With just over three months left in office and all eyes on the 2016 campaign, President Obama can do pretty much whatever he wants these days. That go-for-broke mentality helps explain Monday’s South by South Lawn event, modeled after the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
President Obama was inspired to bring a SXSW-esque event to the White House after attending the Interactive part of the festival this past March in Austin, where he discussed, among other issues, the FBI’s attempt to get Apple to unlock iPhones and the fate of Edward Snowden.
Earlier in the day, South by South Lawn featured panels on innovation and “feeding the future,” musical performances by The Dap-Kings and The Lumineers and, because they are now contractually required to attend every major event in America, the Stranger Things kids. But the main event was Monday evening’s discussion between Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio about the actor’s new documentary Before the Flood, which makes its U.S. debut at the White House tonight.
The documentary, which will air on National Geographic channels October 30, finds DiCaprio traveling around the world in an attempt to put a human face on the threat of climate change. It features appearances by everyone from John Kerry to Elon Musk to Pope Francis, along with Obama himself, who can be seen discussing this issue in front of the Washington Monument with the actor in the film’s trailer.
When DiCaprio won his first Academy Award for The Revenant last February, he used his acceptance speech to make the case for action on this issue. “Climate change is real. It is happening right now,” he said. “It’s the most urgent threat facing our entire species and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.”
On Monday, DiCaprio and Obama were joined by climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe from Texas Tech University. DiCaprio, who took on the role of interviewer for the evening, began by thanking Obama for his “extraordinary leadership” on environmental issues. “If you do not believe in climate change, you do not believe in facts,” the actor said, noting that anyone who doesn’t agree with the settled science “should not hold public office.” That comment, a clear dig at candidates like at Donald Trump who has called climate change a hoax perpetrated by China, was met with loud cheers from the crowd in attendance.
In turn, Obama told DiCaprio that he is “very proud” of his administration’s record on climate action, citing last year’s Paris agreement as an example of the progress being made. But he also admitted that even if every country held up their end of the bargain, it wouldn’t be enough. "Climate change is happening at a faster rate than what was predicted even 5 years ago,” the president said, adding that we’re in a “race against time.” While the idea of a carbon tax also got a big ovation from attendees, the president admitted the likelihood of any “immediate” action in that area is still a “ways away.”
Senator Bernie Sanders weighed in with his two cents on Twitter during the event.
Asked by DiCaprio what can be done to get Americans who are generally apathetic about climate change to embrace it as an urgent issue, Obama said the “natural inclination of political systems is to push that stuff off as much as possible.” He said it will ultimately take “innovation” and “technological breakthroughs” in energy production and storage to make a real difference in people’s behavior. But in the short-term, he advised “those of us who care deeply” about climate change not to be “dismissive” of those with real concerns about the economic impact of something like a carbon tax.
The science may tell us “we don’t have time to compromise,” Obama said, but that is the only way that progress will happen, a message he conceded would be “frustrating” for a lot of people to hear. Doing “better” might not be enough, the president said, “but if we get enough better, that's ultimately how we end up solving this problem."
Choosing to take a back seat to those who know more about the issue than him, DiCaprio said so little during the panel that you could almost forget he was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. There was one point, however, when Obama managed to work in a joke at the actor’s expense about being mauled by a bear. But just as George Clooney can get the media to pay attention to corruption in South Sudan, DiCaprio’s mere presence made more people think about climate change today than Obama might have done on his own.