I know, it’s old news, but Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Oscar. He used his acceptance speech to talk about climate change, and it made climate change skeptics furious, which is something that’s been happening for quite some time.
“Making The Revenant was about man’s relationship to the natural world. A world that we collectively felt in 2015 as the hottest year in recorded history. Our production needed to move to the southern tip of this planet just to be able to find snow. Climate change is real, it is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.
We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters, but who speak for all of humanity, for the indigenous people of the world, for the billions and billions of underprivileged people out there who would be most affected by this.
For our children’s children, and for those people out there whose voices have been drowned out by the politics of greed. I thank you all for this amazing award tonight. Let us not take this planet for granted. I do not take tonight for granted. Thank you so very much”
The public is already keenly aware of the existence of the climate problem, but there is still a large gap when it comes to comprehending the degree to which we’re responsible, and the magnitude of the problems that will manifest if inaction remains our only response.
Some component of climate science communication must necessarily involve popular non-experts repeating the message formed by experts: that action is urgent. Yet, the involvement of figureheads provokes a strong reaction from groups and individuals that focus on denying the science of climate change, urging inaction and reliance on fossil fuels, or both.
The argument goes something like this: Leonardo DiCaprio once flew somewhere in a private jet, a machine which produces greenhouse gases. Yet, he argues for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, his message is false.
There’s a consistency to this pattern. It doesn’t have to be original, or make sense, it just has to be superficially convincing. But, it isn’t convincing, and it most certainly doesn’t make sense.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s lifestyle columnist, Andrew Hornery, weighed in on the climate change debate soon after the Oscars, writing that:
“The actor urged support for political leaders who “speak for humanity” and not for those who speak for the “big polluters and big corporations”.
But when it comes to individual “big polluters”, they don’t come much bigger than DiCaprio.
On New Year’s Eve 2012, DiCaprio, along with a posse of party pals, chartered a private 747 to fly from Sydney to Las Vegas so the actor could see in the New Year … for the second time”
Hornery (and David Crowe from The Australian, above) tries to suggest DiCaprio booked an entire 747 on a whim, largely for himself. But the flight was packed with people, including an array of celebrities like Jamie Foxx and Jonah Hill.
Hornery then goes on to details anecdotal reports of “fumes” from a film set from a single resident in Moore Park.
These articles tend to clutch at straws, and they tend not to clearly outline the logic of their argument – it’s left to be inferred. “See? Hypocrisy writ large! Scandal!” It’s considered sufficient to attack the believability of the messenger. Those arguing for climate inaction know that we’re likely to mistrust those who say one thing, and behave in another way.
It’s not easy to defend lifestyle excess and the inarguable impact on emissions that come with it. But the causal chain is weird, here. Celebrity excess is only a minuscule sliver of the total quantity of emissions. If it were to cease today, there would be no perceptible impact on the majority of emissions, which are almost entirely sourced from us – those of us switching on our air-conditioners and driving 4WDs short distances in the city. And, many of the examples cited involve technologies where there is no renewables-powered electric alternative – air-travel and sea-travel being stark examples.
The argument, that communicators of climate science must exclude all carbon from every aspect of their lives, is the intentional creation of an impossible standard, and it’s an argument that’s lost much of its potency. Most recently, public acceptance of climate change has reached a high point:
To wit: Leo’s flights don’t take away from the urgency of the message he’s repeating. He’s not claiming any special access to knowledge, and his lifestyle, whilst not ideal, isn’t the cause of the problem he’s describing. Many of the activities are the sole domain on polluters, as there are no feasible technological alternatives.
He is using his position to further a message that, to date, has been received nowhere near as much as it ought to have been, and that needs to be congratulated, and defended.