“When someone famous takes a stand, people notice.” That quote from Jane Fonda sums up nicely the importance of celebrities in the climate change battle. Fonda herself has long been an activist, fighting for gender equality and women’s rights as well as against the war in the Vietnam.
Going forward, though, Fonda said in a recent interview in Harper’s Bazaar, “right now and until I die the issue will be the climate because it affects everything else.”
So, who else has taken up the mantle to raise awareness of climate change as an existential crisis? Here are 10 top eco-friendly celebrities battling climate change, starting, naturally, with Jane Fonda herself.
In that same Harper’s interview, Fonda said, “Celebrities are repeaters. We don’t originate the voice; we pick up the voice and make sure it reaches a wide audience.” She noted that while a lot of people have the power to make change, many won’t because they don’t want to talk about fossil fuels. Instead, the focus is on ‘windmills and turbines’ – which are great! – but divesting from fossil fuels is absolutely key to stopping global warming.
Fonda has been a climate activist for a long time and is known for leading rallies in the US, including her Fire Drill Fridays. She has called for government action on the issue and has even said that, as a personal commitment to live more sustainably, the red coat she wears at those weekly marches will be the last item of clothing she buys.
On her 82nd birthday last year, Fonda led a protest along with 82 guests, with the expectation they’d all get arrested for trying to highlight the threat of climate change. She exceeded her birthday wishes; 132 people were arrested, including Fonda, while fighting for climate justice.
“We cannot leave it to young people to fight this fight for their future by themselves,” Fonda said, acknowledging the many young voices often at the forefront of climate activism.
Leonardo DiCaprio is another very visible celebrity at the frontline of climate activism. The Oscar-winning actor has made hefty donations to charities fighting climate change, including $5 million to Earth Alliance to help tackle the wildfires in the Amazon rainforest. DiCaprio co-chairs the organization with the philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs.
DiCaprio has also used his professional skills to raise awareness of climate change. He has been involved in documentary films that help detail the connections between natural disasters, the extinction of species, and changes to the climate. For example, HBO’s “Ice on Fire” doc and “And We Go Green.”
In his personal life, the actor has pledged to divest from fossil fuels and has attended climate rallies including the People’s Climate March. He has also spoken at the United Nations as a UN messenger of peace. And he set up a foundation in 1998 “dedicated to the protection and wellbeing of Earth’s inhabitants.” That foundation was fully merged into the new Earth Alliance organization in 2019 after more than 20 years funding “nearly 200 projects from 132 different organizations across climate science, marine and land conservation, critical species preservation and indigenous rights.”
Demonstrating the impact of celebrities, DiCaprio’s Oscars acceptance speech led to a spike in internet searches for climate change the next day. DiCaprio said, “Climate change is real, it is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.”
Noting the power of song to communicate, the musician Pharrell Williams partnered with Climate Reality for 24 Hours of Reality and Live Earth: The World Is Watching ahead of the UN climate negotiations in Paris.
In 2015, his 24-hour Live Earth concert with Al Gore was suspended due to the terrorist attacks in Paris, but he told the assembly, “Climate change is one of the most defining issues of our time that threatens our very existence on Earth.” He also appeared in Gore’s 2017 “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.” Other notable appearances include a social media campaign for the UN’s World Water Day in 2016.
On a personal front, Pharrell is set to release the 2017 song “100 Years” in 2117, pressed on clay vinyl. He is also the creative director of Bionic Yarn, a company creating textiles from recycled plastic. And he collaborated with the company G-Star Raw to produce clothing made from recycled fishing nets and other plastic scooped out of the ocean.
The actor Mark Ruffalo is an outspoken climate activist who has “an eye on a better, brighter, cleaner, and more hopeful future for all of us.” Demonstrating that optimism, Ruffalo founded The Solutions Project and Water Defense to offer concrete actions we can take now to support a healthy planet. The Solutions Project aims to promote the switch to 100% clean energy for everyone by creating a community that is “more inclusive, more collaborative, and more celebratory.”
Ruffalo’s acting career has largely focused on indie cinema, with his mainstream breakout role seeing him play a very green character: The Hulk. Unafraid to think independently, though, Ruffalo produced and narrated a documentary in 2016 called “Dear President Obama’ where he took the outgoing president to task for allowing the expansion of fracking – the process of high pressure extraction of natural gas and petroleum products now linked to an increase in earthquakes.
Ruffalo has also starred in other documentaries and movies focused on environmental action, including “In this Climate’, a 2017 doc, and “Dark Waters,” a drama from Todd Haynes where Ruffalo plays a lawyer suing the DuPont chemical company for poisoning the Ohio River.
One of the less well-known stars of Big Little Lies, Shailene Woodley, is passionate about climate change activism. Like many thirty-somethings, Woodley wants to have kids and says she, “just can’t justify bringing them into a world where I’m not fighting every single day to make direct change for future generations. So that’s my driver.”
Along with social media posts and other public support for environmental awareness, Woodley is an Oceans Ambassador for Greenpeace. Through the organization she took part in a Greenpeace expedition in the Sargasso Sea to examine plastic pollution. That led to her advocating for the UN to devise a treaty that would protect at least 30% of the oceans by 2030.
Woodley also co-founded an environmental non-profit organization with her mom called All It Takes and worked on a video about deforestation for Conservation International.
In her personal life, Woodley is committed to using non-toxic products and even forages for her own food! She is also unafraid to put her body on the line and was arrested while protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. In 2016, Woodley was honored by the Environmental Media Association with the Female EMA Futures Award for her activism related to the pipeline, climate change, and other issues.
