Climate Change Communications: Could Celebrities Contribute?

By Elnaz Azadpour.

Some argue that art should be for art’s sake, that is, art has no responsibility towards the society and that it is entirely up to the audience how to interpret an artwork. There is another argument, however, which defines a clear purpose for art. As David Buckland the English artist puts it: “Artists, in their working practice, gravitate towards and are inspired by relevant cultural shifts; the values, passions and concerns that drive cultural changes become the food for their creative and artistic endeavour”[1].

Although I appreciate the first school of thought giving the priority of art to the self-expression of the individual artist, based on my current limited understanding of the concept of art I tend to support the latter since art in my view should not be indifferent to the environment in which it functions. In this short essay I describe how art can serve, through employing influential celebrity artists toward a better understanding of and raising more awareness in such important issue as climate change. The example in this essay is a documentary produced by the world-famous actor Leonardo DiCaprio. The title of the documentary is Before the Flood which was available for free through different platforms such as YouTube. This work attempts to explain different aspects of climate change.

Simply put climate change is the change in the usual weather of a place or in the case of our planet the accumulative change of weather. While weather can change in just a few hours climate might take hundreds of millions of years to change [2]. Although some of it is natural process most of the scientists around the world agree on the fact that human is the most important cause of the problem we are facing as a result of post-industrial revolution anthropogenic climate change [3]. Therefore, more specifically, climate change could be defined, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), “a change of climate that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and that is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods [4].”

The issue is urgent because not only it has ramifications for the future generations it is also causing disasters already, not only for the environment but also for humans. For instance, a recent study by UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates around 200 millions of migrations due to the climate change, i.e., climate migrations, by 2050 - a figure equalling to the current estimate of international migrants put together [5]. Although policy making is arguably the most important force, as witnessed by 195 signatories of the Paris agreement in 2016 [6], to address the issue raising awareness is also necessary across non-expert people. Due to the global nature of climate change this could be achieved through the force of internationally recognized figures.

It was in summer 2017 when I came across a video on YouTube which was interesting for me because of its leading actor Leonardo DiCaprio who is one of my favourite actors. What I am trying to communicate is that it was this specific person and not necessarily the content of the documentary which attracted me in the first place. As a person who is not specialist on the environmental issues this almost two-hour documentary opened my eyes to the urgency of the climate change to a great degree.

In this documentary DiCaprio interviews influential figures such as Barack Obama (then president of US), Elon Musk (co-founder of Tesla Inc.) and Pop Francis (current Pope and sovereign of the Vatican City). He travels to China and India to bring some tangible examples of the problems people are facing in their everyday lives. He raises interesting questions as well for instance if it is more important to a country such as India to use fossil fuels in order for its people to access basic facilities such as electricity, or simply abandon using fossil fuels in order for their transition to green economy. What I found is that these are not a clear-cut but a complicated questions requiring critical reflection.

Through interviews with experts in China and India the documentary makes it clear that although climate change is a global issue its costs is not borne by countries equally: it is often the developed countries which caused the most problems through the consumption of fossil fuels while the poorest countries in the world pay the most for the luxury of the developed world. This documentary was viewed by 60 million viewers across the world in just three months making it one of the most popular documentaries of all time [7]. Although this number is stellar it should be noted that it does not necessarily signify any potential positive impact; more research is necessary in order to find out the actual impact through indicators such as attitude and behavioral change.

The current political scene in the world relies more and more on the power of media to advance its aims. Celebrities therefore, as, for better or worse, currently accepted as representatives of mass public could act as intermediary between political powers and people. It is in this context that, specifically since mid-2000s, as Doyle et al. (2017) observe [8], that the process of celebritization of climate change communications is progressing quickly. This, on the one hand, could be beneficial to communicate scientific data in more simple ways to the public considering the emotional influence that celebrities have on their audiences. On the other hand, through a critical reflection it appears that such an issue should be carefully analysed in the context of the tendency of the current capitalistic system to commodify everything including environmental concerns. Celebrities in this context could use climate change communications to re-brand themselves as “climate-warriors” in the service of their own interests or the system within which they function.

Research has shown time and again that most people perceive climate change as a distant issue belonging to future [9]. Considering this challenge in terms of communication, climate change scholars regard celebrities as a double edge sword. On the positive side these “intimate strangers” could act through two pathways to contribute: first, as human signs they can help moving toward a more human-oriented image of the issue (rather than a merely environmental image). Second, they can tap the emotions of their followers making the climate change more felt and visible [10]. On the negative side and from a more critical perspective, as Doyle et al. (2017) [11], note given the potential of celebrities to make spectacles the attention of the audience could be deflected from the root causes to more superficial discussions. Taken together, however, it is possible to positively use the current authority that is given to celebrities and the increasing call from climate change scholars for more localized and emotional modes of communications, in order to change climate change perception from a distant to an everyday issue.


[1] Buckland, David. "Climate is culture." (2012): 137.

[2] Nasa. “What is Climate Change?” Available at:

[3] Cook, John, Naomi Oreskes, Peter T. Doran, William RL Anderegg, Bart Verheggen, Ed W. Maibach, J. Stuart Carlton et al. "Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming." Environmental Research Letters 11, no. 4 (2016): 048002.

[4] UNFCCC. “Fact sheet: Climate change science - the status of climate change science today”.(2011). Available at:

[5] UN Migration. “Migration and Climate Change”. Available at:

[6] UNFCCC. The Paris agreement”. Available at:

[7] Timeline of The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. Available at :

[8] Doyle, Julie, Nathan Farrell, and Michael K. Goodman. "Celebrities and climate change." (2017).

[9] Doyle, Julie. Mediating climate change. Routledge, 2016.

Boykoff, Maxwell T. Who speaks for the climate?: Making sense of media reporting on climate change. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[10] Doyle, Julie, Nathan Farrell, and Michael K. Goodman. "Celebrities and climate change." (2017).

[11] Doyle, Julie, Nathan Farrell, and Michael K. Goodman. "Celebrities and climate change." (2017).