Why You Should Care About Celebrities’ Climate Hypocrisy

6 minute read

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. This summer the outrage has hit a 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. Article after article jumped on these stories to point out just how badly these behaviors harm the planet and everyone who lives on it. On a per passenger basis, private jets pollute as much as 14 times more than their commercial counterparts, for example, and the Los Angeles community where these celebrities live is currently limiting outdoor watering to once per week. Celebrities, it might follow, are a key villain in the climate challenge.

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. Private jets, for example, account for only about 2% of emissions from the aviation industry; the aviation sector more broadly accounts for about 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 violated 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’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.

Climate change touches everything, and the robust body of academic work reflects that broad influence—including research on the impact of celebrity behavior. A 2017 review of the academic work on this intersection published by Oxford University Press recounts how famous people became central spokespeople in the fight to tackle climate change. Celebrities have spoken publicly about climate change for decades, but the research shows that they moved to the center of the effort to reduce emissions in the early 2000s.

A number of factors explain why environmental groups increasingly sought out celebrity endorsements at that time. For one, many climate policy efforts were lagging and celebrities helped explain a seemingly wonky issue in a way scientists may have struggled to do. The approach of partnering with celebrities also reflected the changing business of journalism. Celebrities helped climate news spread online, but also grabbed the attention of print and broadcast journalists competing with the web.

The 2017 research suggests that celebrities offered a key asset that scientists couldn’t: telling followers how to feel. When DiCaprio travels the world visiting different sites relevant to climate change in the documentary Before the Flood, his reactions—angry, sad, passionate, etc.—tell the audience what emotions they should experience. And that matters because committed followers tend to listen. A 2020 study in the journal Sustainability found that audiences who felt a connection to a certain celebrity did 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 a CEO at a cocktail party, he is effectively representing his followers to the policymakers and business leaders with actual power. 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.

So how does all this research apply to the examples of celebrity consumption today? Admittedly, the research primarily looks at examples of celebrities promoting climate initiatives—not polluting too much. Still, there are some valuable lessons that can be extrapolated.

The private jet hubbub is easiest to understand. In late July, we learned some truly wild statistics about celebrity private jet habits. 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. If the primary role of celebrities when it comes to climate change is telling us how to feel, the message is clear: the public should feel that conspicuous consumption is desirable no matter the climate implications.

The drought example is more interesting. A report in the Los Angeles 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.

A fan who extrapolates from this report would think that not only do these celebrities not care about climate change, but they also signal that the policies to address it are frivolous and that they 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. The French transportation minister has called for restrictions on private jets, citing their climate impact. 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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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com