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Hollywood has been giving out climate change-focused awards for 33 years. Who knew?

Billie Eilish at the 32nd Environmental Media Association (EMA) Awards Gala in Los Angeles, Oct. 8 2022. The pop star is flanked by her mother Maggie Baird (left) and EMA CEO Debbie Levin.
Amy Sussman
Getty Images for Environmental Media Association
Billie Eilish at the 32nd Environmental Media Association (EMA) Awards Gala in Los Angeles, Oct. 8 2022. The pop star is flanked by her mother Maggie Baird (left) and EMA CEO Debbie Levin.

The Oscars, Grammys, Emmys and Golden Globes attract most of the public's attention during awards season each year. But the Environmental Media Association's (EMA) annual awards event — the EMA Awards — might be the most celebrity-studded accolades you've never heard of.

The event, which takes place on Saturday, Jan. 27 in Los Angeles — having been postponed from it usual October slot owing to the 2023 writers' and actors' strikes — is in its 33rd year.

Over the decades, the likes of Natalie Portman, Billie Eilish, George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Jeff Goldblum have shown up in electric vehicles and up-cycled couture to help honor figures in the entertainment industry leading the charge for sustainability. The awards also recognize productions that employ environmentally friendly practices throughout their processes, as well as feature films, TV shows and documentaries focusing on environmental justice, climate action and sustainability.

The gala on Saturday will include an Ongoing Commitment Award for actress Laura Dern, a live performance from singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow, and DJing by Samantha Ronson. Netflix leads the contenders, with seven nominations across nearly all of the eight EMA award categories for projects ranging from the movie comedy Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery to reality TV's Queer Eye "Sowing the Seeds" episode.

But the A-listy gala isn't live-streamed or broadcast. It's just for the attendees — though the organizers told NPR an edited version will be posted on the EMA website and social media channels a few weeks following the event.

"We have a completely different message. This is not an awards show. This is an educational event," said EMA CEO Debbie Levin, on having to compete with the more public-facing awards ceremonies this season. "We're talking about climate and sustainability, and hopefully educating, inspiring and motivating people when they come to this event."

A long legacy

Screenwriter and producer Norman Lear and entertainment executive Alan Horn launched the EMA in 1989 in collaboration with their wives Lyn Davis Lear and Cindy Harrell-Horn.

Norman Lear arrives at the Environmental Media Association Awards Gala in 2015 in a Toyota vehicle.
/ Getty for The Environmental Media Association
Getty for The Environmental Media Association
Norman Lear arrives at the Environmental Media Association Awards Gala in 2015 in a Toyota vehicle.

"They founded the organization because there was no place in the environmental community where stories were being told," Levin said. "A lot of organizations were doing climate advocacy work, but the public didn't know anything. Alan and Norman believed that highlighting storytelling about climate issues is a way to share them with the public."

Levin said the awards launched a couple of years later to help bring more awareness to these types of stories. "The idea was to use celebrity and the awards show platform to share on an international level that having environmental content within films and TV can be entertaining and educational."

Over the years, Levin said the EMA has worked to raise its profile in a variety of ways. It's sought to engage younger celebrities — from actress Cameron Diaz (There's Something About Mary, Charlie's Angels) in the 1990s to Mean Girls' musical star Auli'i Cravahlo today.

Levin is especially proud of her organization's push in the early 2000s to promote hybrid vehicles, specifically those of its now longtime sponsor Toyota. "For several years, we worked to get celebrities to arrive at the awards shows in this car and shoot them coming out of it," Levin said. "So it would be role modeling an alternative to a huge limo that got, like, three miles to the gallon."

Becoming better known

Despite its star power and longevity, the EMA has largely remained unknown to the broader public. Veteran Hollywood art director and climate activist Karen Steward said the organization's reputation is likely to grow — at least more broadly within the industry, if not also beyond it — in tandem with emerging other groups working at the intersection of climate change and entertainment, such as the Hollywood Climate Summit, and agencies that help productions reduce their environmental footprints, like Greenspark Group and Earth Angel.

"Unlike the Environmental Media Association, these groups are relatively new," said Steward. "And because of them, the landscape around them has become more accessible for conversation, education, and knowledge."

Levin said she welcomes all the newcomers in the space. "We're very establishment because we were founded by various establishment people, and for so long, it was hard being alone," Levin said. "So this is a gift for us to have other people trying to understand how urgent climate storytelling is."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.