The climate-change documentary has come a long way from Al Gore soberly delivering a graph-intensive PowerPoint presentation in An Inconvenient Truth. Now, 10 years later, we get one of our biggest actors, Leonardo DiCaprio, jetting around the world, not only explaining our changing climate, but showing it as well: the melting glaciers in Greenland, the flooded farms in India, the ocean’s disappearing coral reefs, the multimillion-dollar project to raise the roads in Miami. Before the Flood captures all these and more in vivid detail courtesy of Antonio Rossi’s sweeping camerawork.
The rhetoric around climate change has often focused on the future, the potential disasters that will befall us if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t reduced, but DiCaprio, working with director Fisher Stevens, shifts the focus to the here and now. Climate change is happening this very moment, and the world has already been irreversibly altered. This is by no means a new revelation. Back in 2010, environmentalist Bill McKibben dubbed our new planet “Eaarth”—the additional “a” intended to evoke the subtle yet irrevocable ways that climate change has already fundamentally altered the planet. For McKibben, we no longer live on Earth, but on Eaarth, a hotter world, with acidified oceans and modified precipitation patterns, less Arctic ice and more extreme weather events. Even if the burning of fossil fuels stopped tomorrow, the planet would still be irrevocably transformed.
Before the Flood may not use the name Eaarth, but it’s very much about the current realities of our new and different planet and accepting of the imminent changes still to come. For example, DiCaprio interviews Kiribati president Anote Tong about his plan to relocate his country’s entire population because the island nation is literally being swallowed up by the rising ocean. But while certain developments are inevitable, other greater catastrophes can still be avoided, if the world—and particularly the United States—takes quick and decisive action to reduce its use of fossil fuels.
If An Inconvenient Truth was primarily motivated by an impulse to persuade audiences of the reality of climate change through fact and reason, Before the Flood is rightly more jaded, laying out how doubt about climate change is the product of a well-funded campaign of denial perpetrated by people with deep financial interests in the fossil fuel industry. The film is at its best when it emphasizes the political economy of climate change, how deep-pocketed interests have hijacked the American political process to prevent any challenge to what’s an incredibly profitable industry.
But the film doesn’t pull this thread hard enough. By one estimate, the value of unexcavated carbon is about $20 trillion, an unfathomable sum that will never be surrendered without a massive fight. To call for the elimination of fossil fuels is, in many respects, to advocate for a fundamental transformation of global capitalism. Climate change, as Naomi Klein has argued, changes everything, down to the very foundations of industrial society. The film offers a number of potential solutions to the climate catastrophe (a carbon tax, reduced consumption of beef, batteries), but none of them faces up to the incredible amount of capital wrapped up in fossil fuels.
DiCaprio cuts an approachable figure throughout Before the Flood, seeming curious without being credulous and committed without being strident. He plays the part of a wide-eyed audience surrogate, even if the narrative is framed around his appointment as United Nations Messenger of Peace on Climate Change, allows him to travel the globe and interview powerful world leaders like Barack Obama, John Kerry, Ban Ki-moon, and Pope Francis.
Meanwhile, prominent climate activists like McKibben and Klein are nowhere to be found—to say nothing of indigenous groups like the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which is currently protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Instead, DiCaprio turns to elite figures like “green” capitalist Elon Musk and conservative economist Greg Mankiw to get us out of our climate crisis. Well-intentioned as it is, Before the Flood’s focus on elite solutionism effectively erases the role of popular agitation in formulating social change, a point which culminates in the film’s laughably limp call to action, which lists just two acts ordinary citizens can take to fight climate change: changing their consumption habits and voting for the right politicians.
Activist solutions like protests, marches, boycotts, divestment, civil disobedience, agitation, joining an organization, and even relatively anodyne activities like letter-writing all go unmentioned. “It is up to all of us,” the closing credits inform us, but the film that precedes it sends a different message: that only the super elites can save us.