Ritwika Sengupta

The latest climate change related documentary ‘Before the Flood’ by Leonardo DiCaprio in partnership with National Geographic is now available to watch on YouTube. DiCaprio has been an environmental and animal rights activist for over a decade. He uses electric cars (because he can afford to) and has championed a plant based and allegedly more sustainable lifestyle. However, he has also stirred up controversy by his use of private jets and planes, which some argue shows a flawed environmental activist. So is it worth watching this new documentary?

Having just watched it, I can honestly say it was one of the only documentaries that has ever left me tearful about the future of our planet (in a good and a bad way). DiCaprio is by no means an unbiased narrator. He has flaws and his coverage of the issue of climate change is not completely thorough. Nevertheless, the documentary manages to cover a range of issues related to climate change and interviews a wide variety of people from all over the world. This showcases the vast array of different perspectives on climate change so acutely missing from mainstream media. For instance, what climate change means to you and me, sitting in Oxford in a relatively privileged lifestyle, is not what climate change means to someone farming or fishing for a living in rural Bangladesh.

Before the Flood’ is in some ways just another documentary by a high profile celebrity about the future of our planet in the throes of climate change. But it does a much better job of hitting home some hard facts about our fossil fuel controlled politics and our intense consumerism. Refreshingly, it also displays the massive inequality within the climate change debate. Hypocrisy from developed countries in the west, like the USA, one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels, which expects less developed countries to start off using solar while continuing their own energy intensive lifestyles.

What is really great about this documentary is that it does not shy away from looking at lifestyles and food consumption and the greenhouse gas emissions linked to it. The lifestyles we lead in developed countries are based on excessive consumption. The fifth IPCC report concluded that the agriculture and forestry sector produced 24% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions (Figure 1). This is over 10% greater than that of the transport sector, which traditionally has been cited as the main way for individuals to lead a greener life.

Figure 1: Global Greenhouse gas emissions by sector, IPCC report 2014, based on data from 2010

Within the agricultural sector, the beef and dairy industry is particularly water and energy intensive. A paper by Pierrehumbert and Eshel1 analysed the climatic impacts of different types of beef production during a 1000 year period. They found that ‘feedlot’ systems, which rely on synthetic fertilizers and heavy inputs in terms of feed, had a much higher impact than pastured or grass fed beef. However, one of their important conclusions was that barring unforeseen technological advances, even the best pasture system is bad enough to warrant limits on future growth of the beef industry. Importantly, they also found that the current rates of North American beef consumption were incompatible with the 2oC warming target.

The European Environment Agency also published an article in 2015 summarising their thoughts on agriculture’s future in a changing climate. They note that agriculture is only about 10% of EU greenhouse gas emissions, but globally the emissions from agriculture are rising by about 14%. As global food demand is expected to rise by 70% in the next decade, the greenhouse gas emissions can be expected to rise with them. They recommend reducing consumption of food products with a high carbon footprint, reducing waste, and bettering agricultural processes as essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

Figure 2: Summary of findings, European Environment Agency2

Changing your lifestyle or diet is never easy. Even if all animal products can’t be cut out, generally any reduction or change (for instance, swapping beef or cheese to chicken, which uses less land, water and energy) helps. Ultimately, a sustainable agricultural industry needs a change in both the production and consumer side. This means finding more energy efficient, less intensive ways to produce food and also for consumers to move towards food products which have a lower carbon footprint. The changing climate is predicted to make dry areas much drier in the next decade. This is likely to affect agriculture and put a significant amount of human population under strain, increasing poverty, malnutrition and diseases. Our current agriculture practices are not set up to deal with these kind of food security crises.

Perhaps the most important thing to take away from ‘Before the Flood’ and the data presented in various papers and articles is that our lifestyles need to change. Excess consumption in a world with an exponentially growing population is not sustainable. This not only includes moderation when it comes to food products but also applies to our drive for all things energy intensive, such as bigger, inefficient houses, faster cars and fancier gadgets. Everything we own, eat and wear has a carbon footprint, an ecological footprint, and therefore a consequence for our planet. It has to be noted that not everyone can afford to make changes to their lifestyles, for instance people on lower incomes may not be able to switch to more sustainable brands which are more expensive than mainstream brands. However, for those who are able to make a change, this documentary encourages them to think seriously about taking that step. It is one step closer to changing consumer demands to make sustainable produce the norm.

All that’s left for me to say is, watch it! It isn’t perfect but it’s a start. Hopefully, it will get people to engage with the predictions for the future, politics, and the consequences of what they consume and where it comes from. Ultimately it isn’t necessarily about saving our planet. This planet has seen CO2 levels and temperatures much higher than present, and whatever we do, it will recover in the long run. But it will never recover in time to sustain us and other species if we continue on the current trajectory.

Feel free to answer the questions below and let us know what you thought about the documentary!


Before the Flood Documentary – National Geographic www.youtube.com/watch?v=90CkXVF-Q8M

1. Pierrehumbert, R. T. & Eshel, G. Climate impact of beef: an analysis considering multiple time scales and production methods without use of global warming potentials. Environ. Res. Lett. Environ. Res. Lett 10, 85002–85002 (2015).  http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/10/8/085002/meta

2. European Environment Agency – Agriculture And Climate Change.  Eea.europa.eu. N.p., 2016. Web. 8 Nov. 2016. www.eea.europa.eu/signals/signals-2015/articles/agriculture-and-climate-change

Useful websites
World Resources Institute: www.wri.org/blog/2014/05/everything-you-need-know-about-agricultural-emissions