Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Before the Flood

First of all, I love that this Leo DiCaprio film, directed by Fisher Stevens, was free to watch everywhere on the National Geographic Channel for a while. But if you missed it, here's the gist of it below.

Without ads, it's 90 minutes, jampacked with information. The pacing is good, and that's key. I can't help comparing it to Josh Fox's film, because there are marked similarities - both feature one man, a passionate novice in the field, talking a little too much about himself as he flies around the world narrating his learning experience through listening to a variety of experts - many of the same experts even - as he aims to get some kind of a hopeful conclusion. But Leo's film works so much better. It helps that he has funds and connections - where Fox had footage from drones, DiCaprio had footage from space - and that he's a much better orator and has an incredible cinematography crew (and it doesn't hurt that Trent Reznor did the music), but what Stevens and DiCaprio got from the interviews and what they did with the material, the basic trajectory of the film, is what nails it as the superior vehicle to inspire positive change. In 2000, DiCaprio interviewed President Clinton on Earth Day, and they talked about the need for citizens to use better lightbulbs. He recognizes we're getting nowhere with that kind of rhetoric, and he does a good job at getting at the big picture quickly.

DiCaprio frames the film with a discussion of Hieronymus Bosch's famous triptych: The Garden of Earthly Delights, which is timely as Bosch died 500 years ago this year and you can take a really interesting, brief online tour of the work. The painting hung over DiCaprio's crib as a child. My parents were wary about giving me a book of his work when I was about ten. It's pretty disturbing for a little one, depicting our deal with God, our fall from grace, and the hell that awaits us for all our sins.

He also starts and ends the film at the United Nations as he took on the role of the UN Messenger of Peace with a focus on climate change back in 2014 when Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remarked, "If this boat is sinking, then we will all have to sink together." And then he gets moving. Here's a very brief summary of pertinent remarks made with each place or person interviewed:

Michael Brune of the Sierra Club explained how the economy is based on fossil fuels: oil for transportation and coal and gas for electricity. We're going to more extreme sources now with mountaintop removal, fracking, offshore drilling, and the tar sands - the most devastating way to produce fossil fuels that poisons miles of rives and land and requires the clear-cutting of the boreal forests. On a copter flying over the sands, DiCaprio said "It looks like Mordor," which is exactly what Maude Barlow said about it. He started shooting The Revenant in Alberta, but they had to move to Argentina because there wasn't enough snow in the winter in Canada.

Dr. Enric Sala of the National Geographic and Jake Awa, their arctic guide, looked at the sea ice and watched the narwhals passing by. The arctic is the air conditioner for the northern hemisphere, and by 2040, we'll be able to sail over the North Pole, unencumbered by icebergs and all that snow.

Professor Jason E. Box, a climatologist, thinks our projections are conservative and Greenland will be gone in a few decades if we stay on our current path. He showed DiCaprio how a climate station works and that it just looks like broken down pool equipment.

Mayor Philip Levine suggested we bring all the unconverted to Miami so they can see first hand the "sunny day flooding" they get randomly. It's taken $400 million of taxpayer money for a pump project to keep the city out of water, and that will just buy them 40 years of time before they'll have to leave. Yet officials in Florida are banned from discussing climate change thanks to the work of Rick Scott and Marco Rubio.

Michael Mann, an American climatologist, says we have as strong a scientific agreement on climate change as we do on gravity. There's opposition because of politics, lobbying, and industry creating a massive disinformation campaign. Scientists are vilified and attacked by congressmen. Mann has received death threats, an FBI investigation, and threats to his family. The lobbyists don't have to win a legitimate debate; they just have to divide the public enough for them to stay their course.

