For years, outrage over the high carbon consumption of the rich and famous in the face of climate change has fueled passionate outrage and accusations of hypocrisy, from Leonardo DiCaprio’s private jet trips to Bill Gates’ yacht. This summer the anger has hit a fever pitch.

First, social media buzzed with reports of wild private jet use — celebrities taking flights so short they could have driven in less than an hour — and, later, with a report of almost comical use violations of water in a part of California experiencing drought. Article after article jumped on these stories to point out how badly these behaviors harm the planet and everyone who lives on it. On a per-passenger basis, private jets pollute up to 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 a 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 small 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 fraction 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 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. That’s true of the products we buy, obviously, but it’s also true of how seriously the public and even policymakers take climate change.

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

A number of factors explain why environmental groups increasingly sought celebrity endorsements at the time. First, many climate policy efforts were overdue, and celebrities helped explain a seemingly strange issue in a way that scientists may have struggled to do. The celebrity partnership approach also reflected the changing business of journalism. Celebrities helped spread climate news online, but also attracted the attention of print and broadcast journalists competing with the Internet.

The 2017 research suggests that celebrities provided a key asset that scientists could not: tell followers how to feel. When DiCaprio travels around the world visiting different places related 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 devoted followers tend to listen. A 2020 study in the journal Stability found that audiences who felt a connection to a particular celebrity adapted 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 policy makers and business leaders with real power. It’s safe to say that the ability to sway public attitudes and influence policymakers is far more important in the climate battle than the emissions from a private jet trip.

So how does all this research apply to examples of celebrity consumption today? Admittedly, the research mostly looks at examples of celebrities promoting climate initiatives – not very polluting ones. However, there are some valuable lessons that can be extrapolated.

Hubbub private life is easier to understand. At the end of July, we learned some really wild statistics about the private jet habits of celebrities. Taylor Swift’s private jet was taken off about 170 times between January and the end of July, according to an analysis by 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 aren’t necessarily advertising those numbers, but they do post pictures of themselves glamorizing their flights as part of the celebrity lifestyle. If the main 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 drought example is more interesting. A report in 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 on their properties, some exceeding their water intake 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 not only do these celebrities not care about climate change, but they also signal that policies to address it are frivolous and can be ignored. This is a worrying signal as policies aimed at tackling climate change will increasingly drive behavioral changes – from driving charges to incentivize public transit to restrictions on water use. If celebrities don’t accept these changes, how will the public accept them?

That question is being considered in France, where a movement has sprung up to crack down on the carbon-intensive lifestyles of the rich and famous, namely their use of private jets. France’s transport minister has called for restrictions on private jets, citing their impact on the climate. However the justification is not about the emissions implications of those flights – which are small in the scheme of things – but rather the signal that private jets send to the public.

French economist Lucas Chancel explained it clearly: “If the super polluters have big exemptions, it will be difficult to ask the French to make an effort.” Indeed, if highly visible celebrities won’t buy into climate policy, the public probably won’t either.

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Write in Justin Worland at [email protected].

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