From Titanic’s epic iceberg to Before the Flood‘s melting glaciers, Leonardo DiCaprio is the master of icy disasters. In Titanic, you just knew his character was destined for a watery grave. But in Before the Flood, the new climate change documentary DiCaprio made with Oscar-winning director Fisher Stevens and National Geographic, he leaves the ending up to us. Because, unlike the Titanic’s doomed passengers, we still have time — though just barely — to avoid a collision with catastrophe.
Before the Flood may be DiCaprio’s “all hands on deck!” moment, but the beauty of this film is that he delivers his urgent call for a course correction in a thoughtful, restrained manner, not a hair-on-fire panic. The movie’s timing is critical; on November 8th, we have the power to elect politicians who understand the science of climate change, grasp the gravity of the situation, and are willing to address the challenges it poses.
So, to put this timely reminder on our collective radar, National Geographic is not only broadcasting the global television premiere of Before the Flood on October 30th at 9pm ET on National Geographic Channels in 171 countries and in 45 languages, they’re making the film available for free from October 30th through November 6th on iTunes, GooglePlay, Amazon, hulu, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Sony PlayStation, and elsewhere.
Does Before the Flood pick up where Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth left off? After all, DiCaprio first learned about the global warming crisis from Gore, just like millions of other Americans. Well, OK, not exactly just like the rest of us. DiCaprio was at the White House chatting with then-Vice President Gore a few years before Gore made An Inconvenient Truth. As DiCaprio told People magazine, “Gore drew a picture of the planet, drew our atmosphere and said, ‘This is the most important crisis facing humanity.'”
At the time, DiCaprio, then in his early 20s, had no idea what Gore was talking about. But he became an instant convert, resolving to learn everything he could about climate change and use his celebrity to educate others about the growing peril.
It’s a tough sell, as DiCaprio ruefully admits. “Try to talk to anyone about climate change and people just tune out.” A decade after Gore’s film, we’re still relying on fossil fuels while a political party rejects the science on man-made climate change even as extreme weather becomes the norm and carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere reach record highs, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
What’s a passionate environmentalist to do? For DiCaprio, the answer was to team up with National Geographic and Stevens. Together, they spent three years traveling the world to document the global impact of climate change, from ravaged rain forests to flooded cities, sinking islands, melting glaciers, endangered animals, and dying coral reefs.
As bleak as that sounds, the film is not just a travelogue of manmade ecological calamity. As with An Inconvenient Truth, DiCaprio highlights solutions and makes the science accessible to the layperson. But where Al Gore essentially played the professor, delivering a lecture, DiCaprio is instead a humble pupil, quizzing the world’s foremost experts about the impacts of climate change and the strategies we could use to mitigate them.
Of course, because he’s a movie star, DiCaprio has better access than your average Everyman. His interviews extend beyond academics, scientists, activists and innovators to include President Obama, the Pope, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who appointed DiCaprio to be a UN Messenger of Peace and invited him to address the 2014 UN Climate Summit.
When he meets with Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain, DiCaprio has to confront the unpleasant reality that our country’s outsized energy consumption is, as, Narain bluntly puts it, “going to put a hole in the planet.”
This pivotal scene captures the inherent contradictions and hypocrisies that activists from affluent countries eternally grapple with. DiCaprio concedes that we have to practice what we preach, agreeing that “we need to change our lifestyle,” before adding that “I would argue that it’s probably not going to happen.”
DiCaprio’s conversation with British astronaut Piers Sellers, who has devoted much of his life to modelling the climate system at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, yields a more optimistic note. Sellers cites severe drought conditions that have worsened faster than previously predicted, but states, “There are ways out of it. If we stopped burning fossil fuels right now, the planet would still keep warming for a little while before cooling off again…I think once people come out of the fog of confusion on this issue and…realistically appreciate it on some level as a threat, and are informed on some level on what the best action is to do to deal with it, they’ll get on and do it, and what seemed almost impossible to deal with becomes possible.”
Sadly, Sellers won’t live long enough to see whether his prediction comes true; as he revealed in a New York Times op-ed earlier this year, he’s in the final stages of pancreatic cancer at age 60.
But wouldn’t it be amazing if his optimism was borne out by a surge in voter turnout on November 8th that lifts us up out of the primordial ooze and knuckle-dragging that have made this election year such a horror?
Before the Flood is not just a welcome glimmer of hope; it’s a roadmap, however narrow the path, to a future in which our children won’t have to ask, “Why did you stand by and do nothing when you had the chance to act?“