Humanity's Impact on the Environment: Before the Flood


Researching the topic 'Before the Flood essay' let's look at what topics the film covers and why they are important. In my opinion, this topic is very relevant and important in our time.

The intention behind the documentary film

Before the Flood is a documentary film published in 2016 that traces Leonardo DiCaprio as he meets with scientists, activists and world leaders, with an intention to spread awareness of the effects of human activity in leading to a variation in Earth’s climate as well as offer and promote solutions to minimise these effects.

The anthropogenic causes of climate change that are mentioned in the film

The film explores the anthropogenic causes of climate change such as the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and livestock farming and how these have and will serve a significant role in contributing to the growing climate crisis. The burning of fossil fuels is the primary driver of global climate change as CO2 and other emissions produced from coal, oil and natural gas account for about 67% of the total greenhouse gases emitted. Furthermore, forests serve a critical role in mitigating climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide that would otherwise cause greenhouse warming. Therefore, deforestation contributes to climate change as it reverses the effect of carbon sequestration and results in the release of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, with it estimated that 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions is a result of cutting down and burning trees. A primary cause of deforestation is agribusiness, in which land is cleared and repurposed for crops such as soy and livestock such as cattle. As a result, livestock farming accounts for approximately 10-15% of total greenhouse gas emissions as produces about 50-60% of global emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, which are the 2 key greenhouse gases after CO2. This has a significant influence on climate as methane in particular, which is emitted by livestock such as cows through a process of enteric fermentation, is estimated to have an effect on global warming that is 28 times higher than CO2. Livestock farming is ultimately driven by the demand for meat by humans, and as populations continue to rise, this demand will subsequently rise as well and result in variations to the Earth’s climate.

Effects of changes to the climate are detailed in the documentary

These changes to the climate may result in detrimental consequences such as changes to weather patterns, which may cause floods, or changes to sea level, which results in the destruction and flooding of infrastructure. Firstly, changes to weather patterns may increase the intensity or frequency of extreme weather events such as floods. This may be caused by an increase in human induced greenhouse gas emissions, in which an intensified greenhouse effect increases global temperatures, and so, leads to more evaporation and rainfall. This, therefore, produces a warmer and wetter climate in which increased rainfall may lead to flooding, as seen in the documentary film, where an onion crop field in India was destroyed due to flooding as it received half the year’s rainfall in just 5 hours. In addition, the documentary also highlights the effect of climate change on increasing sea levels, which again may be caused by an increase in human induced greenhouse gas emissions which produces an intensified greenhouse effect that increases global temperatures, leading to more evaporation and rainfall as well as escalating the rate at which glaciers and ice sheets melt. The effect of rising sea levels is particularly evident in the small island of Palau, in which the documentary reveals how homes and farmlands, which were present 12 years ago, have now been destroyed by flooding, with these small islands being the most susceptible.

Future consequences of climate change that are mentioned in the film

Future consequences of climate change include the threat of increased flooding resulting in the destruction of cities due to rising sea levels, as highlighted in the documentary in which highly susceptible areas such as Florida could be “washed away by rising seas”. This threat of changing sea levels has led to the mayor of Miami Beach, Florida, implementing countermeasures such as electric pumps or raising roads due to the imminent fear of these rising sea levels destroying infrastructure and flooding the city. Despite this, the mayor in the documentary acknowledges that these countermeasures will only be delaying this impending threat for 40-50 years. Furthermore, future consequences of climate change include the effect on coral reef ecosystems, such as coral bleaching caused by warmer water temperatures. This is mentioned in the film in which a “dying coral reef …where almost nothing can be seen swimming around” has resulted due to climate change as oceans absorbing most of the carbon emissions and extra heat created by climate change. This will ultimately result in an undesirable lower global supply of food such as fish, as the documentary claims that “1 billion people depend on fisheries from coral reefs for virtually all their protein”.