Front groups funded by the Koch brothers ensure all legislation supports fossil fuel interests. They're doing everything they can to protect that wealth. They own the house of representatives, with James Inhofe, the snowball dude and the largest recipient of Koch funding in the Senate, receiving $1,837,427. These people are engaged in an effort to lead us astray in the name of short term fossil fuel profits. These companies have invested all their money in one basket, and they're not going to let anything happen to it. And they control the government through cash flow. Check out this 30 minute documentary if you want more info on the Koch Brothers' War on Climate Science.

Ma Jun, at the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, explained that China has surpassed the US as number one polluter because the pollution of the world's industry is all dumped there since we've outsourced all our factory work. They want to hold power plants accountable, and have made a cool national pollution map database that makes all emissions public, transparent, and updated hourly. They won't let companies operate in the dark. But this was only possible because China's media talked about it constantly. It motivated China's policy of green growth.

Sunita Narain, at the Centre for Science and Environment, explained that the biggest problem in India is poverty, so energy access is as big an issue as GHGs. There are 300 million people without any form of power generation; they burn cow dung to cook on. Finance Secretary Ashok Lavasa, said that they need electricity to be affordable and coal is cheap. But if they all start using it, then the entire world will be fried. One US citizen uses as much energy as 34 Indian citizens, and lifestyle consumption has to be at the centre of the discussion. Sunita explained that if the US will shift to solar and wind, if they lead the way in turning their back on the fossil fuel industry, then everyone will follow. But DiCaprio lamented that it's just not going to happen. It's a fossil addicted country. So then India won't do it either. Here's the thing: if a wealthy country can't find a way to stop using harmful energy sources, then the poor countries look at that and don't see why they should bother. The sacrifice is so much greater for the poorer countries, but the rich countries aren't going to bend on this. So we're screwed. The rich can withstand the first hits of climate change, but the poor are already impacted today. Only the poor really see that it's real and it's urgent.

Anote Tong, President of Kiribati, regularly deals with severe flooding into fresh water ponds so there's no drinking water on the island. Soon they'll be underwater. They're trying a policy of migration with dignity: they bought land and are offering to relocate people away from the coast by choice. But the reality is that they won't be able to accommodate all their people. Tommy Remengesau, President of Palau, showed an area that was a community just a decade ago, but is completely gone. Small island nations contribute the least to climate change and feel the worst impacts.

Jeremy Jackson, PhD, an American marine ecologist, says that what we've done to the rest of the world is criminal. We're reversed half a billion years of evolution by destroying ocean areas that once were dominated by abundance. They went underwater to look at areas with dead coral reef. In the last 30 years, 50% of all coral has been lost. Oceans are a stabilizing force, but they can't take in CO2 as quickly as we're producing it. Lindsey Allen of the Rainforest Action Network says we're taking away ecosystems that normally help us stabilize climate by clearcutting and slash and burning rainforests. Farwiza Farhan, HAkA Chairperson, flew over the fires in Sumatra, Indonesia. They were intentionally set in order to make way for rows and rows of palm oil tress. It's the last place in the world with elephants, tigers, rhinos, and orangutans living together, but palm oil has taken over 90% of the forest land. Ian Singleton, PhD, runs a sanctuary to try to save them. The animals he doesn't save, die.  (Leo and Fisher almost died filming the fires.)

So, we can't seem to stop people from buying these products, and we can't seem to get the government to stop the companies from destroying the land. What else can we do?

How stupid are we that we can't see the connection between our constant consumption of these products and the destruction of the environment, or, at the very least, the destruction of animal habitat directly leading to significant extinctions?? Buy what you need, not everything you want, and stay low on the production chain.


Professor Gidon Eshel, PhD in environmental physics at Bard College, says the easiest and most important thing we can do is to change our diet. Tonight. The foremost reason for deforestation is beef, which is an inefficient form of food. 70% of agricultural land in the US is for cattle feed. And cows produce methane, CH4, which is 20 times worse as a GHG than CO2. It's great if you can go vegan, but it helps even to change from beef to chicken. And that's something we can all do immediately.

