An Essay on Climate Change
Leonardo DiCaprio, a renowned climate change advocate, recently signed a deal with Netflix to bring documentaries with a philanthropic or environmental focus to a more mainstream audience. He was mostly recently executive producer on the Oscar-nominated Virunga, a gut-wrenching film that explores the exploitation of Virunga National Park’s resources, and the devastating effect on its species and wildlife – most notably, mountain gorillas.
DiCaprio issued a statement explaining his motives:
“Working with Netflix on Virunga has sparked a shared vision about projects that we want to develop and bring to viewers. There’s never been a more critical time for our planet or more of a need for gifted storytellers to help us all make sense of the issues we face. Through this partnership with Netflix, I hope to give documentary filmmakers doing urgent and important work the chance to have their films seen immediately by audiences all around the world.”
This is an exciting development.
The idealist in me feels an overwhelming joy and a completely misplaced sense of relief that there is a demand and a market for these sorts of films and that Netflix – arguably the biggest player in the online distribution game at the moment – are putting their money behind this cause.
However, it also worries me. Like a deep, sickening, in my core kind of worry. It scares me that this feel monumental. That Leonardo DiCaprio, a guy at the peak of his powers, is struggling to get money for his own climate change movie to be made (slated to star Tom Hardy and Tobey Maguire). And that our sense of a changing tide is rooted in the movies; in ‘entertainment’ and passivity. Don’t get me wrong – I completely think that films have the power to alter opinions and act as a profound platform to shine a light on the urgent causes and stories of our time. And yet there’s something askew in encouraging people to sit down and watch a documentary rather than stand up and lobby, or protest, or march down to their local MP and say ‘get your shit together’.
Because if we’re being honest with ourselves (rather than patting Hollywood’s back and saying ‘good job’, we’ll get on board with your new, green vision), we should’ve been done and dusted with this ‘raising awareness’ agenda some decades ago.
Personally I think our self-congratulatory attitude towards awareness is one of the main reasons for our relative inaction. I say this not to diminish the importance of people’s acceptance and acknowledgment that global warming is happening, but because it also serves to stall environmentally – friendly efforts. I would proffer we are languishing in a state of awareness, too content to read sobering and necessary journalism on the issue, but ultimately to turn the page at the end of it. We’re quite willing to swallow the bitter pill, and shakes our heads or rub our chins in reaction to the terrible news that ‘global warming is coming’ and in fact well on its way to inflicting irrevocable damage to our environment, but then doing little else to effectively reverse or halt these changes.
4 year olds at primary schools should be taught about melting polar ice-caps and the damaging impact of fracking. Adolescents should be keenly aware of the inadequacies of our leaders in protecting the environment, and by extension, us. It should be ingrained into early adult minds that they are inherently, inevitably unable to make good on the promises that get to them power. We should be wiping our hands of awareness by now. We should be knee-deep in overhauling economic policies, infrastructures and excessive materialism.
Perhaps the issue is optimism. We’re too damn sure of ourselves for our own goods.
We’ve watched one too many superhero movies and assume that a muscly, vegan vigilante is around the corner to reverse all those greenhouse gases we’ve been diligently pumping into the atmosphere.
For anyone around in the Noughties we all remember Dennis Quaid in disaster blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow (2004) saving the world’s behind when the icicles started to appear. Despite the relatively prescient depiction of an abrupt and catastrophic climate change engendering the worst ice age the world has seen for centuries, ravaging New York, among other cities with hailstones, tidal waves, and tornadoes, ultimately crisis is averted. The world is defrosted and the air clearer than ever before. We seemingly can’t help but put a positive spin on the most catastrophic issue the world has ever faced. Leaders want to suggest that the crisis is solvable and balance will be restored, and that they are going to be the ones to do it.
Yes, Obama, understanding has advanced and there’s a deepening sense of urgency. But where is this head-on tackle? Where is this adaptation and repair that you speak of? Obama stands there as “the leader of the world’s largest economy and it’s second largest emitter, to say that [they’ve] begun to do something about it”. BEGUN? BEGUN?! Why on earth are these efforts only just beginning and why is this deemed to be a good thing? Leaders of the world need to climb out of their own asses, step off their podiums and get a move on. Stop tip-toeing around the issue of climate change because it doesn’t engage voters or seem popular enough, and most of all, stop preaching that the wheels are in motion. They need to be going a lot faster than that.
