Vice President Al Gore has led an educational effort on climate change for decades. His lecture was captured in the provocative 1996 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Armed with mounting evidence, scientific consensus, and a gentlemanly southern manner, Mr. Gore linked our industrialization and carbon emissions to the dramatic changes in the climate. While this information was not new, he packaged the complex science into a digestible format and walked his global audience step by step from carbon emissions to melting glacial ice to sea level rise. His environmental activism earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
20 years later, a new documentary, Before the Flood, shows that the alarming forecasts of Al Gore and other environmentalists had been conservative. Leonardo DiCaprio, an environmental activist and the United Nation’s Messenger of Peace with a focus on climate change, traveled the planet to document the impacts that humanity has had on in our endless quest for resources. While Al Gore focused on the science, DiCaprio’s approach was more anecdotal, capturing his reactions as the “uniformed everyman” to species extinction, coastal flooding, strip mining and glacial melting.
Despite numerous sustainable development treaties, including the recently ratified Paris Agreement, our dependence on fossil fuels has grown and it is in every part of our consumer economy. After decades of knowing about the problem, we are still discussing it. Part of the problem is that most of us do not see any changes in our day to day experience. We might blame a particularly hot summer or wet winter on climate change, but when things are back to normal we go on with our busy lives. Climate change happens slowly, often over tens of thousands of years; we have accelerated that pace into less than 100. Our damage has pushed us past a tipping point and we are witnessing the impact in floods, droughts, and more powerful storms.
It is up to each one of us to make informed decisions as consumers and citizens to mitigate this damage. We collectively have caused the problem, but we are also the solution.
A critique of both documentaries is that while they spent significant time on the personal lives of the narrators, which may have been to make the stories more accessible, they did not discuss solutions until moments before the ending credits. There are things that we can do as individuals to help.
- Vote out climate change deniers. Adapting to climate change is difficult enough without obstructionists stonewalling progress to debate whether or not climate change is real. It is real. Almost all scientists agree that humans are the primary cause of the rapid change in climate through industrialization and land use changes (deforestation/development). We are causing the 6th global extinction of plants and animals in the history of the planet. Let scientists guide the conversation on what should be done and let politicians find ways to achieve results. Politicians are not experts on climate change. Vote for someone who is willing to learn.
- Car Pool. Use mass transit if it is an option, but if cars are your only alternative, car pool. Find some neighbors who work in the same company or area and form a car pool. Not only will you help the planet by cutting down on GHG emission generated by your car, you will also reduce gas expenses and traffic, and you may also make some friends in the process. What to know your Carbon Footprint? Go to the Environmental Protection Agency to find out.
- Reduce red meat consumption: You do not need to become a vegan—though it wouldn’t hurt—but raising cattle has a huge impact on the environment. Millions of acres of forest are clear cut to raise and feed cattle, who use up more water and grain than humans. Cattle raised for slaughter add 150 billion gallons of methane gas per day; methane gas is one of the most potent greenhouse gases and can stay in the atmosphere for decades. If we all ate less meat, the demand would continue to decline and fewer cows would be raised for food.For more information, watch Cowspiracy.