Al Gore, Gary Neville or Cheryl Cole: who would you trust on climate change? by Leo Hickman

10/1/2011 Guardian We are often told that we are living in the “age of celebrity”.Yes, it’s an utterly depressing thought, but some believe we should exploit this
collective obsession by putting to good use the mighty influence many
celebrities wield. Charities have long latched on to the idea that for their
message to be heard in the media mêlée it must have a “face” attached. And, of
course, the media is heavily complicit in this “game”, too.
Environmental campaigners, like everyone else, have actively sought the support
of celebrities to help not only broadcast their message, but also add an air of
authority. The reason is simple: many people – whether they admit it or not –
look up to celebrities.
Ahead of Climate Week - a series of events scheduled for March which “offer an
annual renewal of our ambition and confidence to combat climate change” – the
organisers have commissioned a survey to illustrate which celebrities would most
likely get us to “act on climate change”. The results are intriguing and
perplexing in equal measure.
Climate Week asked Millward Brown, a brand research consultancy, to utilise its
“Cebra” (celebrity-brand) index. Twenty celebrities were chosen to represent a
spread of people who were either a “well-known activist”, “environmentally
inclined but not an activist”, or “not known for activism”. A “nationally
representative sample of 500 adults aged 16-65″ was then asked how much
influence each celebrity had on environmental issues. They were also asked to
allocate a score to each celebrity using the measures of “familiarity”,
“affinity”, “media attention”, “role model” and “talent”. And here, in order of
influence, are the results:

  1) Al Gore
  2) Bill Gates
  3) Arnold Schwarzenegger
  4) Boris Johnson
  5) David Beckham
  6) Ken Livingstone
  7) Chris Martin
  Cheryl Cole
  9) Gwyneth Paltrow
  10) Duncan Bannatyne
  11) Phil Schofield
  12) Robbie Williams
  13) Fearne Cotton
  14) Leonardo DiCaprio
  15) Holly Willoughby
  16) Colin Firth
  17) Graham Norton
  18) Sienna Miller
  19) Paloma Faith
  20) Gary Neville
Non-UK readers might be scratching their heads after reading some of these
names. (Some UK readers might be doing so, too!) But some of the names are well
known around the world, such as Gore, Gates, Schwarzenegger and Beckham.
Climate Week says the survey highlights a strong correlation between familiarity
and green influence, showing that celebrities who are not actively “green”, such
as Beckham, “still have tremendous potential to wade in on environmental
issues”. It says this is why the X Factor judge Cheryl Cole beat “known
environmentalist” Gwyneth Paltrow to be the woman most likely to make people act
on climate change.
Lord Professor Anthony Giddens, the “world’s most cited sociologist” and one of
the many “eminent individuals” supporting Climate Week, has commented on the
  The more we see other people being eco-friendly - whether it’s the celebrities
  we follow or our friends and neighbours - the more likely we are to join in.
  Human beings are pack animals and we don’t like to be the odd one out.
  Rewarding positive behaviour on climate change is immensely powerful. Studies
  have shown that while people act according to their values, social values can
  also be shaped by the behaviour of others. Practical example is often more
  powerful than heated argument.
Personally, I see this survey as a somewhat rose-tinted view of the power of
celebrities. After all, I’m sure we can all see names of that list which would
make us instinctively recoil should we ever hear them proselytising on climate
change. There is also the not-so-insignificant issue that many celebrities lead
jet-setting, luxurious lifestyles which don’t exactly chime with their
eco-message. For example, despite three decades of speaking up about climate
change, Al Gore is still effortlessly struck by his opponents with the
“hypocrite” stick because he lives in a big house and travels the world
performing his lectures. This survey suggests that this sniping hasn’t, in fact,
had much of an impact on his authority and influence as a celebrity, and yet he
remains a divisive figure. But perhaps this tells us that when you step away
from the vitriolic maelstrom that is the climate “debate” and discuss these
people with the wider public there is far less cynicism about them?
Climate Week also commissioned another survey, this time conducted by ICM and
involving a sample of 2003 adults. It found that:

  Partners have the greatest influence over the green choices we make (58%).
  Surprisingly, after friends (41%) and parents (36%), religious faith emerged
  as having a greater influence on green lifestyles than the government (7%) and
  the media (6%).
  Those who are most influenced by friends said this was because they didn’t
  want to be the odd one out (84%) and even climate sceptics were swayed by
  wanting to fit in with the crowd.
  The findings also revealed a genuine appetite to act on climate change – with
  four out of five people motivated to take action and the same number believing
  one person can make a difference.
  Research also revealed that as much as celebs like Beckham can persuade us to
  go green, it is those people closest to us who are most likely to inspire us
  to take action to save the planet – if only because they nag us!
  This is particularly true of men, who are willing to go green if only for a
  quiet life. More than two-thirds (69%) of men would clean up their act as a
  result of nagging, compared to less than one-third (31%) of women. By
  contrast, women (64%) are almost twice as likely as men (36%) to follow advice
  from people they see as experts.

Again, some interesting results, but nothing that threatens to shatter the
numerous stereotypes upon which the questions appear to have been built.
My own observation would be that the celebrity card is played far too often by
campaigners. If big names must be used to court headlines, then I would prefer
to see the likes of Stephen Hawking and David Attenborough used to explain an
issue as complex as climate change over celebrities such as Gary Neville and
Gwyneth Paltrow. But, equally, I recognise that there are many people who might
take an opposite view.
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