British Royal couple Prince Harry and Princess Meghan Markle triggered widespread outrage recently after lecturing the world about climate change while flying around the world in private jets.
“With nearly 7.7 billion people inhabiting this Earth, every choice, every footprint, every action makes a difference,” the Duke of Sussex said on Instagram a few days before jetting off with the Duchess to Ibiza, Spain and then to Nice, France.
BBC calculates that those two flights alone produced six times more emissions than the average Briton does each year and over 100 times more than the average resident of the African nation of Lesotho.
Friends of Harry and Meghan rushed to the couple’s defense. “I’m calling on the press to cease these relentless and untrue assassinations,” said Elton John.
“Imagine being attacked” tweeted Ellen, the comedian, “when all you’re trying to do is make the world a better place.”
But their celebrity defenders only added fuel to the fire. “So stop lecturing us on how we live our lives and live by example,” responded one Briton.
If defenders and critics agreed on anything it was that the entire episode was a public relations disaster. “I get their need for privacy and security but whoever is advising them on publicity and image should be sacked,” tweeted another.
But was the couple’s ostentatious display of climate hypocrisy really accidental? After all, celebrities have been hypocritically moralizing about climate change and other environmental issues for decades. And, now, a growing number of celebrities are getting into the act.
In late July, Leonardo DiCaprio, Katy Perry, Chris Martin, Harry Styles, Nick Jonas, Priyanka Chopra, and Orlando Bloom flew by private jet to an elite Google conference to discuss new ways to moralize about climate change. (Prince Harry lectured the crowd in bare feet.)
And Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is currently sailing on a yacht from Monaco to New York to set an example of how to live without emitting carbon when in reality her trip will emit four times more emissions than flying would have because her crew is jetting back home afterward.
Some people chalk up such hypocrisy to ignorance. “They turn up with unnecessary entourages in helicopters or fast cars and then preach about saving the world,” complained an insider. “They just don’t seem to be aware that they’re the ones burning huge amounts of fossil fuels.”
But it’s inconceivable that the celebrities don’t know they are behaving hypocritically. It’s common knowledge that flying by jet results in significant carbon emissions. If it weren’t, then Harry and Meghan wouldn’t have triggered such an intense reaction.
Indeed, they implicitly acknowledged their hypocrisy. Elton John bought carbon offsets to supposedly cancel out Harry and Meghan’s emissions, while a spokesperson for Thunberg acknowledged, “It would have been less greenhouse gas emissions if we had not made this departure.”
A simpler explanation for the hypocrisy of celebrities who moralize about climate change is that it is a way of flaunting their special status.
Hypocrisy is the ultimate power move. It is a way of demonstrating that one plays by a different set of rules from the ones adhered to by common people. Hypocrisy demonstrates how unaccountable one is to conventional morality.
Such displays work because, unlike wealth, status is inherently subjective. The more of it you are perceived to have, the more of it you actually have.
To be sure, the Duke, the Duchess, and Thunberg didn’t consciouslydecide to flaunt their status. But neither did Harry and Meghan pledge to never fly private again nor did Thunberg cancel her trip.
And it is a mistake to imagine that human behavior is mostly conscious. Much of human behavior is unconscious and driven by an innate urge for power, of which status is one (highly-social) form.
Elite hypocrisy is a relatively new phenomenon. In ancient Greece and Rome, elites openly flaunted their status. Somebody who was “good” was rich, beautiful (healthy), strong, and proud.
The rise of Christianity ostensibly changed that. Good people were said to be poor, meek, and humble — they would “inherit the Earth.” The “bad” people were said to be the rich, arrogant, and powerful — the very elite that had once defined what it meant to be good.
The Christian revolution in morality was partly successful. The Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, elites paid for their sins with by purchasing “indulgences,” the predecessor to today’s carbon offsets, and 1,800 years later humankind made slavery illegal.
But mostly hypocrisy reigned. Nations enslaved in the name of freedom and waged war in the name of peace. Political and religious leaders grew rich in the name of equality.
It was only with the rise of capitalism and the need for workers to be freer, more mobile, and prosperous, that societies were able to undermine pagan morality and the ancient institution of slavery. By completing the Judeo-Christian revolution in morality, humankind was able to achieve today’s relatively high levels of prosperity and equality.
