Before the Flood is Inconvenient Truth Redux; thankfully stripped of graphs but with the same flawed format: a high profile liberal celebrity leading us on a journey through global apocalypse presented by experts. It is not unwelcome – every attempt to break the collective silence and engage people must be respected. However, at this critical juncture in US politics, it manifestly fails to challenge political polarisation or reach beyond a familiar liberal green constituency.

Amongst the strengths is, of course, the A-list star appeal of Leo himself, which greatly increases the potential range of this documentary. It was his presence that persuaded my two teenage children to sit through it with me, even though his teen-idol years are long behind him and he appears to be morphing into Orson Welles. Full credit must also be given to National Geographic for making this documentary freeview, achieving a phenomenal 8 million viewers to date.

So the film is at its best when Leonardo is being Leonardo, the actor rather than Leonardo, the global diplomat. It comes alive when we see him on set in The Revenant, explaining how the film had to relocate to the southern hemisphere because of freakishly warm weather in Canada. Leo also provides a nice personal touch for the frame story, explaining that a print of the Garden of Earthly Delights, the disturbing triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, was on his childhood bedroom wall. He then uses this as a metaphor for our own decline from earthly paradise to self-imposed inferno.

Keen to explain this odd decor and establish his counterculture credentials, Leo tells us that his father was a publisher of 1960s underground comics. It’s a shame that these aggressively anti-establishment comics did not make a deeper impression on Leo for his view of the world is now unapologetically elitist. In the film we follow the back of Leo’s head bobbing around the world meeting top politicians, top scientists, top industrialists, top environmentalists – the vast majority of them men – kissing the Pope’s ring or dropping by the United Nations to address the General Assembly. The tone of this documentary entirely ignores the global zeitgeist of popular cynicism about political leaders and institutions.

Leo is so busy talking to presidents that he never finds the time to talk to anybody ordinary who might have told him this. When he attends the Climate March in New York, he could have dived into the crowd so we could hear the views of the protestors. But no; all we see is Leo, in centre screen as usual, lined up behind the banner for a tracking shot.

To be fair, Leo comes over as being generally likeable, and it would be churlish to deny that he is one of the good guys, using his fame to draw attention to an issue that many would have us ignore. When he mentioned climate change in his 2016 Oscar speech, he was powerful and impressive. There is no question in my mind about his complete commitment to the issue.

But if you want to champion climate change, it is not enough to be sincere and pleasant. The psychology of trust is complex and demands consistency and authenticity in both word and deed. Climate change is a uniquely complex moral issue because we all contribute to it directly and measurably through our own behaviour. Leo is offhand about the impacts of his own celebrity lifestyle and his $250 million fortune. As he drives down the freeway from Los Angeles airport Leo muses amicably, “My footprint is probably a lot bigger than most people”.

Probably? It is guaranteed to be many hundreds of times bigger that the vast majority of people in the world. Leo’s actual emissions are not the point – they can only ever be a tiny contribution to a global problem – but they do seriously undermine his credibility when telling us that we all need to take urgent action. And they are an absolute gift to the professional deniers and right-wing cynics from Russ Limbaugh and Fox News to our own Daily Mail in the UK that seek to undermine the climate science and gleefully document his every private jet trip as proof of the hypocrisy of self-righteous eco-celebrities.

This politicised divide has poisoned policy making in the US. No issue, not even gun control or abortion, is more politically divisive in the US than climate change and any mass market communication must try to speak across the political divides. At the very least, it must try to engage the third of Republican voters (including a fifth of self declared “conservative” Republicans) who said in recent polls that they are “worried” or very “worried” about climate change. This challenge is particularly pertinent for Before the Flood which was released online two weeks before the US Presidential election, with the stated intention of making climate change a key issue in the US election.

Yet the narratives and values are so resolutely liberal that Before the Flood contains next to nothing to engage an open-minded US conservative. The political voices are, without exception, leading Democrats and a single conservative economist, Gregory Mankiw, is presented as a form of aberrant curiosity: “So…you’re a Republican who wants more taxes?” asks Leonardo incredulously.

Mankiw replies with an important insight: that there is nothing un-conservative about transferring tax to something damaging, but that no politician, Obama included, dares run on a carbon tax policy. “If we want to change the President’s view on carbon taxes”, says Makiw, “we have to change the public’s view first”. At Climate Outreach we would entirely agree. We have consistently argued that a broad public consensus is the critical underpinning for strong policy and that the consistent weakness of climate change communication has been its inability to reach beyond the liberal green choir.

Yet Before the Flood shows no greater interest in the concerns of US workers. As in Leo’s previous foray into documentary, The 11th Hour, images of environmental destruction are intercut with images of economic development as though the two are equally deplorable. There is no understanding that for most people, roads, factories, meat packing plants and bustling city centres are images of progress, opportunity and employment. Nor is there any counter-narrative that the shift to renewables will bring fulfilling jobs and new opportunities.

The global South is represented as a threat – if it adopts our lifestyle –  or a future wasteland with billions of victims. The film repeats the over simplified and problematic allegation, long challenged by the UK Climate Migration Coalition, that climate change will lead to floods of international climate “refugees” arriving on rich countries’ shores which, with a particularly dishonest touch, are illustrated with footage of recent migrants arriving in Europe.

A single critical voice is provided by the Indian activist, Sunita Narain. It is refreshing to see an outspoken southern woman among the line-up of white men, and even if Sunita does not exactly break with the elite tone of the film – she is on Time’s list of the world hundred most influential people – she speaks with a clarity and freshness that is otherwise lacking.

So could Before the Flood have been different? Most definitely. Even if I put aside my reservations about celebrity communicators and accept Leonardo himself, I can still imagine a documentary that exploits his profile to generate attention whilst speaking much more effectively to a wider audience.

For a start it would have recognised the yearning of our times, across the political spectrum, for authenticity. It should have given the dominant voice to ordinary people with whom viewers might identify. Senior politicians should have been strongly challenged. If he wants to be credible as an authentic trustworthy communicator, Leo should admit to the contradictions embodied in his own privilege and show how he is facing up to his own impacts.

Secondly, it should have presented a much more politically diverse range of voices, given space to openly conservative and working class voices, and promoted climate change as an issue around which people of all backgrounds, faiths, and politics can find common purpose.

Finally, it should have recognised the overwhelming evidence that people are not motivated to change their own attitudes or behaviours by apocalyptic threats, especially when they are placed far away at the poles or in the rainforests. Rather, people require messaging that validates their pride, identity, and sense of place and promotes solutions that can reinforce and strengthen those communal values. This film highlighted the threats of climate change, but nothing in it suggested that action might be entirely worthwhile for creating a better world. It is disappointing, after 20 years of failed communications, that committed and well-resourced communicators like Leonardo DiCaprio are still making the same basic mistakes and failing to preach beyond the choir.

For more on our climate communication work, see our new book, “Talking Climate: From Research to Practice in Public Engagement”.  

Photo credit: Damian Michaels

One response to “Blog: Can Leonardo’s Before the Flood help make climate change an issue people care about?

  1. I saw a this story in the newsletter of TheIECA.org (International Environmental Communication Association).

    Read with interest. Many good points made.
    One objection: There is nothing ‘dishonest’ about images of recent refugees to Europe as representatives of ‘climate refugees’. The crisis in Syria and Iraq, in the West Ukraine, the North and East African crises all have extreme weather as one of the push factors.

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