There is much to commend this film – not least Leonardo DiCaprio’s natural propensity to see through unsubstantiated optimism along with his evident appreciation of the science of climate change and the beauty & fragility of our time on this planet. Ok, he’s an actor with an elaborate film crew – but nevertheless something genuine and important shines through. He deserves credit for what he has been part of – and that is not something I find easy to say. Celebrities, including DiCaprio, both epitomise and fuel our greed for evermore consumption. They are the metaphorical Jones family next door with the bigger car, larger house, private jet and obscene carbon footprint – the pinnacle of the increasingly ubiquitous American dream. And in my judgement it is here that the film is weakest – and to an extent disingenuous.
The solutions touched on are far too seductive and make no reference to the carbon budget concept that translates the Paris Agreement’s temperature commitments into the scale and timeframe for reducing emissions. Carbon budgets are simple to understand, but their repercussions are profound, evidently too profound for this film.
So instead we have Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard economics professor, and technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, asserting the only way forward is though a carbon tax gently “nudging” us towards a technical utopia. Just one hundred of Musk’s “gigafactories” will see the world’s energy supply magically transformed away from fossil fuels. Certainly, if a significant upstream price is put on carbon, investors will begin to shift away from fossil-fuel energy. Moreover, the Musks of this world indeed have a role to play. But they are not our silver-bullet saviours – they’re one part of complex and dynamic puzzle.
Only Sunita Narain, from Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment is prepared to point to the elephant in the room, the carbon-profligate lifestyle to which DiCaprio, the Koch Brothers, climate elites and professors have grown all too accustomed. Combine this with Johan Rockström’s fear that we are making the transition to a sustainable future all “too slowly” and the plot for a follow-up film begins to emerge.
Certainly huge strides towards low carbon energy could be achieved now with existing energy supply and demand technologies. The research, development and deployment of promising new technologies, including Musk’s solar-battery future, could be accelerated. But Paris and carbon budgets frame an urgent problem far beyond the multi-decadal timeframe of deploying sufficient new energy technologies to displace fossil fuels. Deep and early mitigation through reduced fossil-fuel use by high emitters is key to both extending the window for this technology-transition and for leaving sufficient emission space for those in poverty to have near-term access to fossil fuel energy.
Finally, having suspended my antipathy towards individuals with carbon footprints greater than that of many African towns, I was brought rudely back to reality with the film’s closing statement – reiterated on its accompanying website. “The carbon emissions from Before The Flood were offset through a voluntary carbon tax.” Worse still it then extols the virtues of offsetting by encouraging other high emitters to “Learn how you can offset your own carbon emissions by going to [link omitted]”
I really doubt that the Pope, whose Encyclical makes more systems-level sense than the plethora of glossy reports dispensed by green-growth ‘think’ tanks (and who was interviewed for the film), would sanction the ongoing “buying of indulgences”. For that’s what it is. The emissions from first-class flights, grand hotel rooms and travelling film crews are changing the climate now – and will for the next ten thousand years. The deed’s been done – and no amount of conscience-salving finance can assuage the climate impact. Ok, the projects funded may have real and important value – but asking someone else to diet whilst we binge on high-carbon fun is simply fraudulent.
The Paris commitments cannot be delivered through well meant technocratic tweaks – even large ones. Technology and new economic rules are certainly prerequisites for delivering on “well below 2°C” – and DiCaprio does an adequate job of making this case. But they fall far short, in both delivery and scale, of what’s needed to stay within the rapidly dwindling carbon budgets accompanying Paris. Here, DiCaprio’s film serves to reinforce the misguided view that clever scientists, engineers and economists have the solutions to hand – just the evil oil companies are in the way.
Despite my entrenched prejudice against our celebrity culture, I nevertheless recommend DiCaprio’s Before the Flood. If seen in conjunction with Robert Kenner’s wonderful and engaging film of Conway & Oreskes’ superb book, Merchants of Doubt, then a real sense of just what we’re up against emerges. But for a complete picture there needs to be a trilogy, with the final film focusing in on its audience. Unfortunately, as self-portraits are always the most revealing of art forms, this final film will be the most challenging to fund and difficult to produce.