Leonardo DiCaprio: Holding Up The Sky

DiCaprio won Best Actor at the 88th Academy Awards for his role in a most unusual and challenging film, and his acceptance speech was passionate, sincere, and alarming.

By Judith Stapleton

Filming the wintertime story The Revenant in natural light entirely outdoors in the geography of Western Canada was an endurance test of epic proportions. The availability of snow should have been the least of their problems. He was speaking about the Northern Hemisphere, after all, known the world over for its very cold and snowy winters.

But there wasn’t enough snow in the Northern locations to finish the film. So the whole kit and kaboodle had to go to Argentina to find enough of this crucial element of the story.

For DiCaprio, the roots of The Revenant and his environmental work all began when he met then-Vice President Al Gore in 1998. DiCaprio had grown up with an interest in extinct species—not just their ancient evolutionary varieties of Trilobites and T. Rex, but their recent Miocene history, and the destructive impact human hunting had in wiping out the fat, flightless moa, for example, the great auk, and the plains buffalo.

“If we do not change our course, we could soon be on an irreversible path towards severe climate instability, resource scarcity and environmental degradation, resulting in a planet no longer capable of sustaining life as we currently know it.”

Most of us vividly recall the vice president ’s off-the-chart graph of increasing earth temperatures, time-sequenced photographs of the disappearing snow on Mount Kilimanjaro and the shrinking polar ice sheets. He told the actor, “You want to be involved in environmental issues? This is the most important thing facing all of humanity and the future.” That same year, DiCaprio established his foundation (LDF), with a mission to protect the world’s last wild places and inspire the public to take action on key environmental issues.

At first, his active personal participation was just making appearances at Earth Day events and the occasional conference. Then, in 2007, there was the narration of his climate change film The 11th Hour.

But in the past decade, DiCaprio’s focus on the environment has gone from passion to obsession. In his recent interview with Rolling Stone, he said, ”I am consumed by this. There isn’t a couple of hours a day where I’m not thinking about it. It’s this slow burn. It’s not ‘aliens invading our planet next week and we have to get up and fight to defend our country,’ but it’s this inevitable thing, and it’s so terrifying.” The urgency evident in his Academy acceptance speech is on every page of the Foundation website: If we do not change our course, we could soon be on an irreversible path towards severe climate instability, resource scarcity and environmental degradation, resulting in a planet no longer capable of sustaining life as we currently know it.

The climate events of the last 12 months underscore his urgency as the earth enters a new era of extreme weather caused by global warming.

The February and March storms that battered the US saw the Sabine River, running into the Gulf of Mexico between Louisiana and Texas, rise 5 feet above its previous record in 1999. NOA has recently confirmed that February has surpassed all temperature records by .2 degrees C. February saw the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Pacific in the Northern Hemisphere, and Cyclone Winston, the strongest storm ever in the Pacific Southern Hemisphere, hit Fiji, killing at least 17 people. A “Thousand Year Event” storm and flooding hit South Carolina last year, destroying homes and infrastructure.

The most authoritative source of scientific data in the US, founded by Abraham Lincoln, the National Academy of Sciences, has just published its report called Tracking the Fingerprint of Climate Change, showing how they can now plot with confidence the trajectory of the impact of climate change on weather events. In other words, these extreme weather conditions have been predicted for many decades as part of the global change in temperatures Al Gore plotted so graphically for us (on the Keeling curve of CO2 accumulation), and that moved DiCaprio to take action. There is no doubt whatsoever that climate warming is caused by human activity, and there is nothing to wait for in making lifestyle changes.

Air temperatures over the Arctic are about 5 degrees above 2003-2015 levels, and warmer air holds more moisture. This means that, when conditions are ripe for storms, the atmosphere can potentially hold more water and dump it, in the form of rain or snow, to levels never seen before, like the record event in Washington, DC last year.

Even with record snowfalls in the mountains of California, using the NAS paleo-data stretching back thousands of years, we can see that the extreme drought conditions inland in the breadbasket state are the worst in more than a thousand years. This drought extremity is also the case in the Near and Middle-East, including Syria. The consequences go far beyond an increase in food prices.

After the Paris Agreement was signed, DiCaprio declared, “[This] gives us a shot at saving the planet. There is no time to waste. This marks the end of the fossil-fuel era.”

The vicious cycle of sunlight absorbed into the polar oceans causing the ice to melt far faster than any model predicted means that we are likely to see an ice-free Arctic in less than 20 years—perhaps as soon as the next decade. But the Arctic is not like Las Vegas: what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. A warmer polar ocean changes the Jet Stream that determines the weather in the Northern Hemisphere and directs storms to the West coasts of North America. This may push Pacific storms northward into the Pacific Northwest of Washington, British Columbia and Alaska, further depriving the California agricultural heart-land of rain and snow. Even this year’s El Niño precipitation has not been enough to mitigate the dire drought conditions there.

image courtesy, Jesse Allen NASA Earth Observatory image data, Level 1 and Atmospheres Active Distribution System; Satellite image of partial South Western United States showing Sierra Nevada mountain range, April 2016

Last year’s Paris Agreement recognized the necessity of preventing a 2 degree warming of the planet in order to avoid catastrophic changes in the conditions for life. So far this year, February global temperatures jumped the graph as the warmest February on record by two and a half degrees C. Arctic sea ice was at a satellite-record low for the second month in a row. Seattle, Washington set a new record for rainfall in February, as did Portland, Oregon; but like California, where Oregon’s coast got record rain, its inland geography continues to experience extreme drought conditions, creating an infertile desert.

