Leonardo DiCaprio closed out a climate change conference at Yale University Tuesday with a talk in which the actor criticized political hand-wringing and stressed the urgency of combating man-made changes to the environment.
DiCaprio's visit capped a two-day conference put on by the Kerry Initiative, a program founded earlier this year by former Secretary of State and 1966 Yale graduate John Kerry, that also featured California Gov. Jerry Brown, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, former Secretary of State James Baker and General Electric chairman Jeffrey Immelt as speakers.
DiCaprio's talk, which took the form of a back-and-forth dialogue with Kerry, was peppered with moments of levity. Kerry introduced the "Titanic" star with a quip: "Who better to talk about climate change," he asked, "than a man who has witnessed an iceberg breaking apart in the middle of the ocean?"
At one point, Kerry held up a vial of air from the South Pole — "the cleanest air on earth," he called it — at which DiCaprio joked, "Let me get a hit of that," drawing laughter from the 2,500 in attendance.
But those moments were rare in an evening otherwise colored with grim prognoses and clear frustration on the part of DiCaprio.
He admitted that climate change has become "somewhat of an obsession" after traveling around the world last year to film "Before the Flood," a documentary on the effects of climate change.
"When you start talking about chemically changing our planet in an irreversible fashion, that will threaten all life on earth, that was like the most surreal science fiction movie I could ever imagine," he said.
DiCaprio referenced last year's Academy Awards, in which he won the Oscar that had long eluded him, and brought up climate change in his acceptance speech. "I said this might be my one opportunity in my life — it was an essential question: Do I bring up something so sensitive and so polarizing?"
Tuesday's conference came at a time when catastrophic storms in the Gulf of Mexico have people wondering if climate change was to blame, and the devastating hurricanes were mentioned early and often in DiCaprio's visit.
"We just broke three records in the last couple weeks: Irma, the most high-velocity cyclonic effect in a hurricane, winds over 185 miles per hour for over 24 hours; Harvey, the greatest amount of rainfall in history in one storm; and then the fires that are decimating the western part of the country," Kerry said. "The evidence is overwhelming."
DiCaprio said that while climate change was not the sole cause of this year's cataclysmic storms, the scientific community believes "it's making them more extreme and more destructive."
On Sept. 11, a few days before Hurricane Irma clobbered the Caribbean and parts of Florida, Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said discussing climate change's role in the proliferation of such storms was "very, very insensitive."
Even before President Donald Trump took office, DiCaprio has tried to sway a leader hesitant to acknowledge humankind's role in environmental changes, and who has sought to extricate the United States from Obama-era commitments to fighting climate change.
In December, DiCaprio visited then-President-elect Trump in his eponymous Manhattan tower and touted the job-creating potential of clean energy.
"We presented him with a comprehensive plan to tackle climate change, while also simultaneously harnessing the economic potential of green jobs," he said. "We talked about how the United States has the potential to lead the world in clean energy manufacturing and research and development."
That meeting was to no avail, DiCaprio said, before blasting the president's choice of Pruitt to lead the EPA, and his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords.
In June, the president announced the United States would pull out of the Paris agreement — which Kerry himself helped broker in 2015 — in which 195 nations pledged to curb greenhouse gas emissions and help developing countries do the same.
Yale students said DiCaprio's name was enough to provoke campuswide interest in the conference, and keep climate change in the conversation.
"They're bringing a celebrity here because a lot of people are here to see him," said Alex Briasco-Stewart, a freshman from Wayland, Mass. "And through attracting that audience, they can push that message out."
"I think it's an important issue," he said of climate change. "And I think seeing Leonardo DiCaprio's cool."