Leo’s Climate Speech at the Oscars: Why He Got It So Right

Leonardo DiCaprio dedicates his acceptance speech at the Oscars to the issue of climate change. Here's why that matters.

Last night, actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio won his much-anticipated first Best Actor award at the Oscars. After thanking family and colleagues during his acceptance speech, DiCaprio shifted to discuss climate change, reminding viewers around the world that “climate change is real, it is happening here now.” DiCaprio devoted the second half of his time onstage to discussing the dramatic impacts of climate change, urging viewers to take combined and immediate action.

DiCaprio follows in a long line of Oscar winners who have used their acceptance speeches to spotlight global issues: from Harry Belafonte to Sidney Poitier to Patricia Arquette, Oscar award winners have criticized U.S. war policies, LGBT equality, the gender wage gap, civil rights, and more. Environmentalists, NGOs, and journalists have applauded DiCaprio’s speech, which The Guardian called “the most hard-hitting statement on the night.” But just why are DiCaprio’s words resonating so deeply?

The time for action is now

In yesterday’s acceptance speech, DiCaprio gets right to business – climate change is real, and it’s happening now. Its impacts are being felt today: As DiCaprio notes, 2015 was the hottest year in recorded history. Calling climate change “the most urgent threat facing our entire species,” DiCaprio urges immediate and collective action to address global warming. DiCaprio’s words reflect those of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned in 2014 that the “[w]arming of the climate system is unequivocal…[and] unprecedented,” and that this warming will, if left unchecked, increase “the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” DiCaprio’s words are a megaphone for the tens of thousands of scientists from around the world who have confirmed that climate change and its impacts are here now, and that only a dramatic shift in human activity can hope to address the problem.

The most impacted by climate change are the smallest contributors

“We need to support leaders around the world…who speak for all of humanity, for the indigenous people of the world, for the billions and billions of underprivileged people out there who would be most affected by this.” DiCaprio recognizes in his speech that the people of poor, developing, and small island nations face the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, despite contributing to it the least in terms of fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions. The disproportionality of climate impacts on developed and developing nations was a central theme of discussion during the recent Paris climate talks, and support for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts for developing nations was built into the resulting Paris Agreement adopted in December of last year.

People and planet are intrinsically connected

DiCaprio began his discussion of climate change yesterday by linking it to his most recent work: “I just want to say this: Making The Revenant was about man’s relationship to the natural world.” DiCaprio recognizes the undeniable link between people and the planet, a link that was underlined in 2015 with the adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals, which for the first time included multiple goals directly related to climate change, including SDG 13 (Climate Action), 14 (Life Below Water), and 15 (Life on Land). Each of these global goals is connected to the others, however, and we cannot hope to solve one without also addressing the others, so climate must considered with its connection to poverty, global health, gender equality, hunger, and more. People and planet are connected, and DiCaprio’s speech underlines this link.png
DiCaprio poses with SDG 13 at the COP21 climate conference in Paris in December 2015

Also…it’s Leonardo DiCaprio

DiCaprio’s speech last night reflected years of work for global action. But its greatest impact came perhaps from the sheer influence of the man who delivered it – Leonardo DiCaprio has shown himself to be a fervent spokesperson for the planet, and his much-anticipated award brought his speech to a global audience of millions around the world. DiCaprio has over 14 million followers on Twitter, and he leveraged his audiences last night to urge climate action. While some have argued that DiCaprio’s frequent flights keep him from ‘practicing what he preaches’ on the environment, there can be no denying the power of his influence and his audiences – when DiCaprio addresses millions urging climate action in an Oscars acceptance speech, the world listens. We can only hope that it acts on it, as well.

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