I used to think on a meta-level that the language used to describe the current and future state of the environment by people like Naomi Klein was alarmist in a detrimental way: that there was a real and serious problem, but apocalyptic forecasting made it easier to dismiss the issue and its proponents. But then I had a moment where my unconscious acknowledgment of rising sea levels – you know what I’m talking about; if you aren’t a climate scientist, you just take some of these things for granted, but probably couldn’t cite every argument yourself – where my unconscious acknowledgment of rising sea levels aligned with words and images that made this impending problem real to me.
Before the Flood (2016, directed by Fisher Stevens) is a film that “document[s] the devastating impacts of climate change” across the Earth and follows actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s activist efforts to rally the world’s leaders against climate change (he meets with former President Barack Obama, current Pope Francis, and futurist Elon Musk). Parts of the documentary follow DiCaprio during the filming of The Revenant, which on-screen is as much about natural landscapes as it is about its protagonist, and during the week before Election Day (debut: National Geographic, October 21st), Before the Flood was free to watch on YouTube.
Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1490-1510
The refrain of Before the Flood is Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Sweeping shots of the extraction of fossil fuels closely resemble the second, middle painting’s debauchery. The triptych dialectic: before, during, and after; primitive society, Industrial revolution, extinction; garden, playground, hellscape; nature, humans, destruction. DiCaprio’s reading of the artwork is less sexual than most interpretations, more focused on excess, but the idea of deflowering the Earth is perfectly consistent here. Our planet, nearing its unhinged third panel, will become “a paradise that has been degraded and destroyed.”
The scenes are grim. Our dependence on coal, oil, and natural gas has lead to mountains removed and the ground beneath them hollowed out; water on fire; and the strip-logging of entire forests.
In the words of Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel, DiCaprio is an “actor with zero years of scientific training.” It follows from this cheap throwaway point then, that…climate change is not real? This myopic and toxic one-liner-type response is frequently invoked in an attempt to disparage the aim of environmental stewardship. DiCaprio’s style of activism, too, is subject to illogical criticism: r/documentaries threads about Before the Flood include plenty of “but he flew around in a private jet to film this” as if a single “gotcha!” undoes complicity in contributing to climate change or halts the flow of time (CTRL-F “jet” in either of these links for more examples).
DiCaprio addresses exactly this objection to supposed hypocrisy early in the documentary: early 2000s rhetoric focused on “small, individual actions” and “simple solutions, like changing your light bulb”. As u/HubrisSnifferBot tells us, this was born of An Inconvenient Truth:
Al Gore and others have pushed the idea that we should meet climate change with … personal decisions (AKA “green consumerism”). So immediately everyone is going to measure the filmmaker’s carbon footprint instead of evaluating this on content. This was exactly what some people predicted would happen when you focus climate change action on consumers rather than producers. [For more on green consumerism, see Slavoj Žižek’s “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce”]
The problem with this line of reasoning, though, is that lasting environmental change that does not come at the expense of every species of flora and fauna on Earth will have to be led by governments and then corporations in response to regulations. An opposing utilitarian argument in response (and that actually takes the survival of the human species as a worthy goal) is that if the people reached by DiCaprio’s film take some action upon seeing it, and consequently our environmental situation is made better, the gas guzzled by his transportation was justified.
The major focus of Before the Flood is water and how our relationship to it will change in the near future: oil spilled as an example of carelessness, thirty feet of vertical ice melt in Greenland in the last five years, and more frequent floods while droughts elsewhere become more severe. In twenty-five years, an Arctic scientist tells us, there will no longer be ice at the North Pole during the summer. (Watch this video of tons and acres of glacier calving to get a sense of the scale of the problem with which we are dealing.)
Water, then, which brings us to the section of Before the Flood that for me marked the synthesis of pressing visual evidence and conscious concern. Twenty minutes in, DiCaprio is sitting down with the mayor of Miami Beach, Philip Levine. To clips of cars splashing through water, he describes the phenomenon of “sunny day flooding”: water regularly floods downtown streets, “backflowing into our streets through our drains.”
The eppur si muove of sea levels rising.
In response to the water, Miami Beach has started building pumps to evacuate the water and has built up streets a few feet higher. But these electric water pumps and roads-above-high-tide don’t scrub the atmosphere of greenhouse gases or cool the planet’s surface. The resources at Levine’s disposal mean that he is only capable of “buying time,” as Leo points out the obvious, with these temporary solutions.
Floridian politicians upstream refuse to acknowledge or respond to the fact that their state will be underwater soon: Governor Rick Scott ordered some employees not to use the phrases “global warming” and “climate change” and Senator Marco Rubio is quoted in the documentary during an interview saying “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes the way scientists are portraying.”
Qualifying dramatic changes as not anthropogenic is a compromised position for conservatives in America. Commenting about how the Trump administration’s White House website features no mention of climate change, u/blarghable and others analyzed this erosion:
Previously: Climate change doesn’t exist
Currently: Climate change exists but it isn’t man-made
A forecast: Climate change exists and it is man-made but only the free market can solve it
As this stance ebbs, the tides flow.
