Climate Shaming Celebrities Needs to Be Done Judiciously

Nobody should be let off the hook, but there's a time and place.

Private airplane with red carpet

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Earlier this year, news broke that Barbadian pop star and entrepreneur Rihanna was donating $15 million to frontline climate justice groups across the Caribbean and the United States through her nonprofit, The Clara Lionel Foundation. Recipients included the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, the Climate Justice Alliance, and the Caribbean Youth Environment Network. Rihanna didn't mince her words when describing the need for this work in a statement at the time: “Climate disasters, which are growing in frequency and intensity, do not impact all communities equally, with communities of color and island nations facing the brunt of climate change.” 

Yet the response from some on social media was about as depressing as it was predictable: 

This was by no means the only response alleging hypocrisy—I even saw one social media user suggest the entire gesture was meaningless unless Rihanna gave up flying. 

I was reminded of these exchanges during recent news of Kylie Jenner's and other celebrities’ use of private jets for absurdly short journeys.

On one hand, I share the outrage at the gross excesses of the billionaire classes and I would be more than happy to live in a world where billionaires and their private jets were largely taxed out of existence. Yet in the absence of that world, or even a viable path to achieving that world, I can’t help feeling we need to be strategic about when and if we shame the high flyers. 

The case of Rihanna offers an important lesson for the climate movement. And that’s the fact that context matters, timing matters, and, above all, strategic thinking about the goal you are seeking to achieve matters. Yes, a quick peruse through celebrity gossip websites suggests Rihanna does fly private—in fact, she’s even chartered private jets to fly a small group of fans around

So far in 2022, celebrities have emitted roughly 3376.64 tonnes of CO2 emissions in just their private jet usage. For scale, this is 482.37 times more than the average individual's annual emissions.

There is a time and a place to hit the ultrawealthy hard about their excessive consumption. And when you’re taking part in a strategic effort to restrict private aviation or shift the cultural norms about aviation as an aspirational activity, then shame can play a critically important role. Similarly, if there are any ultrawealthy celebrities reading this, I would absolutely argue curbing your excess consumption—and perhaps buying a bike or choosing to fly commercial—are all great ways to boost your credibility and amplify your message.

Yet when a celebrity offers up $15 million to climate justice causes or releases a popular movie warning about climate change, then I believe the single most important thing we can do is say thank you. Or perhaps a thank you that is closely followed up with: "Can we have some more?"

During the release of my book on how most globally wealthy folks are climate hypocrites, I spoke with a prominent climate scientist and activist. He was a fierce advocate for living lighter on the planet. Yet he recently told me he had been interacting with a lot of wealthy celebrities and suspected the reason they don’t speak and act more on climate is they are afraid of being called out for their so-called hypocrisies. 

I’m not trying to let anyone off the hook. And I don’t believe folks can or should seek to "buy" their way to clear climate conscience. We know the superrich have a massively outsized carbon footprint. And those of us who are merely comfortable and affluent on a global scale are also responsible for more than our fair share of emissions. We absolutely can and should seek to change that dynamic. And we can all work to reset cultural expectations about what it means to live well.

I just don’t believe the correct time to shame someone into doing it is when they are already stepping up to try and do their part.