Climate change is a subject that everyone acknowledges. Yet many transfer the vast amounts of information on the subject into the realm of belief and then extrapolate further about the degree to which “climate is changing” or “not changing.” Much of this cant is tailored to the agenda of individuals and their relation to the shadowy worlds of energy creation and consumption. Clever marketers and shills hired by the fossil fuel and energy industries have parsed arguments projecting the complicated information and data into a colander of categories and then sieved them into easily digestible pablum for the public to eat, reinforcing the view that the situation is not dire. Thus, the confused public with confused messages either “believes in” climate change or “doesn’t.”
Fisher Stevens’ monumental film Before The Flood indicates that climate change is not a matter of belief. It is. Indeed, he affirms by the film’s conclusion that the reality of the transforming planet’s climate is occurring more quickly than those with a supporting agenda for reformation would have us accept. This is so perhaps because the planet’s deteriorating condition is so overwhelming, the problem so complex that world leaders are hanging in the balance of shifting viewpoints of two extremes: the hard line climate change deniers and their minions supporting the energy industries who conveniently “don’t believe in climate change,” and those who “believe it is happening” and have become cynical that nothing can be done to reverse what is irrevocable.
Stevens’s Before The Flood cuts through the rhetoric brilliantly and makes his documentary an intensely human one inspiring us to hope. He masterfully engages his audience with pointed and poetic cinematography, and beautifully cogent, clear narrative which he begins with a print of a painting that hung over DiCaprio’s bed when he was a kid. It is the magnificent, acutely symbolic and macabre triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, the Garden of Earthly Delights.
The triptych simplistically may be interpreted to be the earth as a beautiful heavenly place which gradually is overcome by the pernicious nature of man which with nihilism destroys his once beautiful environment and himself. Stevens has DiCaprio reference the print and then the director employs it as the key metaphor which becomes the clarion call and warning to all of us. This call is both devastating and enlightening. And through it we come to an electric revelation of understanding.
Then Stevens accomplishes the impossible; he tells the story of what has been happening on our planet with interviews, commentary, and explanations as gleaned by Leonardo DiCaprio on his quest as United Nations Messenger of Peace on climate change. Seen through the focal point of DiCaprio with whom we identify, we watch DiCaprio trek with Stevens (their journey lasted two and one-half years), to salient points of the planet as a witness to the degradation first hand of melting glaciers in the Arctic, areas of what appears to be perpetual drought, huge swaths of deforested areas in Brazil, and other areas of rainforest, inundations of islands in Indonesia, and much more.
Our senses and minds apprehend the reality of climate change with facts, details, data, maps, visuals, information. The experts, researchers, activists, scientists guide us and DiCaprio so that we understand: the facts cannot be disputed. Nor can they be argued “rationally” into oblivion with a mere notion, “Well, it’s been a cold winter. So much for global warming.”
Stevens reveals the antithetical arguments to climate change and why they exist. For expedience and profit climate change deniers managed, with Fox news propaganda prestidigitation, to turn black into white, to twist up into down and to morph fact into fiction. And they did this despite scientific consensus to the contrary. But then Stevens clarifies that to retool industries, massive innovation and development are required and more importantly, the will to do so. Third world countries emerging into first world status like India are hard pressed to delay their own progress by not “jumping onto the grid” maintained by the energy industries who are making sure to exploit their hunger to do so. The rush to escalate global fracking lures; yet methane, the gas released in the process is even heavier, denser and more problematic than coal and other fossil fuels. Thus, any progress to slow global warming has been delayed by this and other factors, and the lack of political will (though many in government understand how dire the situation is), and public confusion about the issue may be factored into the dilatory response.
The result has been a quicker burn, and modest action after the Paris Climate Summit 2015, which scientists warn did not mandate doing enough to stem the glacial melt, dissipate the acidification of the oceans, ameliorate the dying of coral reefs, end unsustainable practices employed by energy corporations and create an effective reduction of carbon emissions to cool the planet. The scenario scientists, researchers and experts paint has far reaching gloomy consequences that impact every global culture and every land or oceanic system with supporting marine and wildlife which will in turn destroy the planet’s synergy, biodiversity and homeostasis. And what about us and our children? The results may be likened to the ushering in of the four horseman of the apocalypse: pestilence, war, famine, death, represented by the third section of Bosch’s triptych. And did we mention mass migration as coastal cities and coastal land masses flood?
As an expert documentarian Stevens is a superb teacher; we are amazed, entertained, and appalled. Through DiCaprio’s viewpoint, Stevens investigates with an easy cinematic flow, clever editing and divergent camera angles as he moves from supporting topic to explanation to details and facts intermingling ecosystem panoramas and visuals with telling commentary by knowledgeable researchers and scientists. With DiCaprio’s voice over narration and as a witness to devastated landscapes, seascapes, and hurting cultures, we learn what is and then can conclude what might or will be. It is an unsettling view that is damn horrible.
However, we are not pushed to the other extreme of hopelessness after Stevens’ and DiCaprio’s hard lessons because we are also shown what countries are doing which is amazing. China’s retooling for solar and wind power alone with their tremendous scalability is a huge step in the right direction. Other countries are doing the same. Indeed, many other instances of reformation are identified, even to a personal level. We learn that our part, however we may deem it to be small, is huge in the scheme of the planet’s fate. We, too, can make a difference.
Stevens shows DiCaprio meeting world leaders, our president, and the pope and delivering his message at the Paris summit and the UN. We remember that when he began this journey, he was at the extreme end of the continuum, a cynic filled with frustration that “nothing could be done.” With this filmography we and he have realized the situation is indeed dire, but there are things that we can do. There is always hope and we cannot allow hopelessness to dictate our actions or push us to anesthetize ourselves against what we can do. We are a community; we are not isolated. And hopeless inaction is a luxury we cannot afford as global citizens who must take responsibility for what we do and how we leave the planet for our posterity.