Elon Musk, CEO of Spacex, a Tesla Gigafactory, has made battery storage a priority. He built a Giga factory that can create power with just solar and wind. We just need 100 gigafactories to power the entire world. It's very manageable. We just need a few industrial companies to do the same thing and we'll get there very quickly.

Gregory Mankiw, Professor of Economics at Harvard, says we need a hefty carbon tax on any activity that puts carbon in the atmosphere to nudge people in the direction of doing the right thing.

BUT, my concern with this argument is that when cigarettes are taxed, people don't stop buying them. They need to get cancer to stop smoking, not a price hike. They need to see the direct consequences of their behaviour before they'll change. A gradual rise in price doesn't affect us enough. Maybe if it's a huge increase very quickly we'll actually change. We need a carbon tax that will affect industry enough to change their practices, not citizens.

Then he went on to explain the flow of power. When Obama first started he wouldn't support gay marriage because it polled terribly. But once the people got on board, he supported it. Politicians aren't elected leaders; they're elected followers. They'll say whatever the public will support. So we just need to get the public to really understand how this all works!

John Kerry, Secretary of State, says the Paris negotiations are different because Obama was able to announce his intentions to reduce with Beijing. The two largest emitters made a public declaration to reduce, which is a huge statement. The concern in the interim is that people are being displaced and there will be wars over water, and any extremist philosophy will appeal to a desperate people.

Johan Rockstrom, Stockholm Resilience Centre, says we're moving quickly towards 4° warming in this century, and we haven't been at those temperatures in 4 million years. We're moving faster than predicted and seeing impacts already. At 3° warming, regions will become unlivable and agriculture will collapse. We're hitting feedback loops where the melted ice leaves behind dark earth that absorbs more of the sun's rays. We have a really small window for world leaders to fix it. It can be done, though. Germany is at 30% renewable power, and Denmark is using 100% wind. Once we invest in it, then we have free energy forever.

BUT, I think this is the whole stopper for investors. It doesn't make financial sense to invest in something people will just need to buy once. If we can't get out of our current growth economic mindset, then we'll never survive.

Barack Obama says the Paris summit is a massive step forward, but there's no enforcement and we just have to take it on faith that each country will hit its own targets. It's historic because each country is locked into targets, so the architecture is in place. But we have to have increasingly ambitious targets for the next twenty years.

BUT - the next twenty years?!? That's way too gradual a change! We really don't have twenty years to get to the targets that we should be imposing today. Will Hilary have big enough balls to do what's necessary? Could anyone stand up the the money infiltrating congress through corporations? Which leaders will actually, for real, fight climate change when it means cutting their own funds?

Dr. Piers Sellers, an astronaut and director at the Earth Sciences Division, NASA, with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, says the science community hasn't done the best job of communicating the threat to the public. It's like an ant trying to understand an elephant by crawling around it. From space we can see everything and how it all works together. There are satellites looking at every aspect of earth every day. Their climate simulation tool shows the biggest impact will be the slowing of the gulf stream which will stop the transportation of heat to Europe, so it will get much colder there, and the moving of the precipitation belt, so there will be more drought in hot areas. This is going to fuel conflict in Darfur and Syria. It will make the US dustbowl much drier in the next decades.

The facts are crystal clear, but there are ways out of it. We have to stop burning fossil fuels right now. We need the people to come out of the fog of confusion with the issues, realistically appreciate the threat, and get on with it. 

Pope Francis says this is our home; it is going to ruin. Our common home has fallen into serious disrepair. Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems. Still we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point. He made a call for action to stop global warming and poverty, to accept the modern science of climate change. We must speak out as loudly as we can and immediately take action. 

Leo DiCaprio's address to the United Nations: We have the means to stop the devastation, but lack the will. We must go beyond the promises of the agreement with no more excuses and studies and manipulation by fossil fuel companies. The world is watching. We'll either be laudified or vilified. It's up to all of us.

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