Even so, societies still exempt celebrity entertainers from conventional morality. We want our beautiful and talented celebrities to proudly display their beauty, wealth, and status. The large readership of tabloid newspapers and magazines is proof of this.
Why then do we get so upset when celebrities moralize about climate change? Because in doing so they are violating an unsaid social contract. You can be rich, fabulous, and showy, but you can’t tell us how to live. Two thousand years after the Christian revolution in morality, we take our relative prosperity seriously.
Movie and TV stars, for the most part, stick to this implicit social contract. When they pick up a new cause they tend to engage in anodyne “awareness-raising” or advocate, at most, micro-actions, like not using plastic straws.
It’s true that celebrities are also deeply out-of-touch, which helps explain their occasional tone-deaf moralizing. And artists tend to be dreamy and get lost in the fantasy of themselves as real-world heroes against cartoon fossil fuel villains like the Koch Brothers.
But celebrity entertainers benefit from being surrounded by publicists, managers, and agents who are paid to prevent celebrities from alienating the paying public.
Political celebrities, by contrast, constantly violate the implied social contract. This is partly because they forget that they are, at bottom, entertainers, not rulers. And they don’t tend to have the marketing professionals near them to tamp down their instinct to act like prophets and crusaders.
The problem, in other words, isn’t that celebrities flaunt their rich lifestyle but rather that they moralize about it.
Al Gore wouldn’t have been busted by Associated Press for living in a 20-room home that used 12 times more energy than the average home in Nashville, Tennessee had he not claimed that “we are going to have to change the way we live our lives” to solve climate change.
Prince Harry wouldn’t have been in trouble for private jetting around the world had he not claimed: “every action makes a difference.”
And the media wouldn’t be having a field day with Greta Thunberg’s carbon-intensive yacht trip had she not represented herself a paragon of climate virtue.
The problem for Greta, Harry, and Gore is that moralizing isn’t incidental to their climate advocacy but rather central to it. They are famous not simply for sounding the alarm but for claiming to be morally superior and setting an example .
But all three show that it is impossible for even the most committed people to live “morally” if “morally” is defined as living without using fossil fuels, which are nearly 90% of our primary energy.
In that way, when it comes to climate change, the problem isn’t really with moralizing, but rather with moralizing about the wrong things.
Celebrities, whether from the world of entertainment or politics, moralize about the need to change individual consumption when they should be moralizing about the need to change collective energy production.
At the very moment that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are scandalizing the world about their jet-setting, their home nation of Britain is in a major debate about the future of energy.
British lawmakers are considering building a French nuclear power plant at Sizewell C identical to the one being built in Hinkley C.
It is hard to imagine a climate cause that needs celebrity support more than nuclear energy. Anti-nuclear Greens are growing in power in Europe and fiercely oppose nuclear even though it is the continent’s largest source of carbon-free energy.
A few Instagram posts and barefooted lectures by Harry and Meghan urging people to get over their irrational fears of carbon-free nuclear energy might be enough to get Sizewell C built.
Such statements would no doubt elicit outrage from some of the couple’s green friends. But they would have the benefit of actually reducing emissions without alienating the public.
That’s because nuclear power doesn’t require any changes to the ways we live our lives. More nuclear energy would allow humans to enjoy lifestyles even richer than the ones enjoyed by British royals just a few decades ago, while radically cutting emissions.
Many people think that moralizing and advocating for technological fixes are opposites when in truth the latter depends to a great extent on the former. Societal elites must moralize for strange new technologies for them to be widely accepted.
Hundreds of years ago, as windmills spun languidly in the countryside, British elites moralized against coal as the “devil’s excrement.” Over time, a revolution in morality led them to see that reliable, high-temperature coal was necessary for industrialization and progress.
The same revolution in morality must occur for nuclear. The main obstacle to it being scaled up is not technological. Nuclear is already the safest way to make reliable electricity. Nor is it economical. Construction crews build nuclear plants more rapidly, and thus at a lower cost, as they gain experience.
What nuclear lacks is the social acceptance that will give it the political support it needs to replace fossil fuels over the next century. And social acceptance is something celebrities can do something about.
Is it realistic to expect that they will? Crazier things have happened. It may be that, for such a revolution in morality to occur, society will first need to acknowledge that celebrities have behaved hypocritically about climate change because, at some level, they want to.
*Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” and president of Environmental Progress. Follow him on Twitter @ShellenbergerMD.