There’s a point in the richly informative documentary Before the Flood when actor Leonardo DiCaprio is in conversation with Sunita Narain, the director general of Centre for Science and Environment. He explains that while he doesn’t see the North American lifestyle changing any time soon, he hopes to see renewables such as solar and wind becoming cheaper and solving the problem of fossil-dependent consumption. DiCaprio breaks off when Narain starts to shake her head vigorously and listens as she talks about how both India and China are investing more in solar power than the USA and urges them to take up leadership on renewable energy.
This is the vein in which Before the Flood is presented. The Hollywood star, as the United Nations Messenger of Peace on Climate Change, is on a mission to see “how far we have gone, how much damage we’ve done and if there’s anything we can do to stop it”. DiCaprio asks some hard questions at times and at others, steps back and lets the experts do the talking. The 95-minute documentary, directed by Fisher Stevens, was premiered on the National Geographic channel on October 30 and was released online simultaneously.
In many ways, Before the Flood feels like a follow-up to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth – it runs with the science, but backs it with real-life examples, making the facts less abstract and more tangible. The film feels a lot more real as it examines the impact of climate change on the ground rather than poring over models or newspaper articles. Show, rather than tell, is what makes Before the Flood different.
DiCaprio deploys his stardom to make people listen to many uncomfortable truths. “As an actor, I pretend for a living,” he says during a speech at a UN Assembly. “I play fictitious characters often solving fictitious problems. I believe that mankind has looked at climate change in the same way.” Like he does in his films, DiCaprio heads off to locations across the world (all offset by a voluntary carbon tax) to explore a subject that he humbly explains “the more I know, the more I realise how much I don’t know”.
The actor’s quest takes him to Alberta in Canada, Greenland, Baffin Island in the Arctic, India, China, Pulau, Kiribati and the Sumatra islands – all places that have been affected by fossil fuel extraction and climate change. He uses his celebrity pull to interview Barack Obama and meet the Pope. He also talks to corporate bosses, policy makers, scientists and environment activists.
“If we have to fight climate change, we have to start by acknowledging most of our economy is based on fossil fuels,” says Michael Brune, executive director of the environmental organisation Sierra Club. Brune goes on to explain how the world is employing extreme methods to remove these resources, including fracking, offshore drilling for oil, and tar sands. “There is not thing such as clean fossil fuels,” Brune adds. Proof of Brine’s statements emerges in footage of the devastation wreaked by crude oil extraction in Alberta. What were once boreal forests are now barren potholes of oil.
At Baffin Island in Canada, DiCaprio listens as Arctic guide Jake Awa guide tells him that the solid blue ice is melting faster than ever before, like ice cream. In Kangerlussuaq in Greenland, climatologist Jason E Box warns that climate change projections are actually conservative, and that the effects will be far worse than imagined.
DiCaprio then jets off to Asia and the Pacific. He looks at alarming pollution levels in China, the impact of unprecedented rainfall on farming in India, the future of island nations such as Palau and Kiribati, and the devastation caused by the palm oil industry in Sumatra. Back home, DiCaprio heads to Miami in Florida, a state susceptible to flooding as the sea water level rises. Mayor Philip Levine says that the City of Miami Beach is investing 400 million dollars on a project to put in electrical pumps to drain out the water and to raise road levels. This adaptation measure will only last for 50 years. This from a state that in 2011 stopped the Florida Department of Environmental Protection from using the words “climate change” and “global warming”.
American public opinion on climate change has been adversely influenced by the nexus between policy makers and fossil fuel industries and climate change deniers, many of whom are in the media. Levine puts it succinctly, “The ocean is not Republican. It’s not Democrat. All it knows is how to rise.”
The film also questions reckless fossil fuel-addicted consumption while touching on climate refugees and livelihood and food security. Some solutions emerge out of the thicket of warnings: the filmmakers advocate the enforcement of the 2015 Paris Agreement – a deal in which world leaders agreed to limiting global warming to well below 2°C – substantial investment in renewal energy, and carbon tax.
The overall impact is undeniably powerful. Beforethe Flood invokes a sense of urgency when it comes to protecting the earth’s biodiversity. There is room for wonder too at nature’s riches. At Baffin Island, DiCaprio looks on in awe at a group of narwhals. Enric Sala, National Geographic explorer-in-residence, says, “I don’t want to be in a planet without these animals.” Moments like these demand that Before the Flood be watched, absorbed, and acted upon.
Corrections and clarifications: The article has been edited to reflect the fact that the City of Miami Beach is the entity investing $400M on a project to put in electrical pumps.