Woodley understands that climate activism needs to be intersectional. Talking about her experience with Greenpeace she said, “It came from a desire to understand more holistically what’s going on with our planet [….] I feel like you can’t talk about environmentalism or racism or sexism or any type of disparity or injustice without addressing the whole picture, and the oceans are a major part of environmentalism that I didn’t know about.”
Dave Matthews Band
The Dave Matthews Band has championed climate change activism in large part through sustainable touring activities. They partnered with the non-profit Reverb on the BamaGreen Project in 2005 in order to reduce their environmental footprint and have since embraced biodiesel touring buses, locally sourced catering for shows, recycling and composting backstage, and even fund renewable energy projects such as solar and wind.
Through this project, over 15 years and 578 concerts, The Dave Matthews Band has “recycled 338,000 gallons of waste, composted 138,000 pounds of food, supported 2,100 family farms and clocked 24,500 volunteer hours.” They set up a BamaGreen Eco-Village at every concert venue to help fans improve their awareness of environmental activism and how to reduce their carbon footprint.
The band continues to play environmental benefits, including a gig to raise funds in support of Standing Rock and the NRDC’s Music Saves Mountains fundraiser. And Matthews himself is a UN Environmental Program goodwill ambassador who owns a sustainable wine label called Dreaming Tree that supports The Wilderness Society and Living Lands & Waters.
Robert Redford may be 84 but he’s certainly not slowing down when it comes to climate activism. The founder of the Sundance Film Festival and actor in classics like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Redford is a keen environmentalist who has repeatedly called on politicians to enact policies to tackle climate change.
Writing in Time magazine in 2017, Redford pointed out that too often we look to federal leaders for solutions when really we need to start small and look in our own backyards. “For decades, the local representatives in our cities, towns and neighborhoods have been on the front lines of our nation’s effort to stem the tide of climate change,” Redford says.
The actor notes that climate change isn’t ‘political’ in coastal towns under threat from rising sea levels or in farming towns experiencing droughts, floods, and other natural disasters. He also points out that we’re not facing a choice between climate change activism and the economy and that, instead, the two are inextricably linked to the survival of our species. After all, how can an economy survive if we don’t invest in green infrastructure, help transition fossil fuel industry workers to renewable energy jobs, and prevent the need for massive emergency spending to recover from natural disasters made worse by global warming.
Along with being an actor and director, Robert Redford is trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group dedicated to protecting “the natural systems on which all life depends,” including projects looking at food security, health, oceans, water, and the wild.
David Attenborough was a feature of my childhood in the UK, so it’s pretty incredible to see him still, at 93, making nature programs that help raise awareness of the natural environment. In recent years his advocacy has stepped up a notch, reflecting the urgency of our times. Attenborough has spoken at the UN sponsored climate talks in Poland, the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, and at the World Bank/IMF Spring Meetings in Washington, DC.
The veteran broadcaster also spoke at the Student Conference on Conservation Science in Cambridge, U.K., and many more events, with various celebrity partnerships (such as with Greta Thunberg) helping to amplify his voice even further.
His greatest impact is undoubtedly through showing nature in stark reality on series such as Our Planet, Blue Planet, and more recently the BBC’s “Climate Change — The Facts,” which you can also catch on PBS.
Child of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, Jaden Smith is one to watch. This vegan climate activist and actor is just 22 but has already earned an award from the Environmental Media Association for his work with Just Water, which ethically sources non-plastic containers.
Smith is also a rapper and model with plenty to say about intersectionality, gender, fashion, and food. Born into a famous family, Smith is doing it right by using his platform for good. He launched a free vegan food truck (named, I Love You) to serve the homeless population lining Skid Row and he has also participated in the Al Gore-sponsored global education event 24 Hours of Reality in October 2020.
Perhaps best known as Elaine from Seinfeld or from her role in Veep, JLD is also an avid climate activist. She works with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a non-profit focused on protecting clean water sources worldwide, sits on the board of Heal the Bay and is an honorary board member of Heal the Ocean.
When she’s not busy looking after water, JLD also has a seat on the leadership council for the Natural Resources Defense Council alongside Robert Redford and works with The Trust for Public Land, a group that aims to create parks and push for legislation to fund conservation.
In her personal life, JLD energy optimized her home in Montecito, California, and she certainly isn’t shy on social media when it comes to environmental activism. And, frankly, who would want to argue with either Elaine or Selina?
All of these celebrities are certainly inspirational, but you don’t have to be famous to make a difference when it comes to climate change. You might notice that none of those listed are climate scientists, with only David Attenborough holding a degree in natural sciences after studying geology and zoology at Cambridge. Instead, these celebrity activists use their platforms to amplify the voice of scientists calling for actions big and small. And we can do something similar in our own lives, through our social media channels and by living our values and having those tough conversations with any climate change deniers in our lives.
Every voice matters, and you don’t need millions of Twitter followers to start making change. If you’re looking to contribute, you can start with eco-friendly swaps for common household and personal care products, choosing sustainable fashion, and by checking locally to see if there are environmental organizations looking for folks with your skills. That might mean help with organizing rallies, creating flyers, maintaining a website, writing grant applications, or just generally helping out in a non-profit office. Or you might want to look at running for political office, so you can be a leader enacting policies that help protect the environment for years to come. Who knows, maybe Pharrell or Leo will give you a shout-out one day!