Leonardo DiCaprio and Sec. John Kerry Discuss Climate Change
by Aakshi Chaba
On a rainy Tuesday, Woolsey Hall filled up with an excited group of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff – all eagerly awaiting the closing session of the Kerry Initiative’s Yale
Climate Conference, and to hear John Kerry and Leonardo DiCaprio’s discussion on citizen
engagement and activism. While the two day event featured a multitude of public figures
including governors of states, the President of the World Bank, Dr. Jim Kim, and former
Secretary of State James Baker, the mention of Leonardo DiCaprio generated a newfound
excitement for the conference.
As Cristina Otero, YC Class of 2021, said, “I feel like a lot of people are here for the name,
although I think we might leave impressed with his speech.” Steven Orientale, also YC Class of
2021 had a different viewpoint on the same issue, saying that, “some people may have signed up
for an event to see a speaker, but become even more interested in the topic discussed.” And
indeed, while the event started with hundreds of excited Snapchat users capturing the moment
Secretary Kerry and DiCaprio walked out onto stage, Woolsey Hall soon assumed a more serious
atmosphere after the sobering trailer of DiCaprio’s “Before The Flood” played on the screens.
Starting out with a few jokes about the apparent contradiction of DiCaprio’s interest in global
warming (seeing his untimely death by an iceberg in Titanic), Secretary Kerry transitioned to
introducing DiCaprio as an environmental activist, describing him as one who would “help us
save ourselves”. In turn, DiCaprio used his brief time on the podium to both acknowledge
Secretary Kerry’s wide-ranging environmental efforts, and the extent of the problem we face,
citing recent Hurricanes Harvey and Irma to describe our situation as “grim”.
As the discussion took a political turn, DiCaprio spoke about his disappointment with the current
White House’s actions in pulling out of the Paris agreement, appointing Scott Pruit, a climate
“non-believer”, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and reducing regulation of
water pollution. Not one to be held back by such decisions, DiCaprio emphasized that the need to
act now is even greater than before, and that he believed “the United States still has the potential
to lead the world on this issue.” Addressing the audience in terms of the role they could play, he
urged each student to assume a profession that would allow them to serve, and to “commit to
making a difference on this issue”.
Whilst the format of the conference transitioned to a discussion, both Secretary Kerry and
DiCaprio continued to impart valuable advice about how to make this difference, with Secretary
Kerry citing his own experiences at Yale to emphasize the role of the youth as “agents of
change”. Further personalizing his advice to the audience, Secretary Kerry reminded each
student that attending Yale is a privilege, and the responsibility that comes with it is to act, and to
convert “presence into political action”.
Going on to answer DiCaprio’s question about his own involvement in the environment,
Secretary Kerry spoke about organizing the first Earth Day in Massachusetts, in which 20
million people came out to support the necessity of environmental activism. In turn, DiCaprio
told the story of his own interest in the environment, naming rainforest movies in his childhood
as a spark of inspiration. Combining his theatrical background with his present interest, he
declared that climate change “is the most surreal science fiction movie” one could imagine.
The discussion moved on to the future of diplomatic environmentalism after President Trump’s
withdrawal from the Paris agreement. While recognizing that the President’s decision did mean
that the US gave up a leadership position in the issue, Secretary Kerry pointed out that
withdrawal does not mean the US will not meet the Paris goal. “38 of the 50 states have passed
bills regarding responsible energy use”, and twice as much money has been invested in
renewable energy than fossil fuels, he reminded us. “The decisions that save us,” he declared,
will not come from the government. Instead he believes it “is the private sector” – Elon Musk,
Google, and the countless other companies fighting climate change – that will make the
Slowly transitioning back to the bigger picture, DiCaprio spoke about his frustration with the
denial of scientific fact, citing that 99% of climate scientists say climate change is real. “How
much evidence do you need?” he rhetorically asked, before stating that more time must be spent
on the issue and the solutions.
With the mention of solutions, the discussion took a turn towards the future, and the hope of
what it may bring. Mentioning Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Senator John McCain (R-
Ar), both of whom sent a video message speaking of the importance of acknowledging climate
change in an earlier event of the conference, Secretary Kerry spoke about bridging divides
between party-lines to address the issue. “We’re not going to win this battle if we keep pointing a
finger at the other party” he stressed, emphasizing the need for cooperation in this time. As
DiCaprio added, “it’s about all of us”.
To end the discussion Secretary Kerry acknowledged that the enormity of climate change can be
overwhelming. Yet, quoting Robert F. Kennedy, he reminded us that “the greatest of all dangers
is futility”, and doing nothing in the face of a global problem. “Each of us can work to change a
small portion of events, and in a total of all those acts, will be written the history of this
generation”, he stated, filling the grandeur of Woolsey Hall with inspiration and hope for the
As students streamed out of Woolsey Hall, all that could be heard were snippets of dialogue
about climate change. Anne Northrup, Class of 2021, said that the conference helped her see
climate change as a uniting factor for both Republicans and Democrats, the United States and
China, and the rest of the 196 countries who signed the Paris Agreement. “You have an entire
spectrum of perspectives, but they manage to get behind this one statement. It’s pretty cool”. Her
statement seems to sum up the purpose of the conference of a whole – to unite not just the
student body but the world in recognizing both the dire reality of climate change, and the
potential we have to help improve our future.
Ending on a hopeful and inspirational high, perhaps it was fitting that by the end of the
conference, the rain that had lasted the majority of the day had stopped, the clouds had begun to
part, and the sun was slowly coming into view.
Aakshi Chaba is a first-year in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.