“Without my (ecological) activities, I wouldn’t be a fulfilled person. Only two per cent of philanthropy goes toward protecting our environment and that’s pretty outrageous, considering it is our life support system.” Leonardo DiCaprio
Lenoardo DiCaprio: “We need to change our thinking and our sense of urgency.”
Leonardo DiCaprio may be one of the world’s top movie stars, but he would rather be defined and respected more for his work as a committed environmentalist. Over the years, he has personally funded as well as helped to raise tens of millions of dollars for a variety of green-related causes. He believes that his greatest legacy will be the progress he has helped make toward safeguarding the planet against the ravages of global warming, pollution, and species protection. Declares DiCaprio: “I’m equally as passionate about the environment as I am as an artist. As a teenager, I was interested in becoming a biologist or working in the environmental sciences.”
DiCaprio is the founder and director of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting ecological and conservation-related projects. In April 2013, he hosted and organized an auction at Christie’s in New York, where he was able to raised nearly $40 million in donations from a variety of celebrities that included Bradley Cooper, Mark Ruffalo, Tobey Maguire, and Salma Hayek.
Says DiCaprio: “Despite the significant efforts of organizations and individuals all over the world, our modern way of life has caused unprecedented devastation to our oceans, our forests, and our wildlife. Each of these natural systems is critical to our way of life: They provide us with the food that we eat, the air that we breathe, and the natural resources we need to survive. The time to protect them is long overdue.”
His massive fame as an actor has allowed him to become arguably the world’s leading celebrity spokesperson on environmental issues. In addition to the important work done by Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, and others, DiCaprio has spearheaded celebrity eco-activism with mounting intensity.
Recently, DiCaprio closed a deal with Netflix – the global internet streaming platform – to produce and distribute a series of environmental movies. The deal comes as an important follow-up to his Oscar-nominated wildlife documentary, Virunga, which deals with the impending extinction of mountain gorillas in Africa, and his previous cautionary eco-documentary, The 11th Hour.
“Working on Virunga has sparked a shared vision about projects that we want to develop and bring to viewers,” DiCaprio says. “There’s never been a more critical time for our planet or more of a need for gifted storytellers to help us all make sense of the issues we face. I hope to give documentary filmmakers doing urgent and important work the chance to have their films seen immediately by audiences all around the world.”
DiCaprio will seek out leading experts in the fields of environmental research as well as leading filmmakers to develop cutting-edge documentaries that will have a major impact on audiences around the world. With the increasing global availability and popularity of Netflix, the production deal also offers an opportunity for DiCaprio to combine his work as a major Hollywood artist with his longtime role as an environmental philanthropist and activist. The 39-year-old actor credits former US vice president-turned-environmentalist Al Gore for sparking his interest in green issues. After meeting Gore at the White House, DiCaprio was stunned to learn how serious the mounting environmental threats to the Earth actually were.
“I’ve been blessed with a lot of fortune and … it was really Al Gore who really got me interested in climate change. He talked to me for a long time about the subject and I was blown away. I’d never even heard anything about this. … But from that moment on, I decide to commit myself to environmental work and make it a major part of who I am and what my life is all about.”
In 2014, DiCaprio and Gore both attended the United Nations summit on climate change held in New York City. It was an unprecedented gathering of 120 world leaders and came amid urgent calls for action to put the planet on course toward reversing global warming. Hosted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the summit was the first high-level gathering since the 2009 Copenhagen conference on climate change, which ended in disarray.
Ban named DiCaprio as “Messenger of Peace” with a special focus on climate change, and the bearded movie star was deeply appreciative. More importantly, the 39-year-old actor gave a powerfully moving speech to the United Nations assembly. One of the key passages of his address was the following:
“Every week, we’re seeing new and undeniable climate events, evidence that accelerated climate change is here now. We know that droughts are intensifying, our oceans are warming and acidifying, with methane plumes rising up from beneath the ocean floor. We are seeing extreme weather events, increased temperatures, and the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melting at unprecedented rates, decades ahead of scientific projections.
“None of this is rhetoric, and none of it is hysteria. It is fact. The scientific community knows it, industry and governments know it, even the United States military knows it. The chief of the US Navy’s Pacific command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, recently said that climate change is our single greatest security threat.
“The time to answer the greatest challenge of our existence on this planet is now. You can make history or be vilified by it.”
These stirring words are testimony to DiCaprio’s belief in the validity and importance of his environmental work. Here he explains how he became involved in environmental activism, what it means to him, and what it should mean to us.
As yet one more sign of his eco-minded thinking, DiCaprio contributed $50,000 toward the making of the documentary film 52: The Search for the Loneliest Whale, produced by fellow Hollywood star Adrian Grenier (Entourage) and Joshua Zeman. That sum helped complete the Kickstarter fundraising goal, which will allow the documentary to be made and involves an oceanic expedition set to begin this fall.
Leo, what can you say to people about how we should look at the issue of the environment and similar green causes?
