Wellor years, outrage over the high-carbon consumption of the rich and famous in the face of climate change has sparked passionate outrage and accusations of hypocrisy, from Leonardo DiCaprio’s private jet rides to Bill Gates’ yacht. This summer the outrage is fever struck.
First, social media was abuzz with reports of wild use of private jets—celebrities flying so short they could drive in less than an hour—and later with a report of almost comical violations of water use in part of California experiencing drought. Article after article jumped on these stories to point out how badly these behaviors are harming the planet and everyone who lives on it. On a per passenger basis, private jets pollute as much 14 times more than their commercial partners, for example, and the Los Angeles community where these celebrities live currently limits outdoor watering to once a week. Celebrities, it might follow, are a key villain in the climate challenge.
Still, while it’s certainly true that individual celebrities are responsible for a disproportionate share of the emissions, their behavior is a small part of the problem when you crunch the numbers. Private jets, for example, only count about 2% of emissions from the aviation industry; more generally, the aviation sector accounts for about 2% of global emissions. Meanwhile, the celebrities listed in the drought report represent just a handful of the more than 2,000 customers in this part of Los Angeles who have broken the rule.
But that doesn’t mean their behavior doesn’t matter. A quick review of the surprisingly robust academic research on celebrities and climate change suggests that there is another, perhaps more important, reason why the public should be outraged: celebrities shape what everyone else does. This is obviously true of the products we buy, but it is also true of how seriously the public and even politicians take climate change.
Climate change affects everything, and robust academic work reflects this broad influence—including research on the impact of celebrity behavior. And 2017 review of academic work of this intersection, published by Oxford University Press, tells how famous people have become central speakers in the fight to tackle climate change. Celebrities have been speaking out about climate change for decades, but the research shows they moved to the center of efforts to reduce emissions in the early 2000s.
A number of factors explain why environmental groups are increasingly seeking the support of celebrities at this time. On the one hand, many climate policy efforts have fallen behind, and celebrities have helped explain a seemingly uncertain issue in a way that scientists may have struggled to do. The approach to celebrity partnerships also reflects the changing business of journalism. Celebrities have helped climate news spread online, but they’ve also attracted the attention of print and broadcast journalists competing with the network.
The 2017 study suggested that celebrities offered a key asset that scientists could not: telling their followers how to feel. When DiCaprio travels the world visiting various sites related to climate change in the documentary Before the Flood, his reactions – angry, sad, passionate, etc. – tell the audience what emotions they should feel. And that matters because devoted followers tend to listen. And 2020 study in the diary sustainability found that audiences who feel a connection to a certain celebrity adapt their attitudes and behaviors in response. Celebrities play a different role in elite circles, researchers say. When DiCaprio speaks at the United Nations or to an executive at a cocktail party, he is effectively representing his followers to the politicians and business leaders with real power. It’s safe to say that the ability to change public attitudes and influence politicians is far more significant in the climate battle than emissions from private jet travel.
So how does all this research apply to examples of celebrity consumption today? It’s true that the research mostly looked at examples of celebrities promoting climate initiatives – without polluting too much. Still, there are some valuable lessons that can be extrapolated.
The noise of the private jet is the easiest to understand. In late July, we learned some truly wild statistics about celebrities’ private jet habits. Taylor Swift’s private jet took off about 170 times between January and late July, according to analysis from sustainability marketing firm Yard. Floyd Mayweather’s plane made 177 trips in the same time period, including a 10-minute flight between two airports in the Las Vegas area. Celebrities don’t necessarily advertise these figures, but they do post photos of themselves glam on their flights as part of the celebrity lifestyle. If the primary role of celebrities when it comes to climate change is to tell us how to feel, the message is clear: the public needs to feel that conspicuous consumption is desirable, regardless of the climate implications.
The example of drought is more interesting. A report in los angeles times found that some of Hollywood’s biggest names, including Sylvester Stallone, Dwayne Wade, Kevin Hart and Kim Kardashian, had flouted drought restrictions on their properties, with some exceeding their water quotas to comical 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 these celebrities not only don’t care about climate change, but also signal that policies to address it are frivolous and can be ignored. This is an alarming signal, as policies aimed at tackling climate change will increasingly drive changes in behavior – from driving charges made to incentivize public transport to limit water use. If celebrities don’t accept these changes, how will the public accept them?
The issue has drawn attention in France, where a movement has emerged to combat the carbon-intensive lifestyles of the rich and famous – namely the use of private jets. France’s transport minister has called for restrictions on private jets, citing their impact on the climate. The justification, however, is not about the emissions consequences of these flights – which are small in the scheme of things – but rather about the signal that private jets send to the public.
French economist Lucas Chancel explain clear: “If super-polluters have big exemptions, it will be difficult to ask the French to make an effort.” Indeed, if celebrities don’t embrace climate policy, the public probably won’t either.
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