DiCaprio, Fonda & Co: The celebritization of environmental politics

Leonardo DiCaprio delivering a speech at the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit 
(Source: Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation)

“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”. 
This moving call for action comes unexpectedly not from a scientist or from a politician, but from actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who delivered a compelling speech on the environment and climate change during the night of the Oscars in 2016. Is unexpectedly the right adverb to use in this context though? If we look back to 2016 now, we can easily note how celebrities have come to occupy the forefront of the advocacy on climate change. 

If the environment was initially a matter analyzed and covered mainly by scientists and specialists in the field, it has now become a ‘hot’ topic (in every possible sense) addressed by a variety of different non-state actors, including celebrities. The list of VIPs that have taken part in advocating reform and action to tackle climate change is long and glamorous, and includes actors, singers, artists and even former President of the United States Bill Clinton. Leonardo DiCaprio has established his own Foundation with six fundamental aims: wildlands conservation, oceans conservation, climate change, indigenous rights, transforming California, and innovative solutions (1). The actor has also been one of the most vocal supporters of the young activist Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old who has inspired the now world-wide movement FridaysForFuture. Another star of the movie scene, Jane Fonda, has been repeatedly arrested while protesting for the environment in Washington D.C. There are numerous other examples of celebrities taking part in protests and calling for action, that span from Billie Eilish to Thom Yorke, front-man of the iconic band Radiohead. However laudable and positive this celebrity activism may be, it is not enough to observe it and praise it. Instead, it is paramount to ponder upon the real consequences of this celebritization of climate change. Is it useful? Does it work? What are the consequences of celebrities’ involvement on the broader social and political scene?

Sparkling distraction from the real environmental questions

The intrusion of celebrities in the environmental field has been contested by many. One of the main criticisms of the celebritization of environmental politics stems from the fact that moving the debate from the political/technical/scientific realms to the one of fame and entertainment is necessarily problematic. Indeed, the argument goes, framing climate change and related environmental questions in the context of famous personalities ultimately entails distraction (2). Celebrities campaigning for attention to climate change only relocate the public’s attention from the real issues to the field of entertainment and consumption, effectively hampering any positive progress. Positioning himself within this side of the debate, Noel Castree for instance argues that the environmental movement today has become popularized and merely embodies a way of thinking that “permits many people to save their conscience by consuming products from the Nature Company whilst driving their children to school in a Range Rover”. (3) According to some environmentalists and scholars, celebrities are inherently and necessarily associated with a world of entertainment and consumption. Consequently, their role as activists can at best succeed in convincing the public to behave as a mass of ‘better consumers’ at the expense of more critical forms of citizenship that could make a powerful difference in carbon-based political economies. (4)  If celebrity is “a commodity of a kind”, as singer Bono has famously stated, how can the celebritization of climate change not turn the environment into a commodity itself? (5) The latter is a criticism that has gained some popularity over the years, and that is easy to share: indeed there is an inherent tension between the effort to protect the environment and respond proactively to climate change, and the glossy world of private jets, flying-in-business and world-wide tours that celebrities inhabit. Prince Harry might well be a vocal supporter of environmentalists, but his careless use of private jets to move around Europe last summer has fairly caused waves of criticism. Celebrities, it is argued, live in a world that is completely detached from the communities that suffer the most from climate change, and are thus inadequate campaigners for environmental action.