DiCAPRIO: It’s staggering for me to see how we are wasting time when it comes to dealing with critical issues that are threatening our planet. People think that because we don’t have to face up to catastrophic threats today, that somehow the future will be OK. That’s a terrible and cynical kind of attitude, and we have to work together and take steps to protect our environment now, and not when it will be impossible to make a difference.
Aside from your work as an actor, you have become seriously involved in making and producing films on your own about environmental issues. How did that come about?
DiCAPRIO: It really started when I saw [the Al Gore documentary] An Inconvenient Truth. It was the first time I really saw in my lifetime a documentary or a film affecting our culture and affecting a global conversation like never before.
Film is a very powerful medium. Al Gore explained the science for the first time, not necessarily in layman’s terms, but in a way that people really understood.… From that moment on I decided to get involved in a serious way because there was no way I could just do this part-time. It had to become a major part of who I am and how I saw my role in life.
That’s how I became heavily involved in being outspoken about it. You know, a lot of times the environment was way in the back of the newspaper in a small, little item. And then, that movie came out … and suddenly it was a major issue that people were starting to debate and discuss, and I wanted to be part of the process and move the dialogue forward.
You also hosted and organized a record-breaking charity auction at Christie’s in April 2013, where you raised nearly $40 million. Do you count on your celebrity friends to take up the challenge?
DiCAPRIO: It’s amazing to see how many people are willing to get involved if you give them a little encouragement and twist a few arms! We’re all in this together. Actors and other artists have a unique way of not only helping sponsor environmental programs but also getting the public involved so they can put pressure on politicians and government leaders to address the issue in an urgent way and not put it off to the future.
This planet’s situation is very dire for future generations because there is a danger that we will bypass the point where the damage can be reversed. That should frighten the hell out of people. It’s not being alarmist – it’s listening to scientists, understanding the data, and starting to move in major ways toward reducing emissions, greenhouse gases, and halting the kind of destruction we’re doing to the planet. It’s not something we can ignore.
Is it worrisome to you that there are still many politicians, particularly in the United States, who are denying the science that offers – what would seem to most intelligent observers – to be proof that global warming is taking place?
DiCAPRIO: It’s hard to understand. There is incontrovertible scientific evidence that our planet is warming and that it is the result of man-made activity and not some natural cycle. The trouble is that the media tends to give disproportionate weight to those who would like us to believe that climate change isn’t taking place and that digging up an area the size of Florida in the Canadian Tar Sands isn’t something that’s going to make the situation worse.
How can we ignore things like the fact that the warming of the planet is now causing methane gas to bubble up in the Antarctic and in Siberia? How is it that governments are allowing more coal-burning plants to be built and operated when they are so incredibly harmful to the atmosphere?
Ultimately, ignorance is my greatest fear. I think ignorance is the greatest danger faced by the public. We should all learn more about what is going on in the world and how our governments deal with the problems we face – especially environmental issues.
Should we all be very angry that many of the world’s largest countries and contributors to greenhouse gas emissions aren’t taking enough action?
DiCAPRIO: We should be angry and motivated to push our governments to do a lot more. That’s why I’m inspired by people like Al Gore to try to get the message out to the public so we can start taking more and more steps and do the right thing. We can’t continue to pretend that since we’ve managed to survive until now and until the seas have risen to the point where massive stretches of coastline shores are under water that we begin to take action.
We can’t wait until the last moment – we’re basically at that critical stage now. We need to change our thinking and our sense of urgency in terms of taking major steps to cut emissions and start rethinking the way we live and how we treat our planet.
In what ways do you try to be environmentally responsible in your own daily life?
DiCAPRIO: I drive a hybrid car, which consumes very little gas. My car is basically electric. A normal person does not drive more than 50 kilometers (31 miles) a day. That can be done with a plug. My roof is covered with solar panels. I separate my garbage, I don’t run the water unnecessarily, I shut off the lights when I leave a room. All those little things that, if we all did them, can have a huge impact. I think the younger generation is much more sensitized to environmental issues than I was when I was growing up.
You’ve also encouraged people to help save the Amazon rainforest?
DiCAPRIO: I’ve invested a lot of money buying parcels of land in the Amazon rainforest. And I encourage everyone to do the same. Every day the rainforest is being destroyed, and that’s another pending ecological disaster for the planet. The more land we can buy and save is one step toward preventing that disaster
You also donated $1 million to the World Wildlife Fund to help save tigers from extinction. What can you tell us about that cause?
DiCAPRIO: The illegal poaching of tigers for their parts and massive habitat loss due to palm oil, timber, and paper production are driving this species to extinction. If we don’t take action now, one of the most iconic animals on our planet could be gone in just a few decades. By saving tigers, we can also protect some of our last remaining ancient forests and improve the lives of indigenous communities.… That’s one lasting message from all these issues that we need to talk about – it’s all interconnected. The more we can do to save one lake from becoming toxic, the more we can prevent one more river from being contaminated with chemical runoff, the better we are all going to be.
Are you in this fight for the long haul?
DiCAPRIO: Yes. I have no problems admitting that I have a good life and I like to have fun. But I can also say that I’m going to be taking more time off from making movies to try to do my part to help the world and do some good for the environment.
Thank you very much for the interview.