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April 11, 2017

The Climate, it is a-Changing

It’s happening and there’s proof.

Juli Schafer
  • National Geographic
  • National Geographic
  • National Geographic
  • National Geographic
  • National Geographic

"The ocean isn't Republican or Democrat. All it knows how to do is rise."

The National Geographic documentary Before the Flood presents a riveting account of the dramatic changes occurring around the world due to climate change. Directed by Fisher Stevens, the epic documentary follows Leonardo DiCaprio as he travels the world to examine the effects of climate change, and learn about possible ways to prevent the catastrophic damage that could make the Earth unsustainable for human life.

During his journey, he speaks with some of the world's top scientists and influential figures who have the power to do something about climate change, from President Obama to Pope Francis and tech innovator Elon Musk

The beginning of the film shows United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointing the  Academy Award-nominated actor and committed environmental activist a UN Messenger of Peace with a special focus on climate change.

But as he learns first-hand how severe the conditions are becoming, he reveals his pessimism for the future and wonders if he's the right guy for the job, but he embraces his new role as he interviews experts about climate issues, reacting with shock and dismay to the troubling responses.

Before the Flood is an abridged version of what is really happening on earth, presented in a serious effort to educate, inform and empower the public.

For almost three centuries the world's energy has come from fossil fuel sources, primarily coal, oil and natural gas, which are non-renewable. The limited, but ever-increasing use of fossil fuels in industry, transportation, and construction has contributed large amounts of carbon dioxide to the Earth's atmosphere and is a major contributing factor to human-induced global warming.

Throughout the film, scientists give detailed accounts of drastic climate change in both hemispheres. While walking across the semi-frozen Arctic Ocean, Dr. Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence creates a chilling visual. "In 2040 you will be able to sail a boat across the North Pole. There will be no sea ice left in the Arctic Ocean in the summer.

"We are burning so many fossil fuels that the ice is melting. The Arctic Ocean is the air-conditioning for the northern-hemisphere."

In Greenland, we learn that in the last five years, 30 feet of ice have melted off of the lower half of the country. Greenland's melting ice is causing a change in color in its terrain, which no longer reflects the sun but absorbs it, becoming a heat creator instead of reflector.  In 10 years at this pace, Greenland will be gone.

In the US, Florida is facing rising sea levels. Miami Beach is in danger of being washed away. Miami Beach mayor, Philip Levine, tells DiCaprio that we don't have the time to debate climate change. He sees it every day first-hand.  "If you don't believe in (climate change) bring your unconverted to us and we will make sure that they agree there is a major problem." 

Levine explains Sunny Day flooding. "As the sea level rises, the water backs up and spills onto the streets from the drains. If the city is under water, there's no future."

The film shows massive work on a $400 million water-pump system and road-elevation raising project that will buy the city another 40 to 50 years at best. It's all funded by city taxpayer dollars since, explains Levine, he can't get funding from the state and federal levels.

Florida's governor's office has banned the use of the words "climate change." Senator Rubio in an on-camera interview says "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate in the way these scientists are portraying it."

Levine answers DiCaprio's question of why there is so much opposition to climate change. "I think it's politics – lobbying and industry. But the ocean isn't Republican or Democrat. All it knows how to do is rise."

Before the Flood is not afraid to shed light on the giant Fossil Fuel industry, their deep pockets and congress's role in its growth.

While certain politicians rebuke and even joke about the notion of global warming, "There is a robust a consensus about human-caused climate change, as there is for any matter in science, like the theory of gravity," explains Dr. Michael E. Mann, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State University.

"Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree the globe is warming, our climate is changing and it's due to fossil-fuel burning and other human activities. But unfortunately we are fighting this massive disinformation campaign to confuse the public." 

Mann and his co-authors published a study of a long-term cooling trend and then a sudden abrupt warming, after which his life changed dramatically. He was vilified and called a fraud by congressman and the media, even receiving death threats.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is a famous climate denier. He has written a book about global warming, arguing it is a hoax. Dr. Mann goes on. "It might not be surprising to learn that James Inhofe is one of the largest recipients of fossil money in the US Senate."

"We can't get a climate bill passed through our congress because it's controlled by fossil-fuel funded climate change deniers who are blocking any bills that would attempt to deal with this problem."

Other parts of the world are experiencing their own challenges. China has recently surpassed the United States as the world's largest polluter. It is the factory of the world, manufacturing for the majority of western countries.  The Chinese are worried about their health because of the toxicity in the air and the water, but they are taking steps to slow the pollution and hold factories accountable.

It helps that the Chinese media diligently reports factory emissions to the people. "You give people the data, you empower the people," says Ma Jun, Director of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs. This popular support has motivated green growth policies and the prioritizing of renewable energy from solar and wind sources faster than any other country. 

India is battling pollution even though only a third of their population has access to power. If they choose to use their vast amounts of coal resources, the problem will worsen.

DiCaprio goes under fire from a frustrated Indian environmental expert, Sunita Nahrain. "Your (American) consumption is really going to put a hole in the planet. India and China are investing more in solar energy than the US is. What is the US doing that the rest of the world can learn from? If you, as a fossil fuel-addicted country can disengage (from fossil fuel use) then we can also."

Nahrain takes DiCaprio to a destroyed crop site that saw half the year's rainfall in just five hours. "We need countries to believe that climate is real urgent. It's not a figment of their imagination!"

Everyone is looking to the U.S. to be an example across the globe, but money continues to be a deciding factor that's dividing our politicians and impeding change.

US President Barack Obama explains, "A huge portion of the world's population lives near oceans. If they start moving you start seeing scarce resources (become) the subject of competition between populations. This is the reason the Pentagon has said this is a national security issue, not just an environmental issue."

When asked if a new president who doesn't believe in climate change could undo the policies he's already put in place, President Obama says that reality has a way of catching up with you.

Public opinion has been proven to sway political opinion. When citizens petition and protest, legislations changes. 

Before the Flood is a deliberately frightening call to action, but there is hope, if change happens quickly. Germany's population is using almost 30 percent renewable energy. Denmark obtains nearly all of its energy from solar and wind power. Sweden will be the world's first non-fossil-fuel nation.

DiCaprio narrates, "Pope Francis, one of the most respected and important spiritual leaders on the planet, has called upon the world community to accept the modern science of climate change, stating 'Our common home has fallen into serious disrepair.' A Pope has never done anything like this in history."

At the end of the film DiCaprio speaks at the monumental Paris Climate Agreement signing in 2015. The agreement was signed by 195 countries to commit to reduce carbon emissions in an effort to rescue the planet.   

"I have travelled all over the world for the last two years. All that I have seen and learned on my journey has absolutely terrified me. Think about the shame that each of us will carry when our children and grandchildren look back and realize that we have the means of stopping this devastation but lacked the political will to do so."

"More countries have come together here to sign this agreement than for any other cause in this interest of human kind, but this will not be enough. A massive change must happen. No more allowing the fossil fuel companies to manipulate and dictate the science and policies that affect our future. The world is now watching. You will either be lauded by future generations or vilified by them.

"You are the last, best hope on earth or we, and all living things on earth, are history."

DiCaprio reflects, "If this was a movie we could write the ending and figure a way out of this mess. The only thing that we can do is control what we do next, how we live our lives, what we consume, how we get involved and how we use our vote to tell our leaders that we know the truth about climate change."

Because it takes on such a controversial topic with courage and intelligence, the Television Academy is proud to include Before the Flood in the 2017 Academy Honors.

Get more information at National Geographic.

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