Democratization of a global shared concern

However, is the picture as bleak as it seems? Or can there also be benefits from celebrities’ activism? As tempting as it is to take the vocal and critical side of the debate, a look at the defenders of the celebritization of environmental politics sheds some light on previously dismissed considerations. Indeed, even with all the above-mentioned criticisms in mind, we ought to admit that celebrities advocating change have been often successful in prompting action from their publics. Actors and musicians that we like and follow on social media are able to bring the seemingly distant topic of natural catastrophes on the other side of the globe into our living room, through the power of their own existence as “intimate strangers” (6). What Richard Schickel meant when he coined this highly influential term is that celebrities, for better or for worse, easily become important support systems for our beliefs, hopes and inspirations. Thus, a celebrity who advocates environment protection and pressures us to do something might actually be more influential than a scientist making the same claims from a laboratory. In disagreement with the ‘distraction’ camp, the ‘democratization’ proponents argue that the mediatization of environmental politics opens up new possibilities for the general public and increases participation, thus fostering healthy debates in civil society. Asher Minns, Communications Director for the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research, has famously claimed that “climate change has grown from an occasional nerdy science story or doomsday headline to being about politics, money and power” (7). If this is the case, it may be actually better to have the owners of money and power on the “right” side of the debate on climate and environment action rather than sitting in complacency with climate change deniers. Finally, the “charismatic megafauna” of celebrities devoted to the environment cause can be a powerful asset for NGOs and other organizations that do not dispone of relevant financial budgets to enhance publicity for their initiatives (8). When celebrities lend their image (which is, at the end, their most important brand) to a non-profit organization the latter is likely to gain more donors and supporters thanks to increased visibility. Channing Tatum’s collaboration with PlantMed in the Amazonian rainforest is a case in point here.

Planting celebrities instead of trees?

What to take home from all of this? As it is often the case, there is no clear-cut answer regarding the usefulness and effectiveness of celebrities campaigning for the environment. What we do know is that this phenomenon does not seem to be fading away, as celebrity involvement has been growing in the past two decades. The most convincing answer to these questions seems to be that the effects of the celebritization of climate change will be contingent and unpredictable, depending not only on the celebrity himself/herself, the discourses employed, and the resources devoted to the cause, but also on the response of the audience. To the question “should we plant celebrities instead of trees?” we still have to answer ‘no’ as displayed by the other pieces in this issue, climate change is a universal problem that needs to be tackled at the individual, national and international level altogether. Relying on celebrities’ involvement won’t be even close to enough. Indeed, celebrities’ activism transforms climate change in an individualized issue on which everyone can act upon, thus empowering the singular citizen. If successful, this kind of campaigning is surely beneficial; however, it runs the risk of shifting the focus from the governments and big corporations that need to be pressurized to take decisive action.  Still, we should not pretentiously disregard efforts that have been more often than not genuine and positive from famous personalities (9). Celebrities and the popular culture they represent must be handled with care, though they do represent an opportunity to reach out to diversified and broader audiences. 

Elena Siniscalco

Elena is a third year BA International Relations student at King’s College London writing for Sensus as Editor. Her particular interests of study and research include questions of migration, populism, and the role of emotion in politics.


[1] https://www.leonardodicaprio.org/about/

[2] Boykoff, Maxwell T., and Michael K. Goodman. “Conspicuous Redemption? Reflections on the Promises and Perils of the ‘Celebritization’ of Climate Change”. Geoforum 40, no.3 (2009): 395-406

[3] Castree, Noel. “Western environmentalism today: paradoxes, problems and challenges”. Soundings, 34, no.3 (2006): 11-21

[4] Boykoff, Max, Goodman, Mike and Littler, Jo. “’Charismatic megafauna’: the growing power of celebrities and pop culture in climate change campaigns”. Department of Geography, King’s College London, (2010)

[5] Turner, Graeme. “Celebrities and the environment: the limits to their power”. Environmental Communication, 10:6 (2016): 811-814

[6] Shickel, Richard. Intimate Strangers: the Culture of Celebrity in America. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, (2000)

[7] Tyndall Centre (ed.). Truly useful … doing climate change research that is useful for both theory and practice. Tyndall Centre, UK, (2006)

[8] Anderson, Alison. “Sources, Media, and Modes of Climate Change Communication: the Role of Celebrities.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 2, no. 4 (February 2011): 535–46

[9] Caulfield, Timothy and Declan Fahy. “Science, Celebrities, and Public Engagement.” Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 4 (Summer 2016)