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Leo wins Oscar but can he win the public over climate change?

Leo wins Oscar but can he win the public over climate change?

It was a long time coming for Leonardo DiCaprio, but on Monday night the actor finally swagged the coveted Best Actor Oscar for his role in The Revenant, and the internet did rejoice.  Embracing the platform and the world’s attention, he used his acceptance speech to highlight the importance of tackling climate change:

Climate change is real, it is happening right now, it is the most urgent threat facing our species, we need to work together and stop procrastinating

Nothing new, you might think, if you’ve been listening to climate scientists over the last 15 years or so. Yet his speech made news around the world, even drawing praise from former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.  So why do we care so much about what Leonardo DiCaprio thinks about climate change?  I don’t doubt his commitment, he’s been involved in the issue for many years contributing much of his own fortune, but do celebrity comments really have a role in swaying public opinion on this issue?

I asked John Cook,  a research fellow in Climate Communication at UQ (and who also runs the fabulous and free Climate Denial 101x course you can check out here), what he thought of Leo’s win and it’s implications for public perceptions of climate change.

“Personally, I thought Leo’s speech was great and would love to see more of it. From a psychology point of view, I would’ve been over-the-moon if he’d mentioned the 97% consensus on human-caused global warming, given it’s a known “gateway belief” influencing a range of other climate attitudes including policy support plus the fact that only 15% of Australians (and less than 10% of Americans) are aware that the consensus is over 90%. But you can’t have it all”.

What do we know about the role and impact of celebrities on swaying opinion?  John says “I think that public perception of this issue is low so having celebrities raise the issue does have the effect of raising awareness which is a good thing. The fact that whenever a celebrity talks on this issue sparks a firestorm of criticism from opponents of climate action is indication that it is potentially impactful (think of the huge amount of fuss when Cate Blanchett spoke out against climate change – the backlash was so intense, I’m not aware of her taking a public stance on the issue ever since).”

Leo calls for climate action during Oscars acceptance speech

That time Leo won an #Oscar and talked about the need for urgent action on climate change… Yep, that just happened. Legend.

Posted by The Climate Council on Sunday, 28 February 2016

Is anyone doing research into this area to see what the impacts might be?

King’s College London put out a paper charmingly titled ‘Charismatic megafauna’: The growing power of celebrities and pop culture in climate change campaign” where they propose that celebrities are part of the “burgeoning influence of non-nation-state actors at the climate science-policy-public interface.” By raising public awareness, and having increased access to the policy process, perhaps it might be more effective to plant celebrities instead of trees?

Congratulations Leo, from all of us at Australia’s Science Channel, it’s been a long time coming.

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