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Why I'm So Dedicated to Protecting the Health of the Planet

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Why I'm So Dedicated to Protecting the Health of the Planet

Stefanie Penn Spear

I'm often asked what keeps me so dedicated to protecting the health of the planet. My typical response is that I know if more people were educated about the impact their daily lives have on the health of the environment and future generations, they would adopt sustainable practices, and strive to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe.

The announcement yesterday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), issuing the first national standards for mercury pollution from power plants, is a perfect example of why I continue with this work. If it weren't for the tens of thousands of people working every day to encourage the passage of stronger air standards, it would have remained business as usual and the nation's air quality would continue to decline since the U.S. lacks, for the most part, the congressional leadership needed to assure proper air quality standards.

I was having dinner with a friend last night who explained how her husband's asthma is getting worse and the change in the formula of his inhaler seems to be less effective. I mentioned that it's unfortunate that we live in a county that is in nonattainment air quality, as designated by the U.S. EPA, as I'm sure that affects his breathing. She asked me what I was talking about, because to her, especially since we live near the woods, our air quality seems fine.

I told her about a map I've known about for years that shows which of the 88 counties in Ohio are in nonattainment air quality for fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which can greatly impact people with asthma. I emailed her the map this morning, with a three-page fact sheet explaining what nonattainment means for the public health, and refreshed my knowledge of the map. Unfortunately, Cuyahoga County, where we both live, is landlocked by six other counties all in nonattainment air quality.

I'm a runner and I have to hit my inhaler right before my run every other day to prevent an asthma attack. I'm certainly feeling fortunate today that the Obama Administration mandated that the U.S. EPA finally implement these historic standards, as ordered by Congress more than 20 years ago with the passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. The U.S. EPA has been regulating most industries to improve air quality except for the biggest polluters, including coal-fired power plants.

Since Ohio gets nearly 90 percent of its electricity from the burning of coal, these regulations should have a major impact on our air quality.

According to the U.S. EPA, the standards passed yesterday will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year, and protect American children by preventing 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis each year.

Boy can I relate to this. My 12-year old son who started cross country last fall has been continuing to stay in shape and run into the winter.  Recently, after some of his runs, his breathing has been shortened and shows signs of exercised-induced asthma. It will be great when these standards prevent 130,000 cases of childhood asthma as I'm sure my son falls into this category. There's no doubt that these standards are going to save the American people a significant amount of money in healthcare costs.

My thanks goes out to the Obama Administration for following through with these standards to protect human health and the environment.

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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.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

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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