Climate change films are hard to make. Many have set out with good intentions, only for the enormous scale of the problem and the complex network of issues to eventually overwhelm them. Therefore, perhaps it was always going to need a global celebrity such as Leonardo DiCaprio to explore it in the depth it deserves and requires.
DiCaprio spent two years travelling the world, witnessing for himself some of the worst and most shocking impacts of climate change. His intention was always to attempt to take this abstract concept, one so many people find hard to engage with, and show the global ramifications it is having right now, from forest clear-cutting in Alberta’s tar sands and ice melt in Greenland, to rising sea levels in Kiribati and air pollution in Beijing. ‘The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know,’ he admits.
Our introduction to campaigner DiCaprio is with him meeting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2014 and becoming a UN Messenger of Peace, with a focus on climate change. Predictably, there was a right-wing backlash, and the film doesn’t shy away from the critical questions over what exactly DiCaprio – not a scientist, but an A-list actor – could bring to this role. ‘I just want to know how far we’ve gone, how much damage we’ve done, and if there’s anything we can do to stop it,’ he explains, fully admitting his own pessimism about the future.
Instead, his ignorance becomes a virtue. ‘I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about,’ he admits, when describing his discussion about global warming with Al Gore, back when he was Vice President. Nevertheless, it was a campaign DiCaprio embraced with gusto, getting involved with 2000 Earth Day, interviewing then-President Bill Clinton, and going on television to encourage people to switch to eco-friendly light bulbs. ‘It seemed like a positive thing at the time,’ he says. ‘But it’s pretty clear that we’re way beyond that point now.’
Despite the knowledge which he must have personally accrued over the past decade-and-a-half, the film essentially starts at the most basic level with straightforward explanations about how climate change occurs, including tackling the myths and misinformation spread by Fox News and other purveyors of doubt. In that sense it is a very American-centric film, focused on educating and persuading average viewers in the US about the damage which they especially (along with China) are causing, and how the whole world is suffering as a result.
Throughout the making of this film, we also follow DiCaprio as he goes through the production of The Revenant, for which he famously won an Academy Award for Best Actor. As he points, out it’s a film about a time when the natural world was something vast and there to be conquered by man, an attitude which has unfortunately persisted right up to the present day. ‘Climate change is real, it is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating,’ said DiCaprio when he accepted his Oscar in February 2016. ‘Let us not take this planet for granted.’ His experience creating this film will have undoubtedly influenced this choice of words.
Of course, there is no way DiCaprio could dodge the environmental impacts of his own actions, and he freely admits: ‘My footprint is probably a lot bigger than most peoples’.’ The obvious criticism of travelling the world to this extent to make this film while simultaneously preaching about climate action is one the producers will have seen a mile away, and their voluntary paying of a carbon tax will, they hope, lessen the strength of this argument. It also provides support to one of the key campaigns of the film, that a proper carbon tax could influence people’s behaviour towards less environmentally damaging lifestyles, and lessen the need for people to take these decisions themselves based purely on a sense of righteousness (not that it stops a delving into the impact of individual actions, especially our diets, and the staggeringly harmful role beef production plays in the climate crisis).
“The facts are crystal clear. The ice is melting, the Earth is warming, the sea level is rising. Those are facts”
An hour in, and it’s time to begin looking for solutions, positivity, and messages of hope. Via Elon Musk and Tesla’s solar technologies, and through case studies of high usage of renewable energy in Germany, Denmark and Sweden, we end up at COP21 in Paris, and the confirmation of the Paris Agreement. For a moment, it feels as though we are set to pivot around this as a concluding triumph, but DiCaprio is far too streetwise for that. Immediately, he is asking whether it is enough, a question which leads him all the way up the garden path to the White House. President Barack Obama, greeting DiCaprio with a ‘Hey, man!’ stresses the positive side to the Paris Agreement, calling it ‘historic’, while warning that it will be necessary to scale up new renewable technologies once they are ready. ‘I admire your optimism,’ says DiCaprio to Obama.
But there is optimism, even if DiCaprio – sensibly – isn’t letting himself get carried away. Piers Sellers, astronaut and Director of the Earth Sciences Division at NASA/GSFC takes us through a series of different satellite visualisations and climate simulations, explaining not only how bad the climate crisis could get – with extreme drought, rainfall, and flooding – but also how it could be solved. How a rapid transition away from fossil fuels could, in time, reduce the warming, allow the planet to cool off and the ice caps to re-freeze. ‘The facts are crystal clear,’ says Sellers. ‘The ice is melting, the Earth is warming, the sea level is rising. Those are facts. Rather than feeling “It’s hopeless”, say “Ok, this is the problem, let’s be realistic, let’s find a way out of it.” And there are ways out of it.’ As DiCaprio points out, it’s an admirable level of optimism.
Overall, Before the Flood feels like the very best, most comprehensive film that could be made about climate change without delving so far into each issue that it becomes confusing. The speed with which it is required to cut from place-to-place, from issue-to-issue, may be too much for some to keep track of, but overall it paints a powerful overarching picture, even if a few details get lost along the way. DiCaprio, the student on this subject, poses the simple questions many people will wish they could ask, and through this mechanism is able to guide viewers through the situation as it is today. It’s not perfect, but there is no doubt that this is worth 90 minutes of anyone’s time, from beginner to expert.
Thanks to the events of the past 12 months, the ongoing UNFCCC process revolving around the Paris Agreement provides the film with a helpful narrative of large-scale change, while encouraging viewers to then complement with their individual actions. DiCaprio’s final assessment of the situation comes at the Paris Agreement signing ceremony in April 2016 in New York. In a powerful speech, he explains to the General Assembly Hall the journey he has been on, hitting the perfect tone between hope and fear, between optimism and urgency.
‘Yes, we have achieved the Paris Agreement,’ he declares. ‘But unfortunately the evidence shows us that it will not be enough. We can congratulate each other today, but it will mean absolutely nothing if you return to your countries and fail to push beyond the promises of this historic agreement. After 21 years of debates and conferences, it is time to declare no more talk, no more excuses, no more ten-year studies, no more allowing the fossil fuel companies to manipulate and dictate the science and policies that affect our future. The world is now watching. You will either be lauded by future generations, or vilified by them. You are the last, best hope for Earth. We ask you to protect it, or we, and all the living things we cherish, are history.’