Photograph by Brooks Kraft, National Geographic
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Artwork by Nathan Sawaya appeared on the South Lawn of the White House Monday, during the president's South By South Lawn arts and ideas festival.

Photograph by Brooks Kraft, National Geographic

President Obama Urges Swift Action on Climate Change

The leader hosted Leonardo DiCaprio and top scientists at a special event at the White House, which included a screening of the Nat Geo documentary Before the Flood.

President Barack Obama warned Monday that climate change has accelerated so quickly during his administration that “we’re in a race against time” if the worst of the effects of climate change are to be contained before they become irreversible.

“Climate change is happening even faster than predictions would have told us five years ago or 10 years ago,” Obama told the crowd at the White House attending a daylong arts and innovation festival. “This is not something we can just mosey along about and put up with climate denial or obstructionist politics for very long if we want to leave for the next generation beautiful days like today.”

The president spoke at an hour-long panel discussion with actor Leonardo DiCaprio and atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe just ahead of the White House premier of DiCaprio’s new documentary on climate change, Before the Flood, which airs on National Geographic channels October 30.

The movie screening was the highlight of South by South Lawn, an event patterned after the annual South by Southwest civic festival in Austin, Texas, where the president spoke last spring. The White House gathering featured innovators, artists, and musicians, and included a performance just ahead of the panel discussion by the Lumineers, the Denver-based folk rock band.

The 96-minute film, made with director Fisher Stevens, features the Oscar-winning actor as he travels to five continents and meets with an array of scientists and leaders, including Obama, Pope Francis, and Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and CEO of Tesla Motors.

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Obama hosted a panel on climate change with atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe and actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

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Obama checks out the art on his lawn.

The film, three years in the making, was intended to be released before the presidential election, in hopes of spurring greater action on climate change. DiCaprio, who served as questioner for Obama and Hayhoe on panel, told the crowd: “This moment is more important than ever. The science is in. If you do not believe in climate change, you do not believe in facts or in science and therefore, in my humble opinion, should not be allowed the honor of holding public office.”

The film will also be screened in several swing states, including Florida, where Governor Rick Scott and Senator Marco Rubio remain skeptical of climate science. In the film, DiCaprio visits Miami Beach, where sea-level rise is already causing flooding at high tide. After Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine tells DiCaprio “nobody really wants to talk about climate change,” the film cuts to a clip of Rubio remarking that he “does not believe human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.”

Ironically, the filming of The Revenant, the movie for which DiCaprio won the Best Actor Oscar, was beset by the warmest winter in three decades. The crew was forced to flee Canada for lack of snow and shoot the final scenes at the tip of Argentina.

'Before the Flood' Trailer

For DiCaprio’s documentary, Enric Sala, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and marine biologist who heads Nat Geo's Pristine Seas program, invited the actor to join him on Canada’s Baffin Island in the Arctic in July 2015 to talk about the melting of sea ice. In the film, Sala describes it as “the most dramatic transformation of a large environment ever.”

Sala said DiCaprio’s film differs significantly from Al Gore’s 2006 An Inconvenient Truth because much has changed in the climate change debate in the last decade. Last December in Paris, leaders of 200 countries agreed to cut carbon emissions in an effort to prevent the global temperature from reaching 2 degrees Celsius.

“When Al Gore made his movie, the deniers were trying to have a debate over whether climate change existed, so Gore tried to make sure that everybody understood climate change was real and caused by human activities,” Sala said. “But this is a different time. We are not debating, except for a few loonies, whether climate change exists. What Leo’s movie brings to the table is the extreme sense of urgency. We cannot debate anymore, we have to act.”

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Exhibitors showed off the newest gadgets at the festival of arts and ideas.

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Stephen Ritz of the Green Bronx Machine talked up sustainability at the festival.

DiCaprio has long used his celebrity to draw attention to environmental causes and was named as an United Nations Messenger of Peace in 2014 for his work as an environmental activist. At the beginning of Before the Flood, he laments that too many people “just tune out” of discussions about climate change and confesses to the camera that “if the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future, I mean, to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

At the White House conversation with Obama and Hayhoe, DiCaprio pressed them both for ways to inspire a more meaningful public discussion of climate change that might bring results.

“Climate change is perversely designed to be hard to solve politically,” Obama said. “Political systems are not well designed to do something tough now to solve a problem people are going to feel the impacts of later. If we are going to solve this, we are going to need remarkable innovation.”

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Kevin Holst of World Central Kitchen showed how a solar oven can be used to cook potatoes, without any other fuels.

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Visitors enjoyed the first ever virtual reality experience with a sitting president.

He added that he instructed his negotiators for the Paris climate talks that “better is good.”

He added: “Better is not always enough, but if we get better enough, each year we’re doing something that is making more progress, moving us forward, then that’s ultimately how we end up solving this problem.”

Hayhoe, who runs the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, said she has discovered, when dealing with what she describes as one of the nation’s most polarizing issues, that “facts are not enough” to change minds.

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The festival was inspired by the South by Southwest festival held every year in Austin, Texas.

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The audience hears about climate change in the iconic setting.

“One of the most insidious myths is I have to be a certain type person to care about climate change,” she said. “But the reality is, if we are human, living on this planet, it’s the only planet we have. We already have all the values to care about climate change in our hearts. We have to figure out how to connect those values to the issue of climate.”

Check out Before the Flood October 30 on National Geographic channels.

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A United Nations Messenger for Peace, DiCaprio hopes his new documentary will raise awareness about the need to act on climate change.

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Obama said of global warming that “we’re in a race against time.”