Leonardo DiCaprio may be a hypocrite, but climate change is still real. Don’t get distracted
This week Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio won his very first Academy award for best actor. Of course, he was there and took the stage for his acceptance speech. What happened next didn't surprise those familiar with DiCaprio's concerns outside the movie business: he spoke about the imminent threat of climate change, calling it ‘the most existential crisis our civilization has ever known.’
This week Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio won his very first Academy award for best actor. Of course, he was there and took the stage for his acceptance speech. What happened next didn’t surprise those familiar with DiCaprio’s concerns outside the movie business: he spoke about the imminent threat of climate change, calling it ‘the most existential crisis our civilization has ever known.’
“Climate change is real,” he began. “It is happening right now, it is the most urgent threat facing our entire species and we need to work collectively and stop procrastinating. We need to support leaders around the world… who speak for all of humanity.
“I thank you all for this. Let us not take this planet for granted – I do not take tonight for granted,” he capped, to rapturous applause from the evidently ecstatic crowd.
Now, the fact that DiCaprio says climate change is a real threat to human civilization shouldn’t objectively be more credible than Jim Carrey saying the government is “poisoning children with mercury and aluminum in mandatory [sic] vaccines.” However one claim, DiCaprio’s, is backed by 97% of climate scientists, while the other, Carrey’s, is disputed by basically every reputable doctor in the country. In other words, never take a celebrity’s word for it and do your own research. See what other people with a proven background have to say about it.
In this case, DiCaprio is right and though his message might sound alarmist, the reality is that action is required now. A lot of people have a tough time, however, reconciling this public discourse with DiCaprio’s private lifestyle.
He owns the 11th largest yacht in the world, which costs around $200 million and regularly sails it with only a couple people on board. DiCaprio also frequently flies throughout the world on a private jet, owns multiple estates and drives expensive cars. This in itself is nothing unusual for a multi-millionaire, especially since he’s maybe the highest-earning actor in Hollywood.
I’m not going to calculate DiCaprio’s carbon footprint, but I can definitely say it dwarfs that of the average American. For right reasons maybe, this inconsistency in public message and private life has made a lot of people mad. In a trending editorial for the NY Post called “Why Leo DiCaprio is just another climate hypocrite”, Karol Markowicz had this to say:
“Could it be that we are hearing the hysterical pleas of “environmental activists” to change our ways or face doom and noticing that not only are they not changing their ways, but that their ways are far worse than our own? The loudest, most obnoxious and aggressive voices telling us the world is about to end plain old don’t act like it.”
“Who can forget Al Gore predicting the North Pole would be ice-free by 2014, and starring in the environmental catastrophe film “An Inconvenient Truth,” all while racking up an electric bill 20 times the national average for his 20-room house and pool house?”
“We’re willing to believe the science we don’t fully understand, but it would help if the actions of the lecturing class caught up with their alarmist rhetoric.”
Well, nobody likes a hypocrite, but all of this got me thinking: how does it dilute the urgency of climate change? It’s enough to look to twitter or facebook feeds to spot a pattern: DiCaprio’s perceived hypocritical behavior gravely affects his moral authority, and since nobody likes being lectured by a hypocrite the whole message goes to smithereens. Moreover, there’s a dangerous route that follows: attaching the same emotional response to the message itself, despite it might be objectively valid. I voiced these concerns to Dr. Jamie Barden, an Associate Professor at the Department of Psychology, Howard University. “I agree that rather than addressing the content of the message, ‘man-made climate change is real,’ we ourselves may be tempted to go after the source as hypocritical,” said Barden, who has studied hypocrisy in many papers.
This simple caveat is often exploited by oil&gas propaganda machine. A taped PR school meeting hosted by veteran lobbyist called Richard Berman says it plainly. “There is nothing the public likes more than tearing down celebrities and playing up the hypocrisy angle,” Berman advised the oil&gas executives present. In other words, exploit the “Tu quoque” logical fallacy.
Bill: “Smoking is very unhealthy and leads to all sorts of problems. So take my advice and never start.”
Bill: “I’m going to get a smoke. Want to join me Dave?”
Jill: “Well, I guess smoking can’t be that bad. After all, Bill smokes.”
Leo DiCaprio provides the perfect ammunition to distort the climate change reality, as illustrated in the video embedded below produced by Berman’s team.
“This is a way to address any dissonance we might ourselves feel. That is, many people would tell others that climate change is a problem and we need to do more, but their own actions don’t match this. This makes us feel uneasy if we contemplate it too much. Condemning DiCaprio for hypocrisy (or Al Gore and his large house and jet flights) and emphasizing how much worse he is than we are, this downward comparison makes you feel better about yourself on the topic,” Barden told me.
We know we ought to act in a certain way, but the fact we behave otherwise creates a powerful state of internal conflict or dissonance. Research shows this creates an unpleasant internal state that’s akin to hunger, and the obvious, immediate solution is to put it away. This can be attained by either changing behaviour to restore consistency or ignoring the fact that we act differently from what we preach. As with most things in life, the least straining solution is chosen. A study made in the 1970s interviewed 500 people about their attitudes concerning responsibility for removing litter. Although 94% of the subjects expressed favorable attitudes toward removing litter, only 2% actually picked up litter that had been intentionally left outside of the experimental setting by the experimenter. On the bright side, research shows that revealing hypocritical behaviour helps people mend their ways. For instance, participants in a hypocrisy condition designed to prompt water conservation spent an average of only 3 minutes, 41 seconds showering, compared to 5 minutes in the control condition.
The take away is we should all carefully monitor our internal emotions and feelings when confronted with dissonances, our own or that of others like DiCaprio’s. Always be on the lookout for how people try to push your buttons. We’re all hypocrites on a daily basis, and recognizing this is the bravest thing to do — it’s the first step towards making amends. Look inward, not outward.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.