Roland Emmerich: Hollywood Needs to Step Up to Treat Climate Change

November 4, 2019

Above, I took a look at climate-change themed movies some years ago.

We’ve not seen anyone do it right, although the anguished scream in “Mad Max Fury Road” comes close.


Roland Emmerich’s movies have a distinct DNA: They unfold on an enormous canvas, there’s some sort of desperate conflict and the planet is almost always in peril. Many film and culture critics credit Emmerich with popularizing a genre built around catastrophe that reflects fears about climate change. 

The director acknowledges that he has a penchant for crafting big-screen Armageddon, but he loathes the nickname “master of disaster” that he’s been saddled with ever since aliens atomized most of the world’s major landmarks in 1996’s “Independence Day.”

“I don’t like that,” he says. “But you know how people like to put people in a drawer. They love labels.”

In a recent issue devoted to the climate crisis, Variety explored the ways in which show business is grappling with the eco-issues facing humanity. The publication noted that storytellers often resist narratives that confront audiences with harsh realities and urge them to take action. 

Emmerich is a rare exception. His 2003 disaster film “The Day After Tomorrow” centers on a superstorm that rips across the globe, burying New York City in ice as tornadoes destroy the Hollywood sign and level Los Angeles. Emmerich insists there is a “warning shot” at the heart of these films and agrees that content creators need to step up to grapple with the threats posed by a warming planet.

“It’s a little bit of what I hate about Hollywood so much right now,” he says. “They could very easily, in one of the Marvel movies, create a situation which is clearly a climate crisis. But they don’t.”

“When I did ‘The Day After Tomorrow,’ one or two of the studios who wanted it when I took the movie to auction said, ‘Can you not explode an atomic bomb or break a dam, [so that] everything gets flooded, and it all goes away?’” he continues.

“The moment we walked out, I said to my producer: ‘Yeah, not them. They don’t understand what I’m doing here.’”

Twentieth Century Fox, which at the time was run by Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos, won the rights to the film. Emmerich says that while top brass signed off on the script, the finished film tore through them like a superstorm.

“When they finally saw the movie, they had a little trouble with it,” he recalls. “They said, ‘Oh, my God, there is no real happy ending.’ It was there on the page, but it really hit them when they saw it. I said, ‘Guys, I can’t make this a happy ending because if humanity keeps going like this, there will be no happy ending.’”

The director wants to make another film about extreme weather, but not one that pits action stars against fire and rain. It’s one that would take a brutally honest look at what life will be like if coastal erosion, mass migration, food scarcity and disease outbreak take hold.

“I’m slowly starting to see a possible movie that deals with it,” says Emmerich. “How different would the world look if 200 million, 300 million people become refugees because they cannot live off their land anymore? Brexit is the result of that. Nationalism is a result of that. This could be the biggest crisis in history: Not only will a lot of people die; wars will be created. Life will change.”


22 Responses to “Roland Emmerich: Hollywood Needs to Step Up to Treat Climate Change”

  1. ecoquant Says:

    I think there’s a space — and indeed there is plenty of background story — for a climate change theme which shows the initial collapse as a purely financial one, when markets realize the risks they have not price into their investments. This can, of course, include fossil fuel stranded assets, and the companies which directly or indirectly serve automotive and truck markets with parts, and so on, but it also could include real estate and insurers. It’s just so easy to create appealing Gordon Gekkos.

    • jimbills Says:

      Energy creates the economy, then the economy grows and creates a need for more energy. There will be no financial collapse from “stranded assets” or market risks from built fossil fuel infrastructure. Natural gas replaced coal use without a hiccup in the wider economy. Fossil fuel use as a whole will grow until either adequate substitutes are found and incorporated or the economy falters for other reasons. I personally think we face a much higher probability of debt defaults causing economic problems in the short term and food security issues in the medium term.

      Assuming adequate substitutes are found (like wind and EVs), they will be incorporated into the economy at such a rate that fossil fuels are phased out gradually (decades, not years). With that replacement, though, less demand for fossil fuels also creates lower prices for fossil fuels, which causes greater competition with the substitutes – in effect prolonging the use of fossil fuels. Only governmental mandates would stop that.

      We’re nearing the end of the cheap gas and oil era in the medium term, anyway, so it’s not like we have a real choice on the matter. But the transition will not be a sudden end. It will take decades – decades in which fossil fuel companies will have plenty of time to adjust their strategies. We’re not going to see some sudden collapse of Exxon which causes an economic depression or societal collapse.