Another irksome trait of our most prevalent leaders is to employ the term ‘weathering the storm’ or some other such rhetoric that suggests this is something that we will endure. Despite its implications of chaos, upset and turbulence, this phrasing invokes a sense of triumph and eventual calm. Furthermore, weather denotes cyclicality and therefore a sense of inevitability, absconding anyone from blame. This is something that has happened over time, we are frequently told. Moreover, it suggests an endpoint to the crisis; if the tide comes in, it will eventually go back out. By employing this terminology, and frequently calling eco-warriors and environmentalists ‘doom merchants’ or ‘bad-news bearers’ global leaders and the media avoid words like ‘crisis’, ‘catastrophe’ ‘apocalypse’ and other such descriptions that suggest defeatism and negativity. This system of representation turns weakness to strength.
But we’re not strong. We’re very much at breaking point. Our knees are buckling under the power of these rising temperatures and dwindling resources, and it’s foolish to keeping perpetuating the belief that ‘something will be done’. It’s not urgent or clarified enough. The cycle of denial needs to break.
There’s also an issue with a sensationalised approach towards climate change. Some journalists believe that reporting on natural or freak disasters, whose likelihood increases with the exacerbation of global warming, is an effective way of galvanising change. However I would contend that climate change’s association with disaster is precisely where our proactive efforts begin to stall.
Disaster denotes the sensational, the spectacular and indeed the tragic, something we inevitably distance ourselves from. Disasters happen to people in movies and foreign countries, not to ‘us’ and it therefore becomes a scapegoat or an external threat that the government and the public are extricated from rather than implicated in. It is the people that are polluting the planet, and the climate crisis is one generated by internal issues, by our attitudes to accumulation, consumption and waste. Nevertheless, by reporting climate change through the lens of an external shock and a rhetoric of disaster, our participation and complicity in the situation is erased.
Indeed, in a poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion (http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2012/06/the-register-reports-climate-poll-inaccurately/_) discovered that 27% of the British population still believe natural causes and processes have generated global warming.
Storms, tornadoes, tsunamis and hurricanes are associated with these natural processes or freak incidents, which we are little able to control. Climate change should not be reported as something that we endure and wait to pass. Our responsibility for it must be emphasised.
The actions we take now will determine our future trajectory, and currently that seems to be one of decline. Which is exactly why climate change reporting needs to remain consistent and urgent, and why leaders need to listen to activists and scientists, rather than brush the issue under the carpet in exchange for sexier platforms.
This weekend The Guardian is “embarking on a major series of articles on the climate crisis and how humanity can solve it”. Hopefully, this will spark sustained and effective media coverage of the issue, an increase in citizen action, NGO activity, national policymaker initiatives, and international agreement. It is perhaps somewhat idealistic to think that one newspaper can bring about or catalyse the untangling of such a mess. Let’s face it, we are in deep, deep shit and reading one article with your morning coffee doesn’t feel like the battle-cry that’s required. However I would urge you to read the article nonetheless…
Whether or not you buy The Guardian, identify with Left or Right politics or consider yourself to care about the environment, you should look at this article and the rest of the climate series in this week’s and next week’s papers.
This is our future we’re squandering and it terrifies me that climate change isn’t higher up on the political and social agenda, and that despite protestations, rallies and today’s climate march, I, along with the majority of the population probably won’t do much to change our consumer habits.
There are a lot of fantastic movements and endeavours to improve our society – the Women of the World festival this weekend being one of them. But unless we get behind the climate crisis, it seems fruitless to engage with other campaigns. Unless we do something to change, there probably won’t be genders to equalise, civilians to protect or governments to vote for.
It’s a surreal reality that we have to face. The idea of oceans swallowing up the world, or temperatures melting the very ground we walk on often feels like a fiction that we can’t relate to. But I’m genuinely getting my panic on thinking that this is the future we might be handing to our children. If we collectively panic, and transform that panic into crisis and that sense of crisis into galvanising action, maybe we’ll have reason to pat ourselves on the back after all.