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Rich climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio lives a carbon-intensive lifestyle, and that's (mostly) fine

At the 2016 Academy Awards, Leo DiCaprio accepted his Best Actor trophy with a speech that included a passionate call to action on climate change.

As inevitably as night follows day, social media was flooded with people attacking DiCaprio as a hypocrite for living a carbon-intensive lifestyle.

(UPDATE: This yacht doesn't belong to DiCaprio. He doesn't own one. See correction at bottom.)

This kind of thing has been around for as long as I've been writing about climate change. People never tire of pointing out that Al Gore lives in a "mansion" or that scientists fly all over the world to climate conferences, spewing CO2. Any time I mention a vacation online I am immediately scolded as a hypocrite by at least one of the trolls who follow me around waiting for such opportunities.

It's not just conservatives or climate skeptics, either. There have always been plenty of environmentalists and liberals who scorn Gore and other climate leaders for their supposed hypocrisy.

There's clearly something powerful in the critique. It elicits strong, intuitive reactions, which is rare with arguments related to climate change.

But I don't think it holds up. In particular, I think it runs two different arguments together.

Argument 1: Climate advocates who don't reduce their emissions are hypocrites

This is the claim that really grabs people at a gut level. And it makes a certain sense: If you say carbon emissions are bad, and you emit lots of carbon, and you don't work to reduce your own carbon emissions, then either a) you don't really think carbon emissions are bad, or b) you're a hypocrite.

But there's a hidden premise here, which lots of people take for granted but shouldn't. The premise is that personal emission reductions are an important part of the fight against climate change — if you take climate seriously, you take on an obligation to reduce your own emissions.

Is that true? Not necessarily. It is entirely possible to believe, as many people do, that voluntary emission reductions are pointless vanity, that the only efficacious solutions to climate change involve extended, coordinated action by governments. They view the moralism around personal emissions as a distraction, a way of diverting environmentalist energy and alienating non-environmentalists.

Obama unveils the Clean Power Plan.
Obama unveils the Clean Power Plan, which has nothing to say about yachts.
Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

People who believe that are not engaged in hypocrisy if they fly, or buy an SUV, or eat a hamburger. They are not advocating sacrifice or asceticism; they don't believe it would do any good. They believe people will take advantage of the options available to them until some combination of regulation and innovation makes cleaner options available.

If they advocate for, and are willing to abide by, taxes and regulations designed to reduce emissions, then such folks are being true to their beliefs. You might think they are wrong about the value of personal behavior, but they are not hypocrites.

Is there any evidence that DiCaprio has advocated personal emission reductions or told anyone they ought to forgo planes or boats? If so, I haven't seen it.

Perhaps he has done the math and realized that the emissions of any single rich person are insignificant to the big picture on climate.

Here are the per capita carbon emissions of the world's top 10 overall carbon emitters:

per capita emissions (World Resources Institute)

More recent data has shifted slightly, but we don't need to be all that precise. The world average is around 7 metric tons a year per person. In the US, it's around 20 metric tons.

Let's say that by flying and yachting all over the world, DiCaprio is responsible for 500 times the emissions of the average American — 10,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases a year.

How much is that? Here are some annual greenhouse gas emission figures, in metric tons (years range from 2010 to 2013):

Even if extravagant by mere mortal standards, DiCaprio's personal emissions are a fart in the wind when it comes to climate change. If he vanished tomorrow, and all his emissions with him, the effect on global temperature, even on US emissions, even on film-industry emissions, would be lost in the noise.

Climate change is extremely large. No single human can directly generate enough emissions to make a dent. And all indications are that DiCaprio knows that. That's why he said:

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.

He didn't say, "We need to buy LED lightbulbs. And avoid yachts." His focus is on political leadership.

So the "hypocrisy" charge fails. You're not a hypocrite for not doing things you haven't said anyone else should do either.

The only legitimate climate advocate?
The only legitimate climate advocate?

(Note: There are certainly people who think reducing one's personal emissions is a moral obligation, for everyone, and that high-profile climate leaders ought to lead the way. I disagree, but it's a legitimate claim. But even if you accept the claim, the conclusion is that DiCaprio is wrong, not that he's a hypocrite.)

Argument 2: Public figures ought to do more climate signaling

You could agree that voluntary personal emission reductions are irrelevant to the big picture on climate change and still think that high-profile public figures like DiCaprio are in a unique position to signal. Their choices and habits have outsize effects on culture. People look to them for indications about what is and isn't important, so they have an obligation to send the right signals.

There's definitely something to this argument. But there are two important things to remember about it.

First, if signaling is the issue, well, DiCaprio is supporting electric cars and pushing for clean energy in the film industry and building eco-resorts and supporting clean energy campaigns and starting a friggin' climate charity. Oh, and making heartfelt appeals in front of 9 million people at the Academy Awards.

That's a lot of signaling! Read this piece in Rolling Stone or this one in the Guardian. DiCaprio has a long history of serious work on this issue. By any measure, he's doing better on signaling than the vast majority of wealthy, influential people.

Do pictures of him on a yacht undo all that? No one's provided any evidence to support that claim.

Rich guy cigar
The wrong kind of signaling.

Second, note that this argument applies to all wealthy, influential people, not just the ones who advocate for action on climate change. If it is a moral good for influential people to signal that low carbon is a priority, then it is a moral good for all of them. Those who speak up about climate change are under no special obligation over and above that.

All that said, yes, conspicuous consumption is a kind of signaling too — a bad kind, for reasons that go far beyond climate change. Generally, parading your hyperconsumption is corrosive to social solidarity. (Oddly, very few of the conservatives who yell at DiCaprio make this argument.)

So if there's any grounds for complaint against DiCaprio, it's the same complaint fairly directed at any wealthy hyperconsumer: Signaling restraint is a gesture of social solidarity. They should all do more of it. Including the ones who never say a word about climate change.

To sum up

We've got to stop using fossil fuels as rapidly as possible. Doing that will mean some mix of technological, political, and social change. Undoubtedly lifestyle changes will come along with any such transition.

I wouldn't presume to predict what those lifestyle changes will be. But insofar as progress on decarbonization proceeds at the pace it needs to, it will do so because lower-carbon alternatives are cheaper or more convenient, or offer features and benefits their dirty competitors can't.

I have trouble envisioning voluntary restraint catching on at any scale that makes a difference. Cleaner energy will be more fun, more prosperous, better, or it won't happen.

So sure, maybe DiCaprio ought to rein it in with the yachts and personal jets. But only for the same reasons all rich people ought to, not because he's advocating for better climate policy. Everyone ought to advocate for better climate policy!

Policy is the big picture. If we get that right, both income inequality and emissions will decline and more people will be better off. If we get it wrong, the size of DiCaprio's boat won't matter one way or the other.

CORRECTION: A DiCaprio press rep contacted us to let us know that Leo DiCaprio does not, as our original headline stated, own a yacht. The pictures show him using friends' yachts.