Following and showing interest in popular culture has given me many friendships to cherish and instilled a sense of belonging in me. According to Tim Delaney, “popular culture appeals to people because it provides opportunities for both individual happiness and communal bonding,” while also “forging a sense of identity which binds individuals to the greater society.” If pop culture has such a unique ability to sway the masses, why not use it to fight climate change?
There are two main issues with traditional methods of tackling climate change. Our short attention spans and lack of foresight suggest that climate change is never a priority for most. The second issue is that implemented changes aren’t fighting climate change quickly enough. According to the United Nations, “We are not on track to meet the Paris Agreement target to keep global temperature from exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” If we are to get on track, we must take action immediately not only from the average person but especially from those with platforms to influence millions.
The impact of pop culture is quick and far-reaching. As a result, celebrities are uniquely positioned to fight climate change. They have an unparalleled ability to influence people’s decisions. That is why they are paid unfathomable amounts for short advertisements and marketing stunts. During his Oscar acceptance speech in 2016, Leonardo DiCaprio used his platform to raise awareness on climate change, stating “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.” Data shows that Google searches for climate change increased by 261% the day after the awards show as compared to the day prior. In fewer than 24 hours following DiCaprio saying a few words, public interest in climate change soared — an example of the immediate impact celebrities have. The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation also supports more than 35 innovative conservation projects around the world that protect ecosystems and species facing the harmful effects of climate change. But most notably, DiCaprio backed both “Cowspiracy” and “Seaspiracy,” two influential eco-documentaries. These documentaries went a long way in creating awareness about meat consumption and persuading people to adopt veganism. Even though DiCaprio did not star in these documentaries, his financial support and creative direction were enough to establish them as credible sources of climate change awareness.
We witness the effects of pop culture and its celebrities often. In following popular culture, a person’s need to be a part of a group takes precedence, and rationality plays a secondary role. Think about how McDonald’s Big Mac sales rose during 2020 through July, August and September as a result of Travis Scott’s impact and collaboration with the franchise. Billie Eilish famously wore an Oscar de la Renta dress to the Met Gala on the condition that the fashion house would no longer sell fur products — all in an attempt to raise awareness on animal protection and climate change. And with her post on Instagram receiving nearly 20 million likes, there’s no doubt that Eilish has the power to influence millions. She, along with others, also called on global leaders to deliver on the country’s pledge to advance climate initiatives. In July, Olivia Rodrigo made a special appearance at the White House to encourage her followers to get vaccinated against COVID-19. What if Rodrigo’s fans unified to fight climate change with the efficiency and quickness that they buy her concert tickets?
We haven’t been smart enough in leveraging pop culture for climate change just yet. Not all celebrities have taken a strong stance against climate change, and climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” movies haven’t hit the mark. These movies are supposed to persuade their audience into environmental activism, but it seems they only persuade the already persuaded. They are supposed to show the importance of the environment through predictions of the future, but they get too lost in the fiction aspects of their production and forget the climate in the process. It’s as if viewers of these films only resonate with the dilemmas in moral choices and social justice rather than the call to action in fighting climate change.
Celebrities shouldn’t be the only figures to inspire action against climate change. Elected officials must lobby celebrities to take more interest in climate change. Many political leaders work toward a better climate, but their work is often unnoticed. They spend money donated by eco-conscious millionaires on traditional methods that are too slow or that don’t persuade many people. Spending some of that money on subsidizing pop-culture-affiliated clothing stores or funding and supporting filmmakers would go a long way. Funding can come from already existing, eco-friendly wealthy individuals. Filmmakers can produce climate change thrillers set in a dystopian future, and artists can cry about the state of the Earth for once. Figures such as DiCaprio, Eilish and Rodrigo are only a few influencers who have taken a stand. More can be done.
However, just “supporting causes” won’t be enough. Celebrities are in a far more unique position to persuade people using their platform. They need to be proactive and fight climate change through their social media, productions and public appearances. It’s as simple as that. If we want our children to have the same experiences we did, it is time we make climate change activism a part of popular culture.
Bilal Sabry is a freshman at UC Berkeley.