On Christmas Eve, the ice melted in Toronto and New York City as nighttime temperatures climbed to 15 degrees C (59F) and 17.2 degrees C (63F) respectively, breaking all previous records.

DiCaprio has recently finished shooting his own climate documentary, with the working title Are We Fucked? Perhaps the determined optimism you find in his Foundation Projects has lost some of its pure oxygen. Nowhere on the Foundation site is mention of his recent knock to the head about Animal Agriculture, learned from the 2014 documentary film by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn. The film, Cowspiracy: the Sustainability Secret, and its two young producers were, like all environmentalists that threaten the cattle and dairy industries, not only subject to the FBI’s scrutiny as a terrorist organization (under the Patriot Act), but they lost their financial support as a direct result of the fears such scrutiny engenders. DiCaprio stepped in as Executive Producer, and the documentary was launched. Thus far, the film’s clear evidence that Animal Agriculture is, in fact, the number one cause of global warming and habitat destruction, has not put these documentarians in court. DiCaprio’s support likely saved the filmmakers and the film. But can he save this planet? Can we?

Al Gore’s graphic and memorable interpretation of the exponential increases in global temperature from CO2 rise was intended to be a wake-up call, and in 2006 his documentary film about it by David Guggenheim, An Inconvenient Truth, won two Academy Awards, for Best Documentary Feature and Best Original Song. This was the most influential exposé on global climate change, ever. It was a rock thrown into the pond of awareness, and the ripples have never stopped. The data don’t lie. We must now see the extreme weather events of the last 12 months as us clinging to the red line running off Gore’s graph.

Is there anything we are doing right?

Well, it turns out Al Gore’s TED Talk in Vancouver, British Columbia in February made the case that there is room for optimism because we have been switching from CO2 and methane-producing non-renewable energy sources to the renewables of sun and wind. And this, he sees, is a trend.

In the US alone, the 2015 new Electric Energy Generating Capacity grid shows 38.2% has come from wind turbines, 32.8% has come from Solar Photo Voltaic panels, 26.7% has come from Natural Gas, 0.07% from oil, 0.01% from coal, and 2.3% has come from Hydro, Biomass, and Geothermal sources. Almost all the US coal plants are retired or slated for closure. And by 2020, new clean energy sources will have outstripped fossil fuel sources by almost 100%, a projection which continues to push fossil resources off the scales by factors of 3, 4, and 5 times by 2030.

photo courtesy, Darron Salzer, National Guard of the United States

After the Paris Climate Talks, China announced it will launch a national carbon market by 2017 and will cap emissions from six industrial sectors, and likely link up with EU standards. Most people left Paris sharing DiCaprio’s sense of hope for change.

Gore is “extremely optimistic that we are gonna win this!” For Mr. Almost President, investment in renewable energy, and divestment of non-renewables is already paying off. As solar panels and wind turbines and other manufactured energy-interface instruments are more refined in design and materials, they become cheaper to mass produce and, just like the earliest big, clunky portable phones, sales go up as refinements make things that used to be geeky into things that everybody wants and can afford.

For Gore, the question about a transition to renewables from fossil-carbon sources of energy is not whether we must do it, or even if we can do it; it is Can We Do It In Time? This is a good question.

But what is left out of Gore’s rallying TED Talk is the momentum of investment in the human activities that keep pushing the line off the graph of global warming. There is no mention of the fracking industry that, on its horizontal drilling quest for Natural Gas hidden below impermeable rock all over the planet, pollutes groundwater, releases toxic methane, and causes earthquakes, small and large. And there is no mention of Animal Agriculture, now shown to be the number one cause of global warming—from the habitat destroyed to accommodate animals (70 Billion of them), to the waste and methane they produce.

photo courtesy, Darron Salzer, National Guard of the United States

On March 29th, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman of New York, Former Vice President Al Gore, and a Coalition of top law enforcement officials from 17 states announced a historic state-based effort to combat climate change by using all of the regulatory and judicial tools at their disposal. The participating states could pursue enforcement issues such as investigations into whether fossil fuel companies misled investors and the public on the impact of climate change on their businesses. In 2015, New York State reached a historic settlement with Peabody Energy—the world’s largest publicly traded coal company—concerning the company’s misleading financial statements and disclosures. New York is also investigating ExxonMobil for similar alleged conduct.

These efforts are against the oil and gas industries specifically, and it will be interesting to see the way these law-makers confront the terms of the Patriot Act (and the TPP) that specifically protect any industry against an attack on its freedom to pursue profits.

But then, in the March 29th announcement, Vice President Al Gore said: “We cannot continue to allow the fossil fuel industry or any industry to treat our atmosphere like an open sewer or mislead the public about the impact they have on the health of our people and the health of our planet…” [emphasis added].

Maybe now DiCaprio will find a less defeatist title for his next documentary. Because, if Al Gore has drawn a new line under the graph, this could, in fact, change everything.

Publisher’s Note: Judith Stapleton is a writer in the fields of science and medicine.