Valuation of the key pieces of scientific evidence presented in the movie, supporting the climate change argument

To support the climate change argument, scientific evidence was presented throughout the film, including rapid ice melts in the Arctic Circle and the “hockey stick” graph published by Michael Mann and his colleagues. Firstly, the documentary traces the trip to a Greenland ice sheet, where the burning of fossil fuels and soot from forest fires has darkened the snow, has resulted in a reduced albedo, a measure of the ice’s reflectivity, particularly in recent years. This reduced albedo has led to the ice reflecting less and absorbing more heat from the sun, in turn, contributing to the current melting of the ice sheets in lower Greenland, in which it was identified to have melted around a height of 9 metres over the past 5 years; hundreds of cubic kilometres of ice. Thus, this supports the climate change debate by serving as integral evidence of the obvious effect of climate change that can be observed in the melting of ice sheets in Greenland, in which the documentary suggests that if the climate is to remain at this temperature, Greenland will vanish. Furthermore, the film explores the “hockey stick” graph; a graph published in 1998 that shows the average global temperature over the past 1,000 years through quantitative climate reconstructions based on climate proxy records. This again serves as critical evidence of climate change as little variation in the average global temperature in the first 900 years can observed, however in the past 100 years (20th century) a sharp increase is seen which reflects rapid warming and is argued to be result of anthropogenic causes.

Comparison and evaluation of solutions outlined in the documentary that may minimise any human contribution to global warming

The documentary offers solutions as to how we can minimise any human contribution to global warming such as encouraging us to change what we consume as well as promote the implementation of “Gigafactories”. As the supply of goods is ultimately derived by our demand for these goods, the film suggests that by changing our consumption behaviour and rejecting goods such as those with palm oil, will help minimise humanity’s contribution to climate change. This is due to these goods such as palm oil being produced in palm oil plantations which were created through deforestation using methods of either burning or cutting trees, thus reversing the effect of carbon sequestration in trees and instead releasing greenhouse gases that warm the planet. Sustaining this idea of altering what we consume, the documentary also insists that we reduce our consumption of beef and instead either shift to an alternative such as chicken. This is as a result of beef production being the primary cause of deforestation as well as accounting for about 10-15% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., with cows releasing powerful gases such as methane in which every molecule has the same impact as 23 molecules of carbon dioxide. By switching to alternative such as chicken, only 20% of the land and 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions when compared to that of beef production will be required, which reduces around 80% of what we emit. On the other hand, the film also explains how we can eliminate our reliance on coal and transition to a sustainable energy through Gigafactories, which aim to reduce the cost of batteries so that is affordable, as they are critical to this transition by allowing the storage of energy. This shift on a global level to sustainable energy attained from the sun is claimed to only require 100 of these Gigafactories, in which Elon Musk in the documentary suggests this is possible if big industrial companies agree to collectively participate and contribute to this transition. However, this transition would be accelerated with government intervention, but their unwillingness to impose a carbon tax, which is tax on any activity that releases carbon into the atmosphere, is partly due to some politicians that deny climate change is occurring. Therefore, we can minimise any human contribution to climate change by changing our consumption behaviour, such as shifting diets, which serves as a solution is that is currently viable and effortless to implement when compared to the construction of Gigafactories, if we acknowledge the consequences of our consumption decisions on the future of the planet.

Action plan for reducing the contribution to the greenhouse effect

As mentioned previously, we as consumers have the ability to influence what is produced through our consumption decisions in our daily lives. Therefore, our decision to reject certain goods that are produced in a manner that contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, such as palm oil which is mentioned in the documentary, will serve as a signal for industries to manufacture less of the good, which in turn will result in a reduction in deforestation and overall greenhouse gas emissions that are a by-product of deforestation. In addition, we can alter our diet and transition away from food such as beef, which is an inefficient use of resources, towards alternatives such as chicken or shift to a plant-based diet. By transitioning away from beef, which is responsible for about 10-15% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S, towards chicken that is only 20% of the land and 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions of beef production, or vegetables such as potatoes which uses 50 times less land, we can contribute to reducing the greenhouse effect.

Evaluation of how well Before the Flood fulfils its intention

Ultimately, Before the Flood to a great extent fulfilled its intention of spreading awareness of the role of humans in contributing to climate change, by highlighting how major causes of global warming such as deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels are essentially driven by humans as our consumption decisions and our disregard that climate change is occurring has already resulted and will further lead to warming of the Earth. Before the Flood, therefore, invites us to consider the solutions presented, in which if we collectively acknowledge and undertake in our daily lives, such as altering what we consume, we can minimise humanity’s contribution to climate change. 

10 October 2022
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