Leonardo DiCaprio with President Obama in the documentary film Before the Flood, directed by Fisher Stevens, executive directed by Martin Scorsese.
Leonardo DiCaprio with President Obama in the documentary film Before the Flood, directed by Fisher Stevens, executive directed by Martin Scorsese. Credit: Courtesy / © 2016 RatPac Documentary Films, LLC and Greenhour Corporation, Inc.

Academy Award winners Leonardo DiCaprio and Fisher Stevens embarked on a two-year journey in 2014 to explore and explain the catastrophic effects of climate change on Earth.

The documentary film Before the Flood follows producer and actor DiCaprio as he watches Greenland melt, small islands and coastal cities slowly consumed by the rising ocean, and Malaysian Borneo rainforests burn to make way for palm oil crops. In the film, DiCaprio interviews scientists, President Barack Obama, the Pope, and other world leaders.

They generally come to the same conclusion: If we don’t alter our consumption and emission paths, the Earth will no longer be able to sustain life as we know it.

Sure, there will be some bugs and sea slime, as one scientist pointed out, but almost everything else will suffer.

This part of the film reminded me of the late comedian George Carlin’s take on the matter: “The planet isn’t going anywhere. We are.”

Having DiCaprio produce and star in the film may seem like a publicity stunt, pulling on society’s infatuation with celebrity and drama. And, well, it is. DiCaprio brings yet another household name and fame to the conversation – it’s an awareness tactic. But his involvement doesn’t come out of left field: he was named as an United Nations Messenger of Peace in 2014 for his dedication to environmental activism.

His acceptance of this position, and coming film, comes with questions of DiCaprio’s own far larger-than-average carbon footprint and a rainforest charity has recently called for him to step down because of alleged financial ties to investors involved in a Malaysian embezzlement scandal.

Those issues aside, Before the Flood might be one of the scariest movies you’ll watch in 2016, that is, if you believe the vast majority of climate scientists. It’s safe to say that most of the San Antonians that packed the theater at Alamo Drafthouse Park North Friday night during a private screening of the film, are not climate change deniers.

The screening was hosted by local organizers with Environmental Defense Fund and Moms Clean Air Force and featured a localized panel that echoed one that took place earlier this month during the president’s South By South Lawn arts and ideas festival at the White House.

DiCaprio, President Barack Obama, and atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe had a candid discussion about the threat of climate change on the lawn just before the White House premiere of the documentary which airs globally in 171 countries and 45 languages on National Geographic Channel on Oct. 30.

“This is not something we can just mosey along about and put up with climate denial or obstructionist politics for very long if we want to leave for the next generation beautiful days like today,” Obama said.

(From left) Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe, and the City's Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick participate in a panel discussion on climate change after a private screening of Before the Flood.
(From left) Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe, and the City’s Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick participate in a panel discussion on climate change after a private screening of Before the Flood. Credit: Gavin Rogers for the San Antonio Report

At the Drafthouse, Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) and the City’s Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick joined Hayhoe for a similar discussion about urgency and policy after the documentary screening.

One of the first questions Nirenberg posed was about the effectiveness of the film’s overall message.

“(Before the Flood does a good job of explaining that) you don’t have to be a certain type of person to care about climate change,” said Hayhoe, who runs the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and is an evangelical Christian and author. Parents, environmentalists, health advocates, economists, liberals, and, yes, conservatives – the problems climate change presents are interconnected across human life and activity, she said, but so are the solutions.

One of the biggest challenges climate change documentaries and scientists face is that the problem seems unsurmountable to most people, Melnick said. He liked the film, but noted that “doom and gloom doesn’t poll well with the public.”

That’s why offering “practical, viable, and inspirational” solutions is critical, Hayhoe said.

Remember when Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out a decade ago? That was scary, too, and there are few new concepts presented by DiCaprio and Stevens that hasn’t already been exposed. It does, however, give an update on data with breathtaking visuals captured from around the world: vibrant coral reefs are reduced to slimy, grey boneyards; fires forcing orangutans to flee or burn; 300 million people in India without electricity; methane emissions (cow farts) that make a good case for becoming a vegetarian or at the very least reducing your beef consumption.

But it’s been scary for a while. The film notes that scientists have been studying climate change, then called global warming, for decades. What is “new,” is that climate change is happening even faster than scientists originally anticipated, Hayhoe said.

Along with the “gloom and doom” conclusion of Before the Flood however, comes a modifier of hope. After pointing to the unsustainable, dangerous, even unethical, rate of our exploitation of natural resources, Obama, the Pope, and even the NASA scientist with likely-terminal cancer see the ability of humanity to turn the tide. So did the panelists in San Antonio on Friday night.

“Hope does not come from the science,” Hayhoe said. “It comes from people. … The number one thing we can do is to start a conversation.”

But that conversation needs to evolve into action. Fast. And some of the most proactive steps are being taken by cities, not by the federal goverment, she added.

San Antonio’s Sustainability Plan, one of three prongs of the SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan recently approved by City Council, does not include a Climate Action Plan. Such plans, which typically adopt a goal for the reduction of greenhouse gasses, have been adopted by cities of every size, including Austin.

San Antonio’s plan, Melnick said, will be developed over the next year or so through Council and community input, but depends on the approval of Council.

A now-disbanded Comprehensive Planning Committee tasked with overseeing the SA Tomorrow plan decided that the City should tackle such a climate plan outside of the comprehensive plan. While not focused on climate change, the Sustainability Summit on Tuesday, Nov. 1, will tackle strategies and goals outlined in SA Tomorrow.

“We’re on the right path,” Melnick said. “But City staff can’t do anything until it gets a resolution (or request) from council.”

Nirenberg said he would 100% support the right plan if it came up for a Council vote.

“I hope that there are conversations about the climate components (during the Sustainability Summit),” Nirenberg said. “If there aren’t, we’ll still be pushing it at Council.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org