As climate change is a hugely complicated and multifaceted issue, it’s difficult to create a comprehensive look into all of its causes and implications. However, “Before the Flood” does an impressive job of showcasing the multiple perspectives surrounding climate change, as well as its real-time impacts and possible solutions. Oscar Award winner, United Nations Ambassador for Peace and slick man about town Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Revenant”) partners with National Geographic to create a terrifying and provocative exposition of climate change.
The documentary begins with a look at the industrial side of climate change, revealing the world’s dependence on fossil fuel industries for global energy systems. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. is revealed as one of the major consumers of energy and subsequent emitters of fossil fuels, providing a much-needed slap in the face to the issue and consequences of American consumerism. The film constantly reinforces the massive scale and harmful effects of the fossil fuel industries. However, it sometimes falls short in explaining exactly how they operate, instead assuming the viewer understands these processes.
One of the major achievements of the film is that it goes beyond attempting to convince the viewer that climate change exists; instead, it presents the indisputable science and moves on from any discussion of its validity. The film does address the many biases in politics and the media, with clips of Republican politicians and newscasters denying the existence of climate change. The documentary succeeds in revealing a terrifying reality of the number and power of climate change deniers, showing gridlock in a Congress stuffed with ignorant policymakers blocking legislation. The public, in turn, is force-fed the illusion that climate change is a debatable issue.
The brilliance of “Before the Flood” lies in the way it shows how all these perspectives are intertwined. The film uncovers the practice of fossil fuel corporations paying people with scientific or political credentials to deny climate change and lobby Congress to block any climate change legislation. In short, politics is rife with institutional corruption in favor of corporate interest. This influences the media and the public perspective, adding to public ignorance of the very real and immediate problem of climate change.
The documentary also does a nice job widening the lens from American politics to the global environmental and social effects of climate change. With gorgeous footage from all over the globe, Leonardo DiCaprio explores the melting of the polar ice caps, the flooding of agricultural lands in India and the devastation of the pacific islands. Testimony from real people in real places works to put this issue into a digestible context, reinforcing the fact that climate change is affecting landscapes and people in real time. Furthermore, the film brilliantly captures one bitter paradox, that those who contribute to climate change the least are the ones most effected. This crushing reality is necessary to understand but leaves the upper middle class American viewer feeling powerless.
The film rounds out with an exploration of solutions. Almost gratuitously, President Barack Obama slides in with his characteristically presidential optimism, reinforcing the hope that educating the masses will elicit change. Economists and other officials discuss a carbon tax to incentivize clean energy use, while reinforcing following the example of world leaders in renewable energy. Even the Pope endorses climate change and calls for global systematic restructuring.
Despite these possible solutions, Leo remains heavily cynical; the film ends with the bone-chilling driving point that the U.S. and the world has the capacity to reverse climate change, but lacks the political will. The documentary’s main failing lies in its final confusing placing of responsibility – is it the people’s job to change policy through careful consumerism or careful voting? Does it go higher, with the need for nations to implement clean energy systems? Is it both, or something else? The effect of this confusion is an overall documentary that is captivating, thought-provoking and inspiring – but ultimately overwhelming.