Does tomorrow ever come? Disaster narrative and public perceptions of climate change

TitleDoes tomorrow ever come? Disaster narrative and public perceptions of climate change
Publication TypeTyndall Working Paper
SeriesTyndall Centre Working Papers
Tyndall Consortium Institution


Secondary TitleTyndall Centre Working Paper 72
KeywordsDisaster narrative, public perceptions of climate change
AuthorsLowe, T., K. Brown, S. Dessai, M. Doria, K. Haynes, and K. Vincent
Year of Publication2005

The film The Day After Tomorrow depicts the Earth’s climate in an abrupt and catastrophic transformation into a new ice age. It plays upon the uncertainty surrounding a ‘big switch’ event: the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation shut-down. As the cameras rolled, the world was being inundated by tidal surges, tornadoes, flooding and hurricanes and, although the film-makers acknowledge the necessary dramatisation and sensationalism of an otherwise non-Hollywood subject, this led to claims that the portrayal of these events could have a major influence over the behaviour of society, motivating people to do something about climate change before it becomes too late (e.g. Mark Gordon, producer of Day After Tomorrow). When The Day After Tomorrow was released, the film’s marketing executives emphasized its appeal not as a scientific “treatise” but as an action-adventure, roller-coaster-style experience. However, scientists, politicians, environmental groups and critics speculated about how it might impact on public perceptions and action on climate change. Some believed the film would increase awareness about climate change and even galvanise the public to take individual actions and put pressure on governments to act on climate change, while others thought it would reinforce climate scepticism or have no impact at all. This paper reports on research investigating the impact of this film on people’s perception of climate change. Our analysis focuses on four key social and behavioural issues: the likelihood of extreme impacts; concern over climate change versus other global problems; motivation to take action; and the locus of responsibility for the problem of climate change. Adopting a mix of social science methods to explore this issue, over 300 respondents in Norwich (UK) completed a two-part questionnaire in a cinema foyer, directly before and after seeing the film, shortly after its release in May 2004. Respondents were then invited to participate in 3 focus groups one month after watching the film, to explore their perceptions and views in greater depth. This combination of exercises revealed ambiguous and ambivalent indications of perceptual and behavioural change among respondents having viewed the film. Some changes in concern, attitude and motivation were also found, which we believe to be attributable to the film. Our research shows that seeing the film, at least in the short-term, changed people’s attitudes; viewers were significantly more concerned not only about climate change, but also about other environmental risks such as biodiversity loss and radioactive waste disposal. Whilst generally the film increased anxiety about environmental risks, viewers experienced difficulty in distinguishing science fact from dramatised science fiction. In particular, the dramatic portrayal reduced belief in the likelihood of extreme events as a result of climate change. This effect, combined with the predominantly American iconography, tended to distance the film from reality in the eyes of our sample of the British audience. Following the film, many viewers expressed strong motivation to act on climate change; more so than prior to seeing the film. A very small proportion (less than 5 %) of our sample believed that there was no point in taking action on climate change. However, our analysis shows that although strongly motivated, people require specific guidance on what to do in order to mitigate climate change. Although the film may have sensitised viewers and perhaps motivated them to act on climate change, our findings indicate that the public do not have access to information on what action they can take to mitigate climate change. In addition, our focus groups showed that any increase in concern appeared short-lived, with most viewers seeing the film as purely entertainment. We argue that this has implications for climate policy and provision of public information.

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