Leonardo DiCaprio recently won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in The Revenant. I saw the movie, and to my layman’s eye it certainly seemed like an Oscar-worthy performance. I was rooting for him to win, as was, it seems, most of America. His victory reportedly set a social-media record, with 440,000 posts in about a minute to become the single-most Tweeted minute during an Oscar telecast.
While I applauded his victory, I took exception to part of his acceptance speech. Here is an excerpt:
“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. We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters, but who speak for all of humanity, for the indigenous people of the world, for the billions and billions of underprivileged people out there who would be most affected by this.”
The problem isn’t the message. I believe we are engaging in a dangerous experiment by dumping ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. I don’t think there is an easy fix to the problem, but I agree with his characterization that it is an urgent threat.
The problem is that DiCaprio himself is one of those “big polluters,” which diminishes his moral authority to lecture on the risk of climate change. While DiCaprio has donated a lot of his time, money, and effort into raising awareness on the issue — as he did in his Oscar speech — he unnecessarily hands ammunition to his opponents with his own wasteful consumption. For years his critics have noted his extensive usage of private jets to travel around the globe for both business and pleasure. In 2014 he famously rented the world’s fifth largest yacht, owned by a UAE oil tycoon, to watch the World Cup in Brazil. In case you are wondering, neither the jets nor the yacht run on solar power.
But DiCaprio has claimed to be a “CarbonNeutral citizen.” What does that mean? A London-based company called Future Forests (which registered CarbonNeutral as a brand) worked with DiCaprio to estimate that his annual carbon dioxide emissions are 11 tons per year. With that information in hand, they planted thousands of trees, creating The Leonardo DiCaprio Forest in Mexico, to offset his carbon dioxide emissions.
Don’t get me wrong. I think planting forests is a great idea. But the notion that DiCaprio’s carbon emissions are 11 tons per year is nonsense. According to the World Bank, per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. are about 19 tons per year. That’s of course an average, and rich people who take private jets and vacation on yachts have much higher carbon emissions than average.
In fact, a 2014 Daily Mail article noted, “DiCaprio took at least 20 trips across the nation and around the world this year alone – including numerous flights from New York to Los Angeles and back, a ski vacation to the French Alps, another vacation to the French Riviera, flights to London and Tokyo to promote his film Wolf of Wall Street, two trips to Miami and trip to Brazil to watch the World Cup.” The article further noted that if he had taken commercial airlines for all of those flights, the carbon dioxide emissions from those flights alone would amount to 44 tons. (Note: The article says “million tons”, but that’s clearly an error as a round-trip coast-to-coast commercial airliner generates about 2 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per person). But many of those flights were on private jets, which the article notes can have up to 37 times the personal carbon emissions of commercial flights.
Add to the fact that he owns several homes and vacations frequently on diesel-burning yachts, and the 11 ton per year number is clearly wishful thinking.
Now I don’t want to make this entirely one-sided, as DiCaprio is clearly passionate about the issue. He may be getting through to the masses, in which case he may be far more than offsetting his own carbon emissions. In the grand scheme, he is probably doing more good than harm. He drives a Prius. He has been known to ride bikes around New York. He advocates for environmental charities and electric cars.
But that’s not the point. If you really believe that climate change is the “most urgent threat facing our entire species”, why undermine your message? I suspect he is torn between living the good life of a Hollywood movie star, and sacrificing in order to set a good example and leverage his message. I have encountered some of his defenders who attempt to justify his emissions by suggesting that it is simply too much to expect for someone like him to take commercial air transportation. But really, we can all make excuses for why we need to emit the carbon we emit. It all comes down to convenience. It’s just easier and more convenient to hop in a car and go somewhere than it is to walk or bike there. That’s why it’s important for people who advocate change to set an exemplary example.
Now I have seen an entirely different point of view on DiCaprio’s carbon footprint that argues that he isn’t a hypocrite, because he isn’t asking for individuals to sacrifice. David Roberts at Vox argued this point in Rich climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio lives a carbon-intensive lifestyle, and that’s (mostly) fine. I generally find Roberts’ arguments to be well-argued and convincing, but I am going to disagree with him on this one. This defense of DiCaprio (which is similar to how some environmental organizations have defended him) will be the topic of my next article.