Why you should care about celebrities’ climate hypocrisy

fFor years, from Leonardo DiCaprio’s private jet rides to Bill Gates’ yacht, outrage over the high carbon footprint of the rich and famous in the face of climate change has sparked passionate outrage and accusations of hypocrisy. This summer, the outrage has reached a climax.

First, social media buzzed over reports of rampant private jet use — celebrities flew so short they could have gone in under an hour — and later, a report of almost hilarious water-use violations in one part of California, that of drought was affected. Article after article pounced on these stories to highlight how badly these behaviors harm the planet and everyone who lives on it. For example, private jets pollute up to 14 times more per passenger than their commercial counterparts, and the Los Angeles community where these celebrities live currently limits outdoor watering to once a week. Celebrities, one might conclude, are a key villain in the climate challenge.

And while it’s certainly true that individual celebrities are responsible for a disproportionate share of emissions, when you add up the numbers, their behavior represents a tiny part of the problem. For example, private jets account for only about 2% of the aviation industry’s emissions; The aviation sector in the broader sense is responsible for around 2% of global emissions. Meanwhile, the celebrities listed in the drought report represented just a handful of the more than 2,000 customers in that part of Los Angeles who broke the rule.

But that doesn’t mean their behavior doesn’t matter. A quick review of the surprisingly solid academic research on celebrities and climate change suggests there’s another, arguably more important, reason why the public should be outraged: celebrities shape what everyone else does. That goes for the products we buy, of course, but it also goes for how seriously the public and even policymakers take climate change.

Climate change affects everything and the solid academic work reflects this broad influence – including research on the impact of celebrity behavior. A 2017 review of the scientific work on this hybrid published by Oxford University Press reports how famous figures have become key spokespersons in the fight against climate change. Celebrities have been speaking publicly about climate change for decades, but research shows that they became the focus of efforts to reduce emissions in the early 2000s.

A number of factors explain why environmental groups increasingly sought celebrity support at the time. For one, many climate policy efforts have lagged behind, and celebrities helped explain a seemingly shaky problem in ways scientists may have struggled to figure out. The approach of working with celebrities also reflected the changing business of journalism. Celebrities helped spread climate news online, but also caught the attention of print and broadcast journalists competing with the internet.

The 2017 study suggests celebrities offered an important benefit that scientists couldn’t: tell followers how they should feel. When DiCaprio travels the world in the documentary and visits various locations relevant to climate change Before the flood, his reactions – angry, sad, passionate, etc. – tell the audience what emotions they should experience. And that’s important because engaged followers tend to listen. A 2020 study in the journal sustainability found that viewers who felt connected to a particular celebrity adjusted their attitudes and behaviors in response. Celebrities play a different role in elite circles, researchers say. When DiCaprio speaks to a CEO at the United Nations or at a cocktail party, he is effectively representing his supporters to policymakers and business leaders with actual power. It’s safe to say that the ability to influence public opinion and influence policymakers is far more consequential in the fight against climate than the emissions of a private jet ride.

How does all this research apply to the examples of celebrity use today? Granted, the research mostly looks at examples of celebrities promoting climate initiatives — don’t pollute too much. Still, there are some valuable lessons that can be extrapolated.

The private jet hustle is the easiest to understand. In late July, we learned some seriously wild statistics about celebrity private jet habits. According to an analysis by sustainability marketing firm Yard, Taylor Swift’s private jet took off around 170 times between January and the end of July. Floyd Mayweather’s jet flew 177 flights during the same period, including a 10-minute flight between two Las Vegas-area airports. Celebrities don’t necessarily advertise with these numbers, but they do post photos that glamorize their flights as part of the celebrity lifestyle. If celebrities’ primary role on climate change is to tell us how we should feel, the message is clear: the public should feel that conspicuous consumption is desirable, regardless of climate impact.

The drought example is more interesting. A report in Los Angeles Times found that some of Hollywood’s biggest names, including Sylvester Stallone, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Hart and Kim Kardashian, had flouted drought restrictions on their properties, some exceeding their water allowances by hilarious proportions. Dwyane Wade’s property, for example, exceeded its allotted water budget by 489,000 gallons in May.

A fan extrapolating from this report would think that not only do these celebrities not care about climate change, but they are also signaling that action to combat climate change is reckless and can be ignored. This is a worrying signal, as measures to combat climate change will increasingly lead to behavioral changes – from fares to public transport incentives to water use restrictions. If celebrities don’t accept these changes, how will the public?

This issue has garnered attention in France, where a movement has emerged to crack down on the high-carbon lifestyle of the rich and famous – namely their private jet use. The French transport minister has called for restrictions on private jets and pointed to their impact on the climate. The justification, however, does not relate to the emissions impact of those flights – which is small in the scheme of things – but to the signal that private jets send to the public.

French economist Lucas Chancel put it bluntly: “When the superpolluters have big exceptions, it becomes complicated to ask the French to make an effort.” Indeed, if prominent celebrities don’t accept climate policies, the public probably won’t either do.

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write to Justin Worland at [email protected]

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