documenting climate change

DiCaprio’s ‘Before the Flood’ explores a different inconvenient truth: Human nature

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Leonardo DiCaprio’s new intimate portrait of climate change begins with an anecdote about a painting from his childhood.

The 500-year-old Garden of Earthly Delights, painted by Hieronymus Bosch, hung on a wall in his childhood home where his counterculture parents appreciated both its timeless message and strikingly contemporary composition. Broken down into three scenes, each on a different panel, the painting appears to depict (nobody knows for sure) the way humans can easily fall prey to life’s temptations, and how that can eventually lead from an Eden-like existence to a wretched hellscape.

DiCarpio says he stared at the painting as a child until it told a story: The first panel is full of animals and unadulterated scenery; the second panel is where the deadly sins start to “infuse their way into the painting” along with overpopulation and excess; and the last “nightmarish” panel is a “twisted, decayed, burnt landscape” and a destroyed paradise.

From here the movie transitions to its main subject matter, the catastrophic implications of climate change.

The film, titled Before the Flood, comes a decade after Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, the first major climate change documentary and one that focused on the science of the issue: That human-driven fossil fuel emissions are altering the planet in a myriad of negative ways. A decade later, the science is remarkably clear and the impacts are no longer something abstract and in the future, but easily visible now. What’s also clear is that addressing climate change in an effective manner will take a lot more than understanding the science, it will require overcoming human nature and our tendency to prioritize the present at the expense of the future.

Produced by the National Geographic Channel with Martin Scorsese’s help, Before the Flood is available for free on a number of platforms from Oct. 30 through Nov. 6, including including Facebook, Hulu, and YouTube. Two days after this free period ends, Americans will vote on the next president. One of the these candidates, Donald Trump, still denies climate change even as the rest of the world has agreed to fight it together. Hillary Clinton has pledged to carry on Obama’s climate legacy, which includes things like the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreement. While the candidates are world’s apart on many issues, climate change is one of their starkest divergences.

In the face of the urgent challenges of global warming and the way it’s been ignored throughout the presidential race—especially during the debates—DiCaprio’s documentary is a well researched and entertainingly presented reminder of what’s happening while we’re all not paying attention. It seems to be breaking through to the mainstream more than most climate-dedicated media. The YouTube video has been watched well over a million times after less than a day, with more than 10,000 people commenting.

A read through the comments though—always ill-advised when it comes to environmental issues—is a reminder of the way the public is fraught, outraged, and confused by climate change, from the most basic science to the most outlandish conspiracy theories. A concerted effort by the fossil fuel industry has set back domestic climate action, and until the public can unite around common goal progress is likely to stall. As the scientists and activists DiCaprio interviews in the film get at, without public opinion firmly aligned, real change is much harder to come by. While recent polling shows public opinion starting to shift, there’s still a ways to go.

The analogy to Bosch’s painting is clear: We are living in a time towards the end of the painting’s second panel, where the paradise we’re inhabiting is at risk of ruin. We are responsible for this mess and we are the only ones capable of cleaning it up. A painter 500 years ago could foresee this because it’s not just about climate change, but applies to the mental and physical divide between living to the fullest in the present and preparing for the future. Everywhere on the planet the stresses of our actions are clear, whether looking at wildlife extinction rates, deforestation, overpopulation, pollution, or food supply. The next few decades mark a turning point to a new scene, and the paint is quickly drying.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is the modern title given to a triptych painted by the Early Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch.Wikipedia

The Garden of Earthly Delights is the modern title given to a triptych painted by the Early Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch.

DiCaprio, while avowedly not super keen on civilization’s ability to adapt to such demanding changes, maintains a positive, even slightly goofy demeanor throughout the film. He’s forthcoming with his thoughts and intrepid in his travels, which take him to the far reaches of the planet. He has amazing access to the people calling the shots; President Obama and Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon were both interviewed for the film. And he seems to be genuinely concerned for the future, and for his kids (when he has them), whom I sure will also benefit from the formative mind-opening experiences of spending time with great artworks.

Last year, Ban Ki-moon designated DiCaprio a UN Messenger of Peace with a special focus on climate change. Before the Flood is the story of how DiCaprio rose to this position and what he plans to make of his uniquely high-profile when it comes to motivating global citizens to take action.

He’s off to a promising start, but the final picture is far from clear.