Around the Island

Reversing climate change “Before the Flood”

Actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio (left) on location in the rainforests of Indonesia while filming “Before the Flood.” (Photo courtesy National Geographic Films)
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO Actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio (left) on location in the rainforests of Indonesia while filming “Before the Flood.”

Like many coastal communities, Shelter Island is a place where residents are keenly aware of the waters that surround them. From flooding due to coastal storm events, to salt water intrusion in wells and other fresh water bodies, life by the sea has always been a delicate balancing act on the Island

This weekend when the Hamptons International Film Festival comes to the South Fork, one documentary being screened makes the case that issues related to sea level rise are likely to get worse in coming years as polar ice melts at an accelerated rate and greenhouse gasses continue to build around the world.

That film, National Geographic’s “Before the Flood,” is directed by Fisher Stevens, who rented a home on Shelter Island this past August, and won an Academy Award for his 2009 documentary “The Cove,” about the secret slaughter of dolphins in Japan.

Leonardo DiCaprio (left) on location with a researcher in the Arctic.
Leonardo DiCaprio (left) on location with a researcher in the Arctic. (Photo courtesy National Geographic Films)

“Before the Flood” follows actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio as he travels to five continents and the Arctic to gain a deeper, personal understanding of climate change. In 2014, Mr. DiCaprio was designated a United Nations Messenger of Peace with a special focus on climate change by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The film documents many dramatic changes already occurring around the world and offers actions that can be taken to help reverse the trend.

Mr. Stevens and his film crew traveled with Mr. DiCaprio to document his experiences over the course of two and a half years. They visited places as diverse as Indonesia, where rainforests are being burned in order to create palm oil farms to satisfy demand by American food manufacturers, and Miami, where sunny day flooding is now a regular occurrence.

The film also visits the tiny island nation of Palau in the South Pacific where rising oceans have already forced residents to migrate. In the Arctic, Mr. DiCaprio sees how quickly polar ice is melting when a researcher points out that a 30-foot hose lying on the surface of the ice was embedded straight down through the sheet just five years earlier.

The poster for “Before the Flood.”
The poster for “Before the Flood.” (Photo courtesy National Geographic Films)

When asked what he witnessed in the course of his travels that affected him most in terms of climate change, Mr. Stevens, who spoke with the Reporter by phone on Monday from Washington, D.C. where his film was being screened on the South Lawn of the White House, responded, “Miami was a lot more shocking than I expected. When you see the water coming through the sewers, that’s pretty shocking. Miami Beach has the money to pay to protect itself with pumps and walls, but other communities don’t.

“And when Leo pulls the hose out 30 feet to show the ice melt — you hear stories about the ice melting, but seeing it is really shocking,” he said.

Beyond presenting physical evidence, the film also explores other links to climate change, such as the effect cattle have on green house gases and the corporate connection to climate denial. There are positive moments too, like when Mr. DiCaprio meets with Pope Francis shortly after the release of the Pope’s 2015 encyclical on climate change, and his talk with Tesla founder Elon Musk as he works to improve solar battery capability with a goal of powering the world.

“I’m hoping Leo and I continue this journey. There’s so much footage not in the film, that illustrates these issues even more,” Mr. Stevens said. “It was important to Leo and I that we get the film out before the election. I hope people understand how important the next president is going to be on this issue.”

Because the film has not yet been officially released (“Before the Flood” opens in theaters in limited release on October 21 and will air globally in 172 countries on the National Geographic Channel on October 30), Mr. Stevens isn’t yet sure what effect it will have on the general public.

But he does believe that Mr. DiCaprio’s involvement on the issue has already made a difference.

“Leo is a great messenger for this cause,” he said. “He has a huge audience and a lot of exposure — and that’s why I loved going on this journey with him.”

National Geographic’s “Before the Flood” is playing as part of the Hampton International Film Festival’s new Air, Land & Sea category. The film screens on Saturday, October 8 at noon at Guild Hall (158 Main Street, East Hampton) and again on Sunday, October 9 at noon at the UA Southampton Theatre (43 Hill Street, Southampton). For tickets and details, visit

Fisher Stevens invites people to get involved by visiting where they can fill out a questionnaire and pay their personal carbon tax in the form of a donation to reforest parts of the African, Indonesian or Amazonian rainforests.