then in March 1993, the “Storm of the Century,” hit the eastern portion of the US affecting 40% of the population at that time (Armstrong.) Though the film exaggerates, North Carolina did see temperatures plunge. There was also, “tremendous snowfall totals from Alabama through Maine, high winds all along the East coast, extreme coastal flooding along the Florida west coast…and… unseasonably cold air that followed behind” (Armstrong.) This storm was one of the deadliest of the 20th century with numbers reported from Florida to Maine (Armstrong.) These extreme climate events coincided with major developments on the political front. 

Throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s, political debates and treaties aimed to combat climate change but were ultimately symbolic in the US. In trying to address the changing climate, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) met in 1992 and began setting protocols on how to set goals, report on, and control emissions in various countries (Biniaz.)  The organization would take full force in 1994, and continue setting goals for governments (UNFCCC.) In the discussions, there were provisions which protected developing countries from stringent regulations, urging developed countries to curb their emissions because they were more able (UNFCCC.) This stipulation caused an upset in the US Senate, where in July 1997, they passed the Byrd-Hagel resolution 95-0 (Biniaz.) The resolution barred the US from ratifying any climate agreement that would not hold developing countries to the same standards as developed countries, and cause “serious harm” to the US economy (Biniaz.) Five months later, the UNFCCC would finalize the Kyoto Protocol with the exception of developing countries. The US’s Clinton administration would sign the treaty in 1998, but state it was a “work in progress” (Biniaz.) The Kyoto Protocol was rejected by the Bush administration, and never ratified in the US (Biniaz.) While the film is about climate disaster, there are obvious allusions to governmental inaction affecting the debate and environment. 

The film was released in 2004, which saw a shift in the climate debate from the Clinton Administration’s concern to the Bush Administration’s denial and manipulation. While the signing of the Kyoto agreement was symbolic in the wake of the Byrd-Hagel resolution, the Clinton-Gore Administration, was at least willing to discuss the impacts of human-produced emissions on the environment. Vice President Al Gore had also been a notable environmentalist during and after his vice presidency. In contrast, from the start of their administration, the Bush-Cheney Whitehouse turned everything around (Schulman.) Following their rejection of the Kyoto protocol, the Bush-Cheney administration would distance itself from any reports on emissions and human impacts on the environment, while also admitting that the climate would be changing the face of the US in the coming years (Schulman and Seelye.) The administration cited uncertainties in the science and dismissed reports as bureaucratic (Seelye.) Their inaction and denial are paralleled in the film. 

Director Roland Emmerich admitted that the president and vice president depicted in the film are stand-ins for the George Bush and Dick Cheney administration (Bowles.) This is obvious by tracking the real-life administration’s approach to climate change, but the film also makes an obvious criticism of their Kyoto Protocol rejection. By the end of the deadly and immense storm, the US and other northern hemisphere states have had to evacuate to the southern hemisphere. The President has died, and the Vice President makes a statement from a refugee camp. He states, “ Not only Americans, but people all around the globe are now guests in the nations we once called The Third World. In our time of need, they have taken us in and sheltered us. And I am deeply grateful for their hospitality” (Emmerich.) The Vice President has seen the errors in his denial throughout the film, and recognizes the important role so-called Third World or developing countries play in the economic and environmental system. Rather than keep bolstering the Bush-Cheney administration’s idea that these nations be held to the same standard of emission control as the US (a much higher polluting body), the film focuses on their hospitality and willingness to help in an emergency caused by said emissions. 

While the film is representative of the climate phenomena and politics leading into 2004, it still resonates with the issues we face today. The Trump administration made statements denying the validity of climate change, exited the Paris Climate agreement, and then made promises to bring back coal mining jobs. There are still climate change deniers and weariness around major climate change policies like the Green New Deal. Such frustrating rejection occurs in the face of record-breaking wildfires globally, devastating hurricanes, and rising sea levels. While the rapid temperature drops and storm formations of The Day After Tomorrow are not scientifically realistic, the devastation has and can continue to be our reality.



Works Cited

Armstrong, Tim. “Superstorm of 1993.” National Weather Service, NOAA’s National Weather Service, 23 Feb. 2013,



Bowles, Scott. “‘The Day After Tomorrow’ Heats up a Political Debate Storm of Opinion Rains down on Merits of – USATODAY.Com.” 30 USA Today, 26 May 2004,

Emmerich. The Day After Tomorrow. 20th Century Fox, 2004. YouTube,

Schulman, Seth. “Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration’s Misuse of Science.” Union of Concerned Scientists, Mar. 2004.

“What Is the Kyoto Protocol? | UNFCCC.” United Nations Climate Change, Accessed 30 Mar. 2021.

“What Is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change? | UNFCCC.” United Nations Climate Change, Accessed 30 Mar. 2021.