The Science

Sydney burns

"The climate science in The Age Of Stupid is based on that of the international climate research community including the Met Office Hadley Centre, as assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and accepted by the world's governments. 

While some scenarios depicted are at the extreme end of the range of possibilities within the timeframe of the movie, they are nevertheless physically plausible and illustrate the real risks posed by unmitigated climate change. 

The science of the Met Office Hadley Centre supports the view that rapid and deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions must begin within the next few years if there is to be a reasonable chance of avoiding a 2-degree rise in global temperature."

Dr Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts, Met Office Hadley Centre

The frightening vision of the near future depicted in The Age of Stupid is not science fiction.

The world in which the Archivist lives is the clearly visible destination of present - 'business as usual' (BAU) - policies regarding greenhouse gas emissions. Whether we get there in 2055 or 2075, we don't need to do anything different from what we are doing today to arrive in the terrifying future shown in our film.

We worked closely with respected climate expert Mark Lynas to ensure that all of the scenarios shown in Stupid represent a credible view of the future which is drawn from mainstream peer-reviewed climate science.

The following text is Mark's brief explanation of the scientific basis for the central thesis of the film. (You can download the Met Office's full response to the science of Stupid at the bottom of this page, if you want a totally objective view).

The scientific basis of "The Age of Stupid"

10th March 2009

By Mark Lynas

- Author of "High Tide" and "Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet", both published by Harper Collins and translated into more than a dozen languages
- Winner of the 2008 Royal Society Prize for Best Science Book ("Six Degrees")
- Climate change supervisor on the film's production, 2002->2008


The opening text card of Spanner Films' new film, The Age of Stupid, makes the claim that the film is based on "mainstream science predictions". This is more than just a rhetorical device to make the film seem realistic: we mean it. This is not The Day After Tomorrow 2, a cinema spectacular featuring climatic events which are so unrealistic that they contravene the laws of physics. All the science in the film is based on peer-reviewed papers, together with the latest predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - the world's biggest-ever consortium of scientists.

The bottom line is that the mainstream scientific predictions about what will happen in the next few decades are so frightening that we didn't need to exaggerate for dramatic effect. Just this week (11 March), scientists meeting at a climate change congress in Copenhagen revealed that sea level rise is still accelerating, that a temperature rise of two degrees is now very difficult to avoid, and that the seas are already more acidic than for half a million years due to carbon dioxide dissolved in the oceans. How much more warning do we need?

The film is set in 2055, a little less than half a century on from today. Pete Postlethwaite plays a man living alone in a devastated future, looking back at our world of today and asking why we didn't save ourselves when we still had time. His character is not the last survivor, as is often misquoted: groups of individuals are seen in the devastated scenes preceding Pete's introduction and the camera pans past a large, populated refugee camp. Many people are left alive, but there has clearly been a collapse in both the human population and the structures of civilization we know today.

In the world depicted in the film, the inhabitants are suffering the results of all the cumulative emissions that we have already put into the atmosphere (between the start of the industrial revolution in1850 and today, 2009), plus additional emissions which will have been added over the future decades - during which, according to the conceit of the film, humanity continued with its business-as-usual fossil fuel use and did not make dramatic emission reductions. This conceit is, again, not a work of our scriptwriters’ feverish imaginations, but is currently considered the most likely scenario: according to the International Energy Agency's standard forecast, emissions will be 45% higher than today as early as 2030[1]. (In the language of the IPCC SRES scenarios, for the policy wonks and modellers out there, we're talking about somewhere between A1FI and A2[2].)

Over the last decade or so, the rate of emissions increase has nearly tripled. We are currently on, or a little above, (depending on whose figures you use) the IPCC's worst-case emissions scenario - here, today, in the real world[3]. The film is pessimistic in the sense that it examines in imaginary hindsight from the vantage point of 2055 why humanity failed to reduce its emissions - but, more than fifteen years since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed, we should already be asking this question. From a policy-as-usual perspective, it is a reasonable supposition that we will probably keep on failing. (This is not to suggest fatalism or denial: the film is a clear cautionary tale, and one which is already backed up by a campaigning effort aimed at inspiring its viewers to become climate activists: 'Not Stupid',

So taking this high-emissions future trajectory, what do climate models suggest? We took a temperature estimate of just over 2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2055, well within the standard range of the IPCC models[4].  (Note that today’s temperature is already 0.8°C above the pre-industrial ‘natural’ climate[5].) The picture is complicated because we are talking about transient climate change here, not a steady state: a world experiencing more than two degrees of warming by mid-century may well be on course for four or more degrees by 2100[6].

Given that the temperature change is realistic, how realistic are the impacts portrayed resulting from it? The opening sequence may raise some eyebrows: London is flooded and silent, the Sydney Opera House is shown against a backdrop of raging flames, the Matterhorn in Switzerland is denuded of snow, and Las Vegas is buried in shifting desert sands. Surely these are all exaggerations? Sorry, they're not.

1. London flooded: As is clearly stated in the film by one of our future newsreaders (in the sequence of dates counting up from 2007 to 2055), "London is underwater again as last night's 30 foot storm surge overcame the Thames Barrier...". So we are not suggesting sea level rise of over a metre by mid-century: that would indeed be unrealistic. (The latest science suggests that anything above 2 metres by 2100 is physically implausible given the likely response times of ice sheets to additional climate forcing[7].) London has been hit by a double-whammy of a storm surge, which has overwhelmed its defences, - on top of 40cm or so of additional sea level rise. While most of the capital remains above water, the areas seen - low-lying and close to the Thames (Westminster, the City, Canary Wharf) - are indeed vulnerable.

2. Alps melted. It is certainly realistic to expect even the highest Alpine peaks to be largely denuded of snow and ice by the 2055 date[8].

3. Australia on fire. Sadly, these images are not as shocking as when we made them eight months ago, because of the terrible fires which have recently destroyed thousands of acres and killed over 200 people in south Australia. Similarly, when today’s Australia is already facing severe drought and water shortages - and where forest fires already threaten major cities in bad years - an out-of-control blaze could well be laying waste to Sydney half a century in the future[9].

4. Las Vegas abandoned. Water shortage problems will also realistically affect the arid US west, where the Colorado river (which provides much of Las Vegas's water supply) is already over-stretched, and will lose much of its seasonal flow as rising temperatures reduce snowpack in the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains[10].

5, 6. India overheated, Arctic melted. But what about the Arctic refugee camps? The vultures pecking at bodies outside the Taj Mahal? Will human civilisation really collapse so easily? Who knows. As the banking meltdown is proving, everything seems hunky-dory until it starts to go wrong - and then apparently resilient human social systems can collapse with alarming speed. The ecological impacts underlying the film's end-of-the-world scenario are really just the underlying drivers of social collapse - and how these things will really unfold is always largely unpredictable. It is much easier to predict physical planetary change than the human social response to it - which is why climate models have largely been proven right by history, whilst economic models have almost always been proven wrong.

Suffice to say that the social collapse scenario is realistic enough to be being taken seriously by the military in both America and other countries[11]. One of the reasons why Al Gore and the IPCC were awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize was in acknowledgement of the fact that if efforts to reduce climate-changing emissions fail, global warming will be one of the main drivers of human conflict in decades ahead as resources dwindle and competition increases. The Age of Stupid looks at precisely this world - where efforts to reduce emissions have failed, temperatures are soaring, and humans are battling it out for the scraps of civilisation.

We should not take this analysis too far, however. The Age of Stupid is a creative, artistic work, presenting an imaginary future. It is not a filmed version of the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report. We expect scientists and everyone else who watches it to have different reactions. Some may love it, and be moved by it; others may hate it and refuse to accept its lessons. All we ask is that you do not dismiss it  - and thereby deny your own responsibility to act - on the basis that it is 'alarmist' or unscientific. I'm afraid that is simply not true.

(Those who are interested in a degree-by-degree exposition of climate impacts could refer to my book Six Degrees. Using hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers, the book shows that climate change above two degrees is likely to take the planet past 'tipping points' - such as the burning down of the Amazon rainforest, and the release of billions of tonnes of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost - which could drive the warming process essentially beyond human control[12].)

  1. IEA, World Energy Outlook 2008, Executive Summary:
  2. Nakicenovic, N. et al, 2000: IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios, Figure SPM-2
  3. Raupach, M. et al, 2007: ‘Global and Regional Drivers of Accelerating CO2 Emissions’, PNAS, 104, 24, 10288-10293
  4. Compare for example with the recent Institute of Mechanical Engineers report, which used the Hadley Centre models to generate 2C of warming by the 2040s for an A2 IPCC scenario:
  5. See 2008 NASA GISS data for global temperature trends:
  6. As everyone knows, the textbook IPCC projections produce an upper limit, for the entire ‘envelope’ of emissions scenarios, of 5.8C in the 2001 Third Assessment Report, and 6.4C in the Fourth Assessment Report, issued in 2007.
  7. Pfeffer, W. et al, 2008: ‘Kinematic Constraints on Glacier Contributions to 21-st Century Sea-Level Rise’, Science, 321, 1340-1343
  8. One 2006 study suggested an 80% loss of glacier cover for a 3C summertime regional Alpine warming (which approximately matches a 2C global average rise). See Zemp, M. et al, 2006: ‘Alpine glaciers to disappear within decades?’, Geophysical Research Letters, 33, L13504
  9. Anyone who doubts this need only refer to recent news reports of blazes in South Australia, which killed more than 200 people. Projections of summer temperatures of 4-5C higher than now in South Australia with a high emissions scenario are made in the 2007 Climate Change in Australia report pubished by CSIRO and the Australia Bureau of Meteorology.
  10. The Obama Administration’s Energy Secretary Stephen Chu spoke of a “scenario where there’s no more agriculture” in February 2009, adding that “I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going” either. For scientific backup, see for example: Hayhoe, K. et al, 2004: ‘Emissions pathways, climate change and impacts on California’, PNAS, 101, 34, 12422-12427
  11. Campbell, K et al 2007: The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change, Centre for Strategic and International Studies
  12. Lynas, M, 2007: Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Harper Perennial
A climate scientists view of 2055.pdf94.44 KB
Age of Stupid science document Mark Lynas.pdf105.65 KB