The internet is finally turning on celebrity 'climate criminals'

While we drive less and use paper straws, the rich and famous dump tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere without consequence.

by Daisy Schofield
26 July 2022, 2:51pm

Image via Instagram

Kylie Jenner is certainly no stranger to tone-deaf Instagram posts, but her latest misstep felt particularly ill-timed. Just days before temperatures in Britain soared to their hottest ever on record and a wildfire threatened to destroy swathes of Yosemite National Park, Kylie posted a photo of her and Travis Scott standing in front of two private jets. The caption: “Wanna take mine or yours?”

This post, understandably, triggered fierce backlash, which saw Kylie branded a “climate criminal”. The anger was intensified by @CelebJets – the flight-tracking Twitter account that’s thrown a spotlight on the extravagant habits of the wealthy – which showed that Jenner routinely uses her private jet for trips that are under 15 minutes. And she is not alone: the account has also shown that celebrities including Floyd Mayweather, Oprah Winfrey, Drake, and many of Kylie’s relatives are also guilty of regularly taking short flights.

In a now-viral video, TikTok user Eryn broke down the data from Celeb Jets to uncover some startling results. She found that, based off the figures provided, between the dates 11 and 18 July 2022, there were 15 celebrities who flew by private jet. In total, these celebrities took 48 flights; that amounts to an average of 3.2 flights within a week. Eryn revealed that Kim Kardashian took three flights in that time period, giving off  23 tons of CO2 emission. “To put that in perspective for you,” Eryn says in the video, “the average American gives off 16 tonnes a year”.

“The more I looked at the numbers, the more I realised this is something that needed to be shared,” Eryn says. “It was mind-boggling to me that us ‘normal people’ are trying to reduce our waste and consumption by driving less, using paper straws, and saving up for solar panels while the celebrities dump 130 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in one week without consequence.”

It’s notable — and particularly egregious — too, that a number of the celebrities featured on Eryn’s list have used their platform to advocate for sustainability. Among them are Kim K, who just released an eco-friendly skincare range; Oprah, who has supported countless environmental causes; and Drake, who last year announced a partnership with the climate-conscious firm “to help him achieve a more sustainable travel plan”.

Sustainability expert Stefan Gössling uncovered similar instances of greenwashing in 2019 research which involved scouring the social media profiles of a handful of celebrities to find out how much they were flying. Bill Gates, a high-profile supporter of initiatives to tackle climate change, took 59 flights in 2017, according to Stefan’s calculations, covering a distance of around 213,000 miles – more than eight times around the world – generating more than 1,600 tonnes of greenhouse gases. These findings throw into sharp relief the extent to which capitalism has co-opted the green movement. While the wealthy are perfectly happy to deploy the language of environmentalism, they fail to use their influence to fight for transformative policies – or even change their own carbon-intensive habits.

Celeb Jets and Eryn’s video shine a light on a well-established fact: that it is the wealthiest who are driving the climate crisis. The top one per cent are responsible for 15 per cent of emissions – that’s nearly twice as much as the world's poorest 50 per cent, who are responsible for just seven per cent. It is this minority who will experience the brunt of climate impacts, despite bearing the least responsibility for causing them.

“It confirmed that individuals can emit more than entire cities,” says Stefan Gössling of his research. “These individuals very rapidly deplete the remaining carbon budgets, and they seem utterly disinterested in what that will mean for the very poor.” It’s clearer than ever that the lifestyles of a tiny minority is impacting the livelihoods of the vast majority of the world’s population. Private planes emit 17 per cent more than commercial flights, huge homes are more expensive to heat, and the SUVs that ferry around the rich and powerful are the second largest cause of the global rise in carbon dioxide emissions over the past decade. In fact, the increase in people buying SUVs last year effectively cancelled out the climate gains of electric cars.

And, crucially, it is the wealthy who set the tone on consumption, making hyper-mobility both aspirational and a social norm. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to private jets, but the aviation industry more broadly, which contributes to around 2.4 per cent of global CO2 emissions. As Stefan points out, “People who fly are already part of an elite [that are] very tiny in terms of all of humanity. It’s only two to four per cent of humanity who fly in a given year.”

Darrio Kenner is a climate expert who coined the term “polluter elite” to describe the wealthiest citizens who are most responsible for the climate crisis. He says that while accounts like Celeb Jets are important for raising awareness, focusing on the habits of a handful of celebrities can amount to “clickbait anger”, and tends to “move the conversation away from talking about what governments can do”.

“It’s the fact that the consumption options available to us have been skewed towards fossil fuels,” he says. As Dario points out, the technologies for clean energy are becoming increasingly prevalent, so the question is, why are they not being scaled up? This comes back to the political influence of the rich, who have poured money into supporting candidates with poor climate records or who deny the existence of the climate crisis altogether.  Liz Truss, the current favourite to become Britain’s now Prime Minister, for example, has vowed to scrap the green levy (a tax imposed by a government on sources of pollution or carbon emission) and there are fears she will ditch the commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

It is right to be outraged by the carbon-intensive habits of the super-wealthy, but this outrage must not end there. Our energy is far better served joining disruptive protests demanding action from governments, and getting involved with community activism. Frankly, there simply isn’t time to wait for the polluter elite to change their lifestyles to bring about the systemic change that is needed.

climate change
Kylie Jenner