As a visiting fellow affiliated with the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, I had a chance to watch Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary film Before the Flood a few days before its official premiere worldwide. I am not a Leo fan, but I have to admit his celebrity appeal helps tremendously to raise public awareness of problems resulting from climate change. Even in Taiwan, an island nation that is not targeted in Leo’s film, the showing of Before the Flood has been highly publicized in both the traditional media and emerging social media. A quick search of traditional Taiwanese news websites generates nearly 70 related articles and commentaries on the film from the past week. Most news coverage focused on introducing the film and addressing Leo’s dedication as a climate change advocate. Some mentioned Leo’s film helping Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the US presidency. A few commentaries elaborated on the carbon tax and the changing landscape of Taiwanese agriculture due to climate. Most news coverage in the Taiwanese mainstream media still treated the film and the related issues as something pertaining to foreign lands, even though they took a positive tone toward addressing climate change.
A more diverse discussion can be found in social media posts and comments. There are positive appraisals of the film for providing a global view of the climate change consequences. A few more discussions center on the “misconducts” of the fossil fuel industry, especially in the developed countries such as the US. Many people revealed that they were impressed by the scene of an Indian female scientist who confronted Leo in challenging the US CO2 emissions. As there is an increasing public demand for the petrochemical industry in Taiwan to curb emissions of harmful chemical and gas residue, a link has also been made between the film and actions that should be more actively pursued in Taiwan. On a personal level, some have vowed to change their diets after viewing the film, particularly consuming less beef consumption to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Unavoidably, cynicisms of Before the Flood were found on social media, mostly regarding the irony of Leo flying a private jet all over the world to advocate for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and about the United States urging the rest of the world to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, while remaining a very high emitter.
So, there are pros and cons of Before the Flood in Taiwan. I think Leo’s film has generally created far more impact than Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. First, of course, it’s Leonardo DiCaprio, the Hollywood super star, who helps get high-profile promotion of the film – especially among public who may not have paid too much attention to climate change. Furthermore, DiCaprio spoke layperson language and asked layperson questions. This could narrow the knowledge gap between the expert scientists and the novice public. However, the film is not perfect. To be realistic and pragmatic, we should give up the illusion that the media, or just a documentary film, can change public perceptions directly and immediately. Nevertheless, the way that Before the Flood coincided with the eve of COP 22 in Marrakech, Morocco is worthwhile. It’s the discussions of climate change that matter the most. Thus, we should encourage more public figures and celebrities to stand up and speak up for climate change, now and in the future.