For years, outrage over the high-carbon consumption of the rich and famous in the face of climate change has stirred passionate outrage and accusations of hypocrisy, from Leonardo DiCaprio’s private jet rides to Bill Gates’s yacht. The outrage this summer has reached fever pitch.
First, social media buzzed over reports of wild private jet usage—celebrities taking flights so short that they could have driven in less than an hour—and, later, with a report of almost-comical water usage violations in a part of California experiencing drought. These stories were picked up by numerous articles to highlight the extent of these harmful behaviors on our planet. For example, private aircraft pollute up to 14 times more per passenger than commercial jets. In Los Angeles, the community in which these stars live, they limit outdoor watering at most once per week. The climate problem is not only being faced by celebrities, but also the people who are responsible for it.
And yet, while it’s certainly true that individual celebrities are responsible for a disproportionate share of emissions, their behavior represents a tiny part of the problem when you crunch the numbers. For example, private jets account for just 2% of the global aviation sector’s emissions. The celebrities in the drought report were just a few of more than 2000 customers who broke the rules in this part of Los Angeles.
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’s another, arguably more important, reason why the public should be outraged: celebrities shape what everyone else does. That’s true for what products we buy, obviously, but it’s also true for how seriously the public and even policymakers take climate change.
Everything is affected by climate change and the robust body of academic work reflects that broad influence—including research on the impact of celebrity behavior. Oxford University Press has published an overview of all the research related to this topic in 2017. It describes how prominent people have become central speakers for climate change. Although celebrities have been speaking out publicly on climate change for many decades, research has shown that their voices were more prominent in the fight to curb emissions as early as the 2000s.
Many factors contributed to the rise in celebrity endorsements of environmental groups. First, there were many deficient climate policy initiatives. Second, celebrities help explain complicated issues in ways scientists are unable to. Celebrities were also part of the evolving business of journalism. Not only did celebrities help climate news spread online but they also caught the eye of journalists working in print and broadcast media who are competing with the internet.
The 2017 research suggests that celebrities offered a key asset that scientists couldn’t: telling followers how to feel. DiCaprio takes a trip around the world to visit different locations that are relevant for climate change. Before the Flood, his reactions—angry, sad, passionate, etc.—tell the audience what emotions they should experience. Because committed followers listen, it matters. Study in 2020 for the journal Sustainability It was found that celebrities who were connected to them had an effect on their behavior and attitudes. Celebrities play a different role in elite circles, researchers say. DiCaprio is representing his supporters to policymakers and business leaders when he speaks to them at the United Nations. It’s safe to say that the ability to sway public attitudes and influence policymakers is far more consequential in the climate battle than the emissions from a private jet ride.
How does this all apply to celebrity consumption? Admittedly, the research primarily looks at examples of celebrities promoting climate initiatives—not polluting too much. There are still valuable lessons to be learned.
It is easy to grasp the private jet hype. Late July revealed some shocking statistics regarding celebrity private jet usage. Taylor Swift’s private jet had taken off some 170 times between January and late July, according to an analysis from sustainability marketing firm Yard. Floyd Mayweather’s jet flew 177 trips in the same time period, including a 10-minute flight between two airports in the Las Vegas area. Celebrities aren’t necessarily advertising those numbers, but they do post photos glamorizing their flights as part of the celebrity lifestyle. The primary function of celebrities in climate change communications is to tell us what we feel.
More interesting is the drought case. Los Angeles Report Times found that some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Sylvester Stallone, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Hart, and Kim Kardashian—had flouted drought restrictions at their properties, some exceeding their water allowances by comical proportions. Dwyane Wade’s property, for example, exceeded his allotted water budget by 489,000 gallons in May.
Extrapolating from the report, a fan would conclude that these stars do not care about climate change and also that policies that are needed to combat it are unnecessary and can be ignored. This is a worrying signal as policies aimed at tackling climate change will increasingly push changes in behavior—from fees on driving made to incentivize public transit to restrictions on water usage. If celebrities don’t accept these changes, how will the public?
That question has gained consideration in France where a movement has sprouted to crack down on the carbon-intensive lifestyles of the rich and famous—namely their private jet usage. France’s transportation minister called for restrictions on private aircraft, citing the climate impacts. The justification though isn’t about the emissions implications of those flight—which are small in the scheme of things—but rather the signal that private jets send to the public.
The French economist Lucas Chancel explained it clearly: “If the super polluters have big exemptions, it will be complicated to ask the French to make efforts.” Indeed, if highly-visible celebrities won’t accept climate policy, the public probably won’t either.
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