      Interestingly, this article is from today:

      Hollywood itself has roughly a two-street method when creating films. Arthouse films can explore any subject and can explore topics of great(er) sophistication and subtlety. However, their audience will be limited and they are often overlooked in the broader culture. Blockbuster films, on the other hand, go for a mass audience and are by design geared for the lowest common denominator. Explosions and spectacle are favored over subtlety. While it is possible for an exceptional writer or director of a major film to insert an environmentalist theme (take Pandora as an example), and this can help in its way, these films also invariably get more notice for its other aspects – those same explosions, or special effects, or fight scenes.

      I have been fascinated by the sheer volume of apocalyptic fiction in the last decade, however. It’s almost as if unconsciously if not consciously, we all “smell a rat” when it comes to the future.

      • ecoquant Says:

        Assuming adequate substitutes are found (like wind and EVs), they will be incorporated into the economy at such a rate that fossil fuels are phased out gradually (decades, not years). With that replacement, though, less demand for fossil fuels also creates lower prices for fossil fuels, which causes greater competition with the substitutes – in effect prolonging the use of fossil fuels. Only governmental mandates would stop that.

        So, why didn’t this model work for whale oil? Or horse-drawn carts?

        • jimbills Says:

          Both whale oil and horses took decades to replace as well.

          There are also factors to consider here instead of just buying the myths. The global sperm whale fishery was already collapsing when oil was discovered in Pennsylvania:

          A substitute was needed asap, sperm whale oil prices were increasing, and petroleum cheaply and easily filled that gap.

          Oil will not be expensive in the near term:

          On horses (and digital cameras), a far superior product to current products can replace an existing inferior one at a quicker pace. Both cars (and tractors and trucks) and digital cameras have significant capabilities far exceeding what they replaced. Energy is another matter. There are the benefits of less carbon, sure, but as a practical matter for the economy as a whole and for individual consumers – energy is just energy. It’s a means to an end. People just want the lights to turn on when they flip a switch.

          (And by the way, horses are still in use, as are film cameras.)

          We currently have an entire global economy BUILT on fossil fuels. The amount of the world uses on a daily basis is so large it’s beyond individual comprehension. It will not be easy, or quick, to replace. No serious economic analysis based on reality has us phasing out fossil fuels globally for multiple decades from now. Only best case scenarios have us doing so by 2050.

          • ecoquant Says:

            … [H]ave significant capabilities far exceeding what they replaced. Energy is another matter. There are the benefits of less carbon, sure, but as a practical matter for the economy as a whole and for individual consumers – energy is just energy. It’s a means to an end. People just want the lights to turn on when they flip a switch.

            I thoroughly disagree. Setting aside low/zero Carbon aspects of storage-backed solar, it has many advantages in comparison to fossil fuels, primarily that (1) there is a clear technological path to keeping the cost per kWh declining, and (2) the marginal cost of generation is zero. (There may be similar advantages for wind, but they are not as strong.) Also, electricity from decentralized sources like solar is a gating capability for other advantages which are not available with fossil fuels, and have not been available with any grid-generated electricity. These include being able to power and replenish an EV (now often being free of public chargers because of battery capacity) and making it easier to monitor efficiency and costs of energy consumption. Such monitoring does not necessarily involve inspecting graphs and reports, but can be done semi-automatically.

            This is not available for natural gas powered heating and cooling, for instance.

            Decentralized solar also gives options for limiting dependence upon a utility grid, including personal responses if utility plus regulatory agency imposes penalties.

            There is also potential for getting around local regulatory roadblocks, e.g., local limits on ground mounted solar. Eventually, as power production per panel increases, one can upgrade a fixed footprint of PV by swapping out existing panels for more potent ones, possibly at the cost of needing a new inverter.

            None of these kinds of efficiencies are available with fossil fuels, or fossil fuel generated electricity. There you are completely at the mercy of the utility and upon fluctuations in the market price of the fuel.

          • jimbills Says:

            If the cost of solar drops to such a level that it is the best choice for most people, then that will certainly affect the rate of change. It hasn’t happened yet. Once it does, though, assuming it does (I think it likely will at some point), there is still the time delay for people to change. This won’t be a matter of years, but decades.

            Sometimes I think the commenters here believe Americans are made of money. A recent commenter talked about his new Tesla Model S, a $75K+ auto. Seriously. 80% of Americans can’t afford that, and we’re the wealthiest nation on Earth. It’s difficult enough for most of them to pay the monthly electric bill. They can’t afford the current batch of EVs or getting solar panels and personal storage. Maybe that will change some day. It’s not today.

            If the price on solar drops in price to such a level that the electric companies start building it out on a massive scale, then we’ll see real change.

            Sure – you can monitor efficiencies much more accurately on a purely electrical grid and personal transport basis. Is that capability worth the extra dough currently for most people? They just want the TV to work and to get to their job on time.