Tides go in, tides get pumped out, you can’t explain that.
Part of the problem in caring about climate change is that some of us don’t grow up around nature, and so don’t grow to appreciate it; others don’t live in areas that are currently affected – or in the places that will be affected most severely first (though more than 1 in 3 people live near the coast). But the biggest issue in this regard is the framing of the concept by politicians and in the press. Hacker News user wahern pins down the source of American “skepticism”:
At the core of earnest arguments behind climate change denialism are legitimate studies and critiques of not only climate science, but of modern modeling and statistical analysis techniques. A core underlying meme would be “lies, damn[ed] lies, and statistics[.”] And [a] more technical one would be “overfitting[.”] Those critiques are necessary and valid and healthy, but only in the realm of professional discourse. As they leaked out[,] they lost all context and contingency and infused our culture with an unhealthy distrust and skepticism of the legitimacy of scientific claims and techniques.
Nowhere but in American government and media is the factuality of global warming so hotly contested. Partly this is due to the 24-hour-news-cycle’s soundbite tactic of pitting two commentators against each other as equals, as extensively investigated in Outfoxed (another explanatory factor is religiosity). If a number about scientific consensus alone doesn’t do it for you, John Oliver physically represented the 97 percent of scientists who agree about man-made climate change during a segment.
“Well, I just don’t think all the science is in yet…”
Evidence: sea level rise, global temperature rise, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, declining Arctic sea ice, glacial retreat, extreme events, ocean acidification, and decreased snow cover Effects: climate change will continue, temperatures will increase, frost-free season will increase, changes in precipitation patterns, more droughts and heat waves, hurricanes will become stronger and more intense, sea level will rise 1-4 feet by the end of the century, and the Arctic is likely to become ice-free [in this way the film’s optimistic website title — “The science is clear, the future is not” — is misleading]
(Though I should add that the proper response to denialism is not “science,” which smacks of superiority, but instead the science itself.)
The generation jeopardized most by climate change is the youngest one. Self-interest – unabashed and economic or unconscious and structural – explains inaction by those in the government and corporations, literally if not figuratively: if you’re nearing the end of your physical time on this world, why worry about who will inherit it? Millennials, then, are in a unique position, having been made aware of the effects of climate change throughout their upbringing and now old enough to take action.
Data bears out that this responsibility is taken more seriously by millennials as well: a 2015 survey by Pew found that the 18-29-years old cohort in the U.S. expresses the most agreement about both global warming and what is causing it (77% and 60%, respectively), and more of them also favor “curbing power plant emissions” (dishearteningly, from 2009 to 2014, attributing climate change to manmade causes rose only 1%, while overall “belief” dropped from 85% to 73%, meaning more adults now think that “there is no solid evidence”). Support for offshore drilling and fracking are also down among this generation. Should these positive trends continue, increasing awareness of the environment may translate into changing our behavior towards it. Concern for the climate will likely be an opportune and essential part of millennial politics
It seems unlikely at the moment that President Trump’s administration will do anything about climate change. Trump himself apparently maintains an “open mind” about climate change, doesn’t believe that anyone can ever “really know,” which is most likely not an argument about epistemology.
After Trump ordered the EPA to remove climate change pages from its website, committed scientists hurriedly worked at other ways to preserve data about global warming, a process that is still ongoing.
Cabinet choices for relevant positions are no better. EPA Director nominee Scott Pruitt “intend[s] to run th[e] agency in a way that fosters … freedom for American business” (read: to ignore their obligation to be environmentally responsible) and an anti-regulation administration could see the EPA become a front for the oil and gas industry. Recently appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may or may not know how schools function, but she will have as a peer Jerry Falwell Jr. — if paleolithic ideology is in any way heritable, then it’s not a certainty that children in public schools will be taught anything at all about climate change in the next few years.
Meme writer Brian Feldman on ecological preservation in the Internet age.
To appeal to authority, Ban Ki-moon, formerly Secretary-General of the United Nations, is featured in Before the Flood, telling DiCaprio “climate change is coming much, much faster.” Similarly, while in office, President Clinton lamented the fact that climate change “seems abstract now.” But this is no longer the case: our landscapes will become a “nightmarish science fiction film” without action: “the difference now is we’re knowingly doing this.”
The Miami Beach mayor remarked that “the ocean is not Republican and it’s not Democrat.” Before the flood, we are all the working class, our interests (the world’s interests) and the interests of future humans being ignored by the government and by corporations.
With a working knowledge of the causes and effects of manmade climate change, and with assurance that inaction will surely lead to catastrophe, it is imperative that we commit to activism “not [necessarily] as … expert[s], but as … concerned [global] citizen[s].”
Header image is a still from Before the Flood edited by some millennials.