By Tamara Staton
For those of us working tirelessly on climate issues, committed to securing the health and the future of life as we know it, Leonardo DiCaprio’s message at the Oscars on Sunday lands powerfully. “Climate change is real. It is happening right now. […] We need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating. Let us not take this planet for granted.”
DiCaprio wasn’t the only one on stage addressing his commitment to the issue, urging us towards action. Adam McKay, director of “The Big Short,” used up much of his minute with a political and environmental message, and Jenny Beavan, costume designer for ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ made the most of her glory moment as well. “Mad Max could be horribly prophetic if we’re not kinder to each other and if we don’t stop polluting our atmosphere.”
It’s somewhat reassuring to hear those with influence use their voice for change. Don Cheadle is among the growing number of climate champions speaking out about the biggest issue of our time. “I hope to use my ‘celebrity’ to motivate people and contribute to moving our global society back from the brink. I am surprised the environment is not at the top of the agenda. What is more important than food and clean air? We need a big push.”
According to the Climate Reality Project, the public conversation is changing, along with a massive cultural shift, as “more and more marquee names publicly [are] standing up and calling for real steps to stop climate change.” As more celebrities bring up the issue, the rest of us talk about it more. This paves the way, as intentional action and big scale change rarely happen in silence.
Mark Ruffalo, another actor in the spotlight for Best Picture, describes himself as a “climate change advocate with an eye on a better, brighter, cleaner, and more hopeful future for all of us.” While he didn’t publicly speak to his commitment at the Oscars, Ruffalo is among the growing number of celebrities who are intentionally bringing the issue into the limelight, taking a risk by speaking out about what they know to matter. Over one hundred celebrities endorsed the People’s Climate March, including Peter Gabriel, Chris Rock and Brad Pitt, while others are intentionally changing the conversation and taking action on global warming.
But is their voice loud enough? And is it louder than ours? According to a 2014 research paper by AceMatrix analyzing the impact of celebrities in TV advertising, “58% of respondents [of 2577 Americans adults] believe that the support of a celebrity definitely (10%) or probably (48%) changes people’s views about which [political] candidate to support, versus just one-quarter who believe that such support probably or definitely doesn’t have an impact.” Is it the same for climate issues? With the shift in conversation over the past two years, how does their voice impact change?
Enric Sala, an explorer-in-residence for National Geographic, who has worked with DiCaprio, asserts in the Guardian that DiCaprio’s voice has great influence on the world stage. “He has a megaphone that nobody else on the planet has. He is so respected and admired and influential all around the world from the general public to head of state, so when he says something, people listen.”
Many of us are aware of the documentary television series, ‘Years of Living Dangerously’, which features episodes with celebrity correspondents, each with a history of environmental activism, and well-known journalists with backgrounds in environmental reporting. The celebrities in season 1 included Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, Ian Somerhalder, Jessica Alba, Don Cheadle, America Ferrera, Michael C. Hall, Olivia Munn and Schwarzenegger.
In an interview with Dan Abassi, media strategist, clean technology investor, and one of the producers of ‘Years of Living Dangerously’, The Huffington Post wonders, as above, about the influence of celebrities on the public. In their article entitled, ‘Can Celebrities and Prime Time TV make people care about climate change?’, Abassi posits that “it’s going to take something that looks like a public movement. […] The hope is you’ll break the inhibitions on talking about it, that people will engage more, that they’ll start expressing themselves more, they’ll use some of the tool kits we provide, and mostly that they’ll put pressure on their elected officials to take concerted policy action.“
Maybe these celebrities support and advance the cause as much as we all hope they can. Maybe their voices are loud enough individually and we don’t need another ‘We are the World’ to bring it all together and raise billions of dollars for land lost to rising tides (this Midnight Oil remake didn’t seem to take the world stage in the same way). But let’s hedge our bets and lean into the research that supports the idea we each of us has more power than we may realize. According to SocialToast, it turns out that we’re actually “more likely to be influenced on important issues by posts from [our] close friends, family members and even well-known bloggers…”
So, let’s walk down our own red carpet and speak from our soapbox, regardless of whether the mic is on. We have a solution in our back pocket that can create a world stage on this issue, bridging partisan politics in one beautiful song. Whether for jobs or for the climate, for our families or those of our distant neighbors, we can take action in a way that matters and has an impact. And we certainly don’t have to be famous to spread the ideas that belong in the limelight.