          • ecoquant Says:

            A Tesla 3 is no more expensive than a relatively large SUV or pickup. People buy those all the time, including people who are relatively unwealthy. And according to the auto mags, luxury car owners are trying to trade in their high ends to get Tesla 3s, enough to depress prices in their resale market.

            Payback time for many residential solar owns in Massachusetts is about 7 years, with incentives from the State. The ITC will be going away (although there is some movement to reinstall it) but PV is still a good deal for people with the credit to do it.

            I just want it to become socially unacceptable to use fossil fuels in a home or drive an ICE, whether that’s because of the coolness factor or what. I think the rest will take care of itself.

      • ecoquant Says:

        Or, for that matter, film cameras?

    • J4Zonian Says:

      I can see it now. A bunch of expensively-dressed markets are sitting around a conference table in a well-appointed office, looking grim. One stranded asset turns to a company which directly or indirectly serves automotive and truck markets with parts and says “It could be worse; it could also include real estate and insurers.” The company takes the asset’s hand and says “At least we’re together, Gordon; you’re so…appealing.”

      Gripping stuff.

  2. Adam McKay has been talking about stepping up to the challenge of making a climate change themed movie.

  3. J4Zonian Says:

    If it takes decades rather than years it will be because the lunatic right wing has succeeded even more thoroughly than we now realize in pounding conservative frames into the heads of most people in the US, and/or because the rich and the right continue to rule against the will of the majority. It will mean profit for the rich continues to be the criteria for all decisions. Given the high likelihood of collapse of civilization and the extinction of most life on Earth, it’s utterly insane, of course, to keep letting that be the guiding principle of all our lives, and to blithely talk about decades rather than years, but here we are just the same.

    It can’t be decades instead of years.

    Although I feel like I’ve seen everything humans can do, it’s amazing to me that even non-troll participants here can still be in denial of the seriousness of our situation. If we want even a decent chance for civilization to survive past about 2100 we have to ditch capitalism and its ists, tax mbillionaires into being thousandaires, hundredaires and dozenaires like the rest of us, (while providing everyone the security to at least reduce the tendency toward acquisition addiction)… and institute a massive emergency Green New Deal with thousands of moving parts.

    • ecoquant Says:

      … and the extinction of most life on Earth …

      I would not bet at all on that bit. Look up Ray Pierrehumbert’s talk on what it would talk to get a runaway greenhouse or a Snowball Earth. Sure, there’ll be species and niche rotations because some won’t be able to adapt fast enough. Sure, this churn will compromise ecosystem services upon which people depend, for agriculture and much else.

      But the biggest casualty of this will be people, and certainly civilization. The “After me, the Deluge” idea is anthropocentrism at its worst.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        Large mammals, insects, sea creatures, amphibians, and most other non-microscopic life have been or are being reduced by 50 to 90%. Combining that with toxicity (air pollution, plastics, dead zones, the flooding of most cities on Earth, all dotted with toxic waste sites, etc.), war–including nuclear war being made much more likely by climate catastrophe—and the increasing effects of climate, may cause destabilization of the cybernetic system of all life on Earth we’ve come to call Gaia. It may even end all life here.

        Ending most of it—at least in terms of numbers of species—is pretty much inevitable at this point, though the numbers of individuals may not be reduced that much if we include microscopic ones. I don’t know of any research into the worst possibilities combined, only into parts of it, but nuclear winter alone could accomplish all of the destruction, so the whole combination would be even more likely to. It certainly can’t be dismissed, and if we help people get past their paralysis, considering this possible result of our actions might motivate more people to act on the crisis.

        • ecoquant Says:


          Oh bupkis. Although cute, including perhaps us, large mammals only make up a tiny bit of biomass. Hotter temperatures do increase evolutionary pressures which favor smaller animals, with higher ratios of surface to volume.

          Having looked at biosphere impacts of all out nuclear exchanges in the 1980s and their consequences, there is plenty of biosphere left. Just not us, if not from direct harm, then because of collapse of agriculture.

          That said, we’d suffer pretty well, too, if a major pyroclastic caldera erupted, too. Again, plenty of biosphere left over, just not us.

          We’re pretty fragile. Worse, by systematically engineering plants and animals through a long stable climate, and by trying to annihilate species we don’t like (“invasives”0 we’ve reduced fitness and diversity of the species we most depend upon for food and ecosystem services. Again, yeah, that big ecosystem would take a hit from unbridled climate disruption. But not the rest of it.

          Human annihilation in that case would make climate disruption self-limiting.

          • J4Zonian Says:

            So your position is that serious devastation of the biosphere or extinction of all life here is impossible because of humanity’s many and varied harms.

