‘Time is not a luxury we have:’ A look into Leonardo DiCaprio’s newest documentary on climate change

Over the past two years, Leonardo DiCaprio teamed up with Academy Award-winning documentarian Fisher Stevens to create the documentary Before the Flood. A heart-wrenching and powerful documentary, it depicts climate change in a real, raw light, unveiling it as a global threat which affects people everywhere, regardless of their class or nationality.

The footage presented captures DiCaprio’s travels across the globe to various countries and his meetings with various politicians and dignitaries as they discuss the threat of climate change and how they will handle it. ‘I just want to know how far we’ve gone,’ DiCaprio says, ‘and if there’s anything we can do anything to stop it.’

From the start, DiCaprio admits he has no scientific knowledge regarding climate change and no political experience addressing it. This is compensated by his meetings with officials and scientists. He listens to the experts explain climate change and how each believes it can be solved. In the documentary, the producers use DiCaprio’s lack of expertise to reshape the discussion into terms that any layperson can understand. In that sense, DiCaprio’s role was to stand-in as the prototype of the average, unaware citizen. ‘We wanted Leo to be Everyman,’ Stevens says in an interview. ‘It was important to humanise Leo, to make him seem vulnerable.’

However, DiCaprio’s lack of knowledge about climate change comes across as pure ignorance at times. During his meetings in India, for example, DiCaprio mentions the entire country should transition away from coal and onto solar or wind power — a suggestion that is completely unrealistic. The vast extent to which coal is currently used and the price of solar or wind power technology in comparison to coal make this unfeasible in a country as poor as India. With DiCaprio’s lack of knowledge arising again and again throughout the film, the audience might question whether the actor is, in fact, qualified to serve as the UN Messenger of Peace or whether his role is merely to attract publicity for the issue in a way that only a world-famous actor can do.

United Nations Photo

Image courtesy of United Nations Photo, © 2013, some rights reserved.

The documentary leads off with a quote from Fox News stating that climate change is a made up phenomenon and, therefore, appropriately represented by an actor. The clips that follow, however, prove otherwise. Over the course of the two years of filming, DiCaprio visited many different countries, and the film’s footage of the process and effects of climate change in those countries is breath-taking visually but gut-wrenchingly horrifying. Whales’ loss of habitat; orangutans who must now live in captivity or risk going extinct; millions of square footage of coral reefs dying; rainforests burned to the ground to make way for the growing of palm oil plantations that serve corporate interests, and the list goes on. As DiCaprio warns, the documentary is a ‘nightmare science fiction film except everything is real and it’s happening now.’

Labelled a ‘national security issue’ by the Pentagon rather than merely an environmental issue, climate change with its wide-reaching effects is shocking. Towards the end of the film, Dr. Piers Sellers, the Director of the Earth Sciences Division at NASA, delves into more depth, linking the effects of climate change to political developments, describing how climate change will only lead to further negative climate disasters, for example more drought and less food in Syria, which will only lead to further the conflict in that area. Even Pope Francis, in an historic appeal to action, issued a declaration on all Christians to assist in preserving the environment. This marked the first time in history that the head of any world religion had ever publicly warned of the significant danger of climate change. His embrace of the facts presented by modern science underlines the direness of the situation we face today.

Despite the impeding calamity, it seems change is almost impossible. Individual citizens rely on our governments to lead the charge. Within the United States Senate, for example, corporate industries provide funding and support to senators and in return expect them to vote against bills that would raise costs or reduce corporate profits. Thus, wealthy corporations fight climate-change believers in order to protect their industries’ interests. Explaining the worst part of this nefarious quid pro quo, DiCaprio points out: ‘[the industries] do not need to win the debate, [they] just need to divide the public.’

A year after the historic 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in Paris, Sweden transformed itself into the world’s first fossil-fuel-free nation. The Swedes’ example points to Europe as a beacon of hope in an otherwise unrepentant world, and shows that it is actually possible for countries to change their ways to help the environment. DiCaprio’s documentary partner Stevens, in an interview explained ‘[DiCaprio] isn’t trying to change the minds of people who are convinced of the myth that climate change is part of some strange global hoax. Rather, he wants to offer children and young people access to science and give them the tools to fight to protect the planet.’ Human beings have a natural sense of denial and aversion to change; wherever there is even the slightest possibility that something negative is not true, human instinct is to grasp at that doubt in an effort to avoid the uncomfortable reality.

So, whilst the documentary does not make any ground breaking discoveries, the raw, even graphic, footage reminds us all of the atrocities caused by climate change. The documentary was released on 30 October and remained free to the public until 6 November, only a few days before the U.S. presidential election. The temporal proximity was no coincidence; it is no secret the documentary hoped to serve as a ‘wake-up call’ to American voters right before they cast their votes. ‘Time is not a luxury we have,’ DiCaprio declared in a press release. ‘We can’t elect a candidate who doesn’t believe in climate change.’