OPINION: What Leo DiCaprio’s Climate Change Documentary Means for Cape Codders

Leonardo DiCaprio, once depicted in the film Titanic as the ill-fated Jack who froze to death after his ship sank, has released a documentary in cooperation with National Geographic.

At one point in the film, Before the Flood, DiCaprio asks U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon what message he thinks is most important.

And Ki-Moon, who is from South Korea, responds: “Climate change is coming much, much faster.”

Ki-Moon comes from a nation which has more in common with Cape Cod than you’d think: many of its communities are coastal and therefore inextricably tied to rising sea levels.

The Cape, like all coastal places in the world, will change and is changing now as a result of higher temperatures worldwide. But as the famous actor expressed in his movie, “try to have a conversation with anyone about climate change, and they just tune you out.”

It Begins with Ignorance

DiCarprio describes a particular quirk of his childhood visits to museums. He would marvel at the extinct creatures he’d see portrayed in images: critters like the Dodo, Carrier Pigeon, and Great Auk.

That last one, the Auk, was a type of penguin, and it used to be found in the tidal pools of Southwestern Cape Cod.

That’s right: Cape Cod used to have penguins. At least, until European fishermen came and hunted them to extinction.

Any student of U.S. history knows that settlers nearly destroyed the American Buffalo, too. There were only a handful left before any concerted efforts to bring it back from the brink were made.

Humans have throughout history exploited large sections of land and the native peoples residing in those areas. We’ve tenderly revised our history to look more kindly on our past. Just take the Thanksgiving Myth as an example.

Most schoolchildren who are educated on Cape Cod or throughout the nation are led to believe that the pilgrims were saved by the natives, who helped them grow food, and as a result decided it was best to share a table with them in an even we call the first Thanksgiving.

But after the Pilgrims grew their first successful crop, they celebrated loudly, shooting off muskets and parading through their colony. The ruckus drew the attention of a nearby native Wampanoag chief, who brought some of his men with him to examine the goings on.

Even though the Pilgrims did indeed extend an invitation that day, the neighborly treatment did not last long, nor was it preceded in kind. The settlers steadily took over native land, breaking treaties and converting the willing (and many of the unwilling) to their own European religion, telling themselves the whole way that these actions were justified by divine right.

A similar effect has occurred with our collective understanding of the things which cause global warming. Cars, planes, factories, livestock farms… Everything which consumes or creates fossil fuels is so tied-in with everyday life that it seems impossible for us to cut down on it in any reasonable way.

Scientists in Before the Flood claim that, by 2040, you’ll literally be able to sail through the North Pole. It cannot be argued that ice is staying still up there: any cursory glance at ice cap images from 50 years ago and today shows clear evidence of large-scale melting.

The Arctic, as one scientist put it, is “the air conditioning of the northern hemisphere.” If it melts away, ocean-spanning currents can change, weather patterns become more unpredictable, and floods will be more catastrophic.

Communities like Miami Beach, Florida have already seen this effect local lifestyle. “Sunny day flooding” has prompted the city to take a $400 million project which installed large pumps to keep sea level-related flooding in check. Could Cape Cod one day be forced to do the same, and would the money be available? Not if the Cape’s leaders deny climate change’s existence, like the Governor of Florida.

No amount of financial planning alone can solve the issue. All plans need to also focus on broad, preventative measures.

Preventative Measures

Despite the overwhelming complexity of the problem, climate change can be lessened by individual responsibility.

China has surpassed the United States in fossil fuel consumption, but Americans still cannot claim that their actions are of any less consequence. According to figures in Leo’s documentary, one American’s consumption of electricity is equal to 2.2 citizens’ consumption in Japan, 10 citizens of China, and 61 of Nigeria. It’s because the U.S. is building bigger and using more than these nations, but also because the issue of consumption is not at the center of our often hectic consumer lifestyles.

We need to place more individual value on resource management and conservation, since saving resources saves money and the planet at once.

But we also need to hold corporations responsible for these goals. On Cape Cod, some companies are taking the initiative. Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Sandwich has vowed to drastically reduce its energy consumption in the coming years, and has even opted to install solar arrays in their parking lot.

Approximately 1 billion people in the world depend on fishing from coral reefs as their main source of people; yet 50 percent of corals have been lost due to human-influenced causes in the last 30 years. While Cape Cod doesn’t have any coral, it does have a particularly valuable marine economy, one which has been overfished and over-polluted by nutrients such as nitrogen.

Consumers, no matter their place of residence, should be aware of the power of their dollar. Some of the largest household packaged food brands utilize palm oil, an industry which is currently decimating the rainforests in South America and Indonesia. By avoiding products with palm oil, Americans are saying “no” to further exploitation of the environment.

Shoppers can also cut down on their consumption of meat. Cattle raising inherently involves concentrated releases of methane gas, coming from cow burps, into the atmosphere. But one molecule of the greenhouse gas methane is proportional to 23 molecules of carbon, in terms of its effect on the atmosphere.

The Costs

Yes, it seems all too easy for a multimillionaire actor to use his influence, spreading a “liberal agenda” throughout the land.

Regardless of how you label his efforts, though, sea levels are rising throughout the world, average temperatures are heating up steadily, and there will most certainly be consequences to utter inaction; both on Cape Cod and everywhere else.

The romantic vision of preserving the earth’s magnificent ice caps and biodiversity is reason enough to act, but there is a much more practical side of the issue.

According to the film, by 2060, climate change will cost taxpayers an estimated $44 TRILLION as a result of such complications as water scarcity, heatwaves, flooding, and other disasters.

We’ve seen those three effects on Cape Cod in force this year, so the question to ask ourselves moving forward is: how can we afford not to act?

By CapeCod.com Staff


  1. Cow Burps?

  2. http://Sandy%20Keese says

    Truthful, spot on article of what this planet is facing. Choose your political candidates carefully. Do what you can do reduce your own carbon footprint. The FEMA flood Plain maps indicate rapped rise over the past 30 years as the ocean rises, salinity decreases with the influx of fresh water melt. We are in this together & denial will not remedy this problem

Speak Your Mind


737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
Contact Us | Advertise Terms of Use 
Employment and EEO | Privacy