As a comment to my previous post, “Breaking with Normalcy in Our Climate Emergency”, someone wrote, “When the elites stop flying their private planes, and sell their oceanfront houses, you can start worrying again, but don’t hold your breath.” While I realize that online comments tend to reflect more extreme viewpoints, and I know that this particular commenter is in the minority when they deny the danger of greenhouse gases entirely, I would like to respond to their point for two reasons.
First of all, even though most people don’t believe that the hypocrisy of the elites is a reason to deny climate change, widespread climate hypocrisy definitely seems to have an effect on our thinking about the reality of climate change, not only for the deniers. And by affecting our thinking, it affects our actions. Which is why I think it can be important to delve into the issue of climate hypocrisy, or in some cases what might just seem like climate hypocrisy.
Second of all, while I realize I may very well just keep getting comments, if any, from hardline climate deniers, I would like to open up the possibility of responding to comments from people genuinely open to changing their thinking. It is understandable that there would be objections to some things I say, even among those who consider themselves environmentally minded. I believe most of us are in a state of moral failure for not responding to the climate crisis with an extreme transformation of our personal and collective lives, and I plan to express this point in various ways through this blog. So it makes sense that people who consider themselves moral agents in this world might raise various defensive objections to what I write, and I want to welcome those comments so that I may try to answer some of them. (I’ve found it interesting that it is sometimes those who consider themselves less morally minded who are more open to accepting our present day moral crisis. On the other hand, when I talk to people who are more intentional about living according to a certain moral code, they are often more reluctant to accept the moral implications of our climate emergency. While paradoxical, this makes sense, since someone whose identity is wrapped up in being a “good” person would find it harder to accept an understanding of the world that implies they are in some ways complicit with a process that will bring about potentially unimaginable levels of death and suffering.)
For those two reasons, I’d like to address the issue of hypocrisy that was brought up in the comment. Of course, I’m making the assumption that the commenter was in fact referring to those hypocritical elites who pay lip service to the climate crisis but continue their extravagantly climate-destructive habits. There are many elites who don’t even pay lip service, or who actively mock environmental concerns. In any case, I don’t want to dwell here on the behavior of the elites. Not because I don’t think their behavior matters – far from it. They have a ridiculously outsized contribution to climate change. Rather – and in fact, partly for that very reason – I just don’t see them as role models, so their hypocrisy as hypocrisy doesn’t really bother me. I can understand how it would bother someone who believes that the climate change message is just top-down propaganda coming from the elite, though I don’t think that is the impression of most of those who might read this, despite the fact that such viewpoints are often disproportionately reflected in comment sections.
I think most people would agree that elite climate hypocrisy is not so different from elite hypocrisy about other issues. An exorbitantly wealthy person publicly lamenting the plight of the poor but then spending most of their wealth on themselves doesn’t make us question the existence of poverty. So why should the elites flying in private planes after lamenting the plight of the climate make someone seriously question the existence of anthropogenic climate change? (The question of owning oceanfront property is only slightly different. I think most readers will agree that the elites can often make deluded investments, especially if it means some immediate benefit for them, and so their owning oceanfront property doesn’t undermine climate science.)
However, there is also a pervasive phenomenon of climate hypocrisy among climate activists and climate scientists, which can potentially contribute to an undermining of the overall message in a deeper way than the hypocrisy of certain elites who try to pass themselves off as climate advocates. Are you really supposed to trust people who claim that we have to change the whole world, but who don’t even seem to be able or willing to change their own lives sufficiently to model their vision? What is going on?
There are various rationalizations and justifications that I’ve come across for some level of climate hypocrisy. There are those that I believe are somewhat justified, and others quite unjustified excuses. My main point, however, is to show that there are reasons for this phenomenon of hypocrisy outside of the all too common interpretation that “Oh, well if it were really serious, these activists would (not) be doing A, B, and C, so it can’t actually be that serious.” This is an extremely dangerous assumption. It’s like if you had a roommate who kept saying “Hey, we gotta replace the fire detector” but was too lazy to change it himself, and so you’d assume that because he’s being so lazy about it, then fires can’t be that serious. Except in this case, the metaphor would be closer if there were an active fire already taking place in the building and it was a question of doing something about it or not.
For the justification that I find most compelling, and for which I justify some of my own hypocrisy, I will continue with the metaphor of the active fire in the building. And that is that, regardless of one’s own behavior, there is an inherent good in alerting others to the emergency