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155-Mile March Protests Oil and Gas Industries Threat to Drinking Water

155-Mile March Protests Oil and Gas Industries Threat to Drinking Water

A group of concerned citizens walked 155-miles in eight days from Grand Isle to Baton Rouge, along Louisiana Highway 1. They arrived at dusk Friday via the east bank levee of the Mississippi River and headed to Gov. Bobby Jindal's mansion yesterday for “Flood into Baton Rouge,” an event focused on water quality issues and threats to clean drinking water by the oil and gas industry in communities throughout the state.

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The march was organized in response to Governor Jindal’s signing of SB 469 into law (Act 544) earlier this month. Although the purported intent of the law was to kill the lawsuit filed against 97 oil and gas companies by the South Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East, the law was so hastily and broadly written that Attorney General Caldwell and more than 100 legal scholars from across the nation urged the governor’s veto because as written, the law might jeopardize the state’s claim to environmental penalties that will be levied against British Petroleum (BP) from the 2010 BP Macondo explosion, according to march organizer Mike Stagg.

Exempting the oil and gas industry from liability for their share of damages to the coast and jeopardizing the state’s claim to BP penalty money, leaves the state with a Coastal Master Plan that has a Phase I price tag of $50 billion and no revenue stream for its implementation.

“In haste to protect the most profitable industry in the history of the world, Governor Jindal and the state legislature have essentially issued a death sentence for coastal communities in Louisiana,” said Stagg. “We hope the march and gathering in Baton Rouge yesterday stimulates critical conversations statewide about how the oil and gas industry has come to see our wetlands and fresh groundwater as resources on which they have a greater claim than citizens.”

The six marchers crossed the Mississippi River carrying water taken from the Gulf of Mexico last Saturday at Grand Isle, which bears the onerous distinction as the place in North America most endangered by climate change. The water joined other “troubled waters” at the Governor’s mansion brought by residents from other parts of Louisiana who share the circumstances surrounding the threat that the oil and gas industry poses on their communities.

“We have long made a series of environmental tradeoffs that, if viewed separately, might not pose a long-term threat to the health and well-being of communities,” Stagg said.

“But the cumulative effect of decades of these tradeoffs has started to become apparent, with threats to ground water ranging from fracking in the Florida Parishes, to heavy industrial use by Exxon and Georgia Pacific in Baton Rouge, to pollution of the Ouachita River from plants located in Arkansas, to Lake Peigneur (where billions of gallons of drinking water might be used to carve salt dome storage caverns), to ground water pollution in the heavily industrialized sector near Lake Charles. Clean water is essential to life. We need to treat it as the precious resource that it is.”

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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