          • ecoquant Says:


            No, not because of “… humanity’s many and varied harms”, but because much of the biosphere’s heritage preserves a memory and means of adaptation for far harsher climes than we’ll produce.

            Isn’t enough that we’ll do ourselves in as a means of motivation?

          • J4Zonian Says:

            My last was imprecisely worded, which I realized right after posting. (Editing function would be nice here.) Should have said:
            “So your position is that serious devastation of the biosphere or extinction of all life here is impossible.”
            Which I hope you realize is ridiculous. But I was trying to jar you out of your frustrating habits, including cherry picking tiny aspects and thus keeping nonsensical arguments going when I’m pretty sure we’re basically in agreement.

            Mammals are very important 1. for being a substantial part of the animal biomass in many biomes, 2. for being the means of transportation for teeth, and cellulose-digesting bacteria, 3. for being important to human civilization… But in any case, still cherry picking—ignoring, for example, the much more important Insecta class I mentioned, and all the others I didn’t include.

            Virtually everything about climate catastrophe has turned out to be much worse than reported by research; this cycle repeats every 2-3 years in virtually every aspect of the crisis.

            Since it’s already happening, the likelihood of mass extinction is 100%. (Because their size makes them vulnerable and observable, we know wild mammals are being devastated at least as much as other groups and may be mostly extinct in as little as 50 years.) Since we’re barely at the beginning of the inevitable horrific effects, and there are a number of devastating events and trends that are either also inevitable (SLR-related toxicity) or likely and growing more so (nuclear war), it would be utter folly to deny that the absolute worst is possible. And no, the threat of extinction to human nations or groups will likely greatly raise the ferocity of H. sapiens’ destruction, and it won’t stop even after complete human extinction.

            Unless there’s something intelligent to be said, I’m stopping now because you’ll either admit there’s a possibility of total or near-total extinction of life or you’re so mired in your preconceptions there’s no point in continuing.
            And “Isn’t enough that we’ll do ourselves in as a means of motivation?”?

            Look around you. Apparently not.

            Use every part of the hoofed, horned North American ruminant mammal is what I always say.

    • jimbills Says:

      I am taking looking the reality of the situation, and as usual, you are talking about a fantasy situation where humans suddenly stop being human and act like rational beings.

      Of course I personally think we should massively and suddenly change and get our act together. I think we should treat all of this as the emergency it is.

      But we (the collective ‘we’ meaning society as as whole, not just you and me) won’t, and we aren’t. I shouldn’t have to explain this to you.

      • ecoquant Says:


        We may disagree, but I think there’s a world of economic hurt which will follow-on a continued failure to address emissions in a severe way, and that world will be ushered in well before the end of this century. Of course, I won’t be around, but that’s what I think.

        • jimbills Says:

          @ecoquant – just so you know, I was responding to J4 there.

          I don’t disagree with the ‘should’ aspects of your argument as far as people ‘should’ be using greener technologies. I clicked on your link and see that you are a degrowth person. I am that as well. We absolutely ‘should’ do that.

          Unfortunately, our society as a whole is nowhere near that philosophy, and humans beings themselves (in sum, even though some can be different) are not rational actors. The collective we do not give long-term strategic thinking priority over short-term desires and fears.

          This is impossible for some (like J4) to accept. It’s patently obvious, however.

          Absolutely, we face a smack down of economic hurt as a society in the future. I too think it will happen before 2100, although I agree with your ‘After me, the deluge’ point.

          • J4Zonian Says:

            I accept reality just fine, thanks; that’s the other side’s problem. In reality, society contains many different impulses at any one time; right now there’s a race going on between those driven by nihilism and the compulsion to dominate no matter what the consequences, and those driven by compassion, and desire for the world to survive.

            At this point either survival or destruction is possible; I make no judgement about the likelihood of either outcome, I just say what needs to happen for civilization and the rest of nature to survive. And as long as that’s still possible I’ll keep working toward it.

            jimbills: “as usual, you are talking about a fantasy situation where humans suddenly stop being human and act like rational beings.”
            Apparently jimbills is the one having trouble with accurately perceiving reality and others’ motivations and thoughts; he seems to be making huge leaps to grossly wrong conclusions.

            He seems to be assuming that the fact that society is going in one direction means that’s the only impulse it has. But just a few years ago the destructive side lost an election despite cheating in multiple ways. It only pulled it out by another technique that while legal, is no less manipulating the system for that. Now, we’re moving strongly toward destruction, and also increasingly strongly in the opposite direction, with election after election showing historic reverses for the side that can now only win by lying and cheating. That seems to be the best way to negate both their insanity and their apparent overwhelming power, as the huge inertial majority is beginning to catch on to them.

          • jimbills Says:

            I’ll let your words stand, especially after “I accept reality just fine”.

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