If Climate Change is a Disaster Movie, the US is its Titanic

The real hero of Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate change documentary Before the Flood is Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain.

Representative image. Credit: shinobu sugiyama/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Representative image. Credit: shinobu sugiyama/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

One wonders if actor and UN Messenger of Peace on climate change Leonardo DiCaprio was ready for an indictment of his own country when he set out to make a film documenting the extent of damage that climate change had caused across the world.

After flying over tar sands in Canada and walking through the smog-filled streets of Beijing, DiCaprio meets the iconic Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain in New Delhi.

In a defining moment of the film, Before the Flood, Narain, who heads the Centre for Science and Environment, says to DiCaprio, “Your consumption is really going to put a hole in the planet. I think that’s the conversation we need to have,” even as he asks what India can do to limit the emission of greenhouse gases. “What is the US doing which the rest of the world can learn from? You are a fossil-addicted country, but if you are seriously disengaging, that’s something for us to learn from,” she says, putting the onus of action on the US. “Electricity consumed by one American at home is equivalent to 1.5 citizens of France, 2.2 citizens of Japan and 10 citizens of China, 34 of India and 61 of Nigeria,” she says, as the scale of the US’s consumption and its carbon footprint becomes evident.

Outlining the energy problem in India and other developing countries as being as much of an access issue as that of climate change, Narain says, “Coal is cheap, whether you or I like it or not. You have to think of it from this point of view. You created the problem in the past. We will create it in the future.”

When DiCaprio suggests that the problem could be solved when renewables like solar and wind become cheaper as investment increases, she categorically asks, “Who will invest? Let’s be real about this. Who will invest? And how will they invest?” Narain accompanies DiCaprio as he meets onion farmers in Haryana who have lost their produce to a massive flood. “It’s the poor of India, it’s the poor of Africa, the poor of Bangladesh, who are impacted today in what I believe are the first tides of climate change,” she states.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Sunita Narain in a still from <em>Before the Flood</em>. Credit: YouTube

Leonardo DiCaprio and Sunita Narain in a still from Before the Flood. Credit: YouTube

At the end of the scene, DiCaprio’s voice takes over the screen: “There are over a billion people out there without electricity. They want lights. They want heat. They want the lifestyle that we’ve had in the United States for the last hundred years. If we are going to solve this problem, we all have a responsibility to set an example.”

The film offers several suggestions to the citizens of the US to alter their lifestyle in order to prevent the disastrous impact of climate change, including eating less beef – which is “ten times more damaging to the environment than chicken” – and boycotting food products which use palm oil that is destroying the Sumatran forests in Indonesia. To its credit, the film acts as an advocate for a carbon tax and its end credits state that the footprint of its production was “offset” by a voluntary carbon tax payment.

Despite this short list of things that Americans can do to save the planet, there is an evident power tilt to the film: that the problems are outside of the US (the only example of domestic impact that the film chooses to showcase is the floods in Florida) – while the solution and solution-creators are in the US. DiCaprio speaks to US secretary of state John Kerry, Tesla’s Elon Musk, Pier Sellers of NASA and US President Barack Obama – who go into great detail about the impact of climate change, without exactly saying how the policies and businesses of the US can make a difference.

However, the film unequivocally states that people should vote wisely and elect leaders who care and are aware of the urgency of the issue. The timing of the release of the film days before the election – it premiered in theatres in New York and Los Angeles on October 21 and will air globally on the National Geographic Channel on October 30th – says that Americans will be responsible for how the rest of the world will be affected after November 8. Meanwhile, all that the rest of the world can do is wait with bated breath.

Amruta Byatnal is programme coordinator at the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development.