“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” – Joni Mitchell, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’
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However, it is often difficult to disentangle fact from fiction when the papers throw around contradictory headlines about the state of the climate, claiming that the planet is warming or that it is cooling, that glacial ice is thinning or that it is thickening, that sea level is rising or that it is falling… In reality most of these claims are probably correct, or at least scientifically robust. The issue is that the Earth is a large, complicated and dynamic system. It is constantly changing though time and there are considerable differences in the environment across its extensive surface. Consequently these seemingly contradictory claims, rather than undermining the general consensus that the planet is warming, glacier volume is decreasing and global sea level is on the up, highlight the regional and temporal variations within the broader trends.
It is important to know that the environment is a hugely complicated phenomenon of which the threats cannot be defined by a few sweeping statements. Unfortunately the unwanted side effect of keeping oneself on top of the constant stream of media revelations about the state of the planet is that it is all too easy to be left bewildered amid a minefield of differing assertions and interpretations. In addition, from education, media and campaigning alone, it is often difficult to breathe life into the facts printed in articles and textbooks and translate them into fears about the world around us that matters so much and into efforts to combat such threats.
Whether you approve of the celebrity culture or not, the importance of celebrity endorsement in encouraging greater public engagement in the key issues facing mankind is indisputable and is one way in which the gravity of issues within our newspapers can be more effectively voiced. How many more people have spared a moment to consider the necessity for gender equality as a direct result of Emma Watson’s role as UN ambassador? Sometimes a familiar and trusted voice of a single person has the ability to ring out more than that of thousands across the globe.
In the case of our environment, celebrity profiles remain relatively low and yet, unnoticed by many, there are a numerous household names who have dedicated their time to increasing public awareness of key environmental concerns. From actors Emma Thompson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brian Blessed, Joanna Lumley and Nicole Kidman, to comedians Stephen Fry, Bill Bailey and Ricky Gervais to singers Paul McCartney, Kylie Minogue and Lily Allen, to chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and to the second in line to the British throne, Prince William, celebrities from all walks of fame have demonstrated the need to pay attention to the environment.
Each of these names, and many besides, has an important environmental message behind it. Consider Leonardo DiCaprio and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, for instance.
In addition to his involvement in the World Wildlife Fund, Oceans 5, Pristine Seas, Natural Resources Defense Council, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Wildlife Conservation Society and Animal Legal Defense Fund, DiCaprio has established the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. The foundation primarily engages in environmental and humanitarian issues and has recently prioritised the protection of tigers, elephants and sharks from extinction, rainforests from deforestation, oceans from overfishing and Antarctic ecosystems from human interference.
In 2007 DiCaprio created and produced The 11th Hour, in which inputs from scientists, politicians and activists were collected into a documentary film in order to address the issues faced by climate change and the possible solutions.
In light of DiCaprio’s dedication to the environment and climate change, he was made United Nations Representative on Climate Change in 2014, urging listeners at a UN summit to accept climate change as a fact, not a hysteria and ‘to face it with courage and honesty.’
Five years ago, celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall initiated the ‘Fish Fight’ campaign. The ‘Fish Fight’ was motivated by outrage over the amount of fish caught in the North Sea which were subsequently thrown back into the ocean dead so as to avoid exceeding EU fishing quotas. These fish, which amounted to as much as half of the catch, signified the unnecessary and unsustainable disturbance to an ecosystem already under considerable pressure from overfishing.
The campaign sparked a petition with over 870,000 names, an 8-hour Channel 4 documentary which was televised in 28 additional countries and a major social media engagement that showered politicians, supermarkets and fish processors with calls to end the waste of fish. Within just three years the EU responded by voting against the continued disposal of edible fish, demonstrating the power given to environmental issues with celebrity backing.
(Though not linked to Fearnley-Whittingstall, a more unusual approach taken by celebrities to promote more sustainable fishing in EU policy is ‘Fish Love.’ Over the years, the campaign has seen a number of high profile celebrities, such as Judi Dench, Lenny Henry, Emilia Fox, Michael Gambon and, more recently, Helena Bonham-Carter, pose naked with fish in order to raise awareness)
While it is easy for celebrities to make token contributions to environmental campaigns through donations or offering their name to be dropped into a website homepage, several celebrities, of which Leonardo DiCaprio and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are just two, have made a significant dent in the battle against environmental challenges. Celebrity status often comes with respect, expertise and influence and these may be key to showing people across the world, whether they are policymakers, businessmen, developers or me and you, that it is time to face up to some serious environmental issues.