This summer marked the ten-year anniversary of Al Gore’s groundbreaking climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and a pertinent reminder of the climate catastrophe arrived on National Geographic this week in the form of actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood. DiCaprio set out to make a documentary that would “give people a sense of urgency,” and it comes across as genuinely moving, raw, and wrought with information.
The film opens with a scan of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, a triptych depicting the golden age and inevitable downfall of humanity in a charred, nightmarish landscape. The allegory and link to climate change is obvious, but it remains an astute comparison. It has personal significance to DiCaprio as well; one of his earliest memories is of staring at the triptych before falling asleep every night.
With such a star-studded cast, including President Barack Obama, Elon Musk, Secretary of State John Kerry, Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain, and Pope Francis, many might write the documentary off as fluff and showmanship. However, DiCaprio comes across as very personable despite his celebrity stature and genuinely curious—admitting that he lacks knowledge about many important facets of climate change but is eager to learn. An indicator of this manifests itself in his conversation with Sunita Narain. He asks her why Indians do not adopt renewable energy resources more quickly, to which she quips, “If it was that easy, then I would really have liked the US to move to solar, but you haven’t.” The level of humility shown by DiCaprio is evident not only in this scene, where he opens himself up to scathing criticism for his naiveté, but when he shows his genuine amazement as he travels through landscapes, most notably his childlike exuberance upon sighting a narwhal.
At one point DiCaprio rewinds the clock back to 2005 with footage of him displaying new recycling techniques and new lightbulbs, showing that by making small changes, we could significantly impact the climate. The scene is cleverly juxtaposed with a scene of a glacier collapsing into the ocean. DiCaprio concedes that we didn’t fully grasp the true consequences of climate change a decade ago, and our faint efforts to change the world by changing our lightbulbs, although well-intentioned, were nearly worthless. Trips to Miami and China follow, with the former nation spending $400 million on anti-flooding initiatives to buy themselves thirty to forty years of time and the latter engaging in the largest green-growth initiative in history—giving us reason to be both pessimistic and optimistic.
It’s when DiCaprio returns home, however, where the message becomes most impactful. He interviews Michael Mann, one of the architects of the controversial “hockey stick graph” that depicts a surge in temperature since the Industrial Revolution. Mann fell victim to partisan politics, receiving death threats to himself and to his family as forces on the right tried to discredit his profession altogether. Mann states that the fossil fuel lobby “knows they don’t have to win the debate, they just have to divide the public,” and they’ve done a remarkable job of dividing the public. The Koch brothers come under heavy fire for lining the pockets of many prominent members of Congress. With 131 members of the House and thirty-eight members of the Senate on the fossil fuel payroll, climate change bills of true impact are prevented from passing. However, it’s the responsibility of the average American to believe in climate change—if the constituents demand change and a more responsible government with regards to the climate, then the representatives will follow. Again, the film makes the point that the fossil fuel lobby doesn’t need to win the debate, just divide the public. Too many Republicans proffer themselves as the true gatekeepers of morality in their god’s eyes—and what could be more immoral than being an active participant in the destruction of the planet he built for you?
DiCaprio visits Gidon Eshel, a professor at Bard College, in a fairly profound segment of the film. The foremost reason for tropical deforestation is beef, Eshel details, with 47 percent of land in the United States designated for agriculture, and 70 percent of that land used for cattle. It is not the use of land that is critical, however, but the fact that cows emit tons of methane—a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. One molecule of methane is equal to roughly twenty-three molecules of carbon dioxide. This means that every half-pound burger has cost the equivalent energy of 200 hours of a sixty-watt lightbulb, twenty-four hours of an air conditioner, and forty-two miles driving a Toyota Prius. Just by switching from beef to chicken, the film points out, any consumer can reduce their carbon footprint by 80 percent.
With trips to China, Finland, the Vatican, Palau, Kiribati, Elon Musk’s Gigafactory, the White House, a revisit to India, and a trip to Paris for the COP21 Paris Agreement ensue, DiCaprio is seemingly caught in a paradox of wanting to highlight the issues of climate change in many different parts of the world, while becoming acutely aware of his own growing footprint. He understands that 30 percent of India is without power, and many around the world also want the comforts of the Western world—the lights, the heat, the ability to cook—and they don’t care where this electricity comes from. Our own privilege is that we have the ability to travel elsewhere in the world wondering why others don’t follow the ideals we set but don’t necessarily follow ourselves.
During his visit to the Vatican, the pope’s urgency is apparent. Taking a position on the side of climate preservation, Pope Francis broke tradition in ways his predecessors rarely did, which may inspire millions of Catholics. It is this example that we need to follow; change comes from the people. Chinese protests saw that nation’s government shift their policy from growth-at-all-costs to becoming one of the fastest-growing green countries on Earth, while Fins’ demand for clean energy spurred the government of Finland to set a goal to be the first country to be completely free of fossil fuels. It is our responsibility as Americans to follow the lead of people worldwide and demand that our representatives secure the future of our children and our planet instead of letting massive corporations buy our representatives and coerce them into blocking any meaningful change.
DiCaprio gifts Francis a book of Bosch’s paintings, highlighting the triptych. He opines that we are no longer in the Garden of Eden but have moved to the second panel, which displays a sense of naiveté as change occurs around us. The final panel depicts the charred landscape and nightmarish scene looming large over us, waiting.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood may prove to be the most significant documentary on climate change since An Inconvenient Truth. Its unglamorous release (versions became available for free yesterday online) and its voluntary payment of the carbon tax that it advocates so strongly for shows that the documentary is intended to shift opinion and bring awareness to the issue at hand rather than make a profit. DiCaprio’s genuine desire to learn more about the climate shift, along with his travels to various landscapes, from the melting ice in the North Pole to Kiribati’s migration, makes this film an important cultural piece that should be mandatory viewing for all political representatives (and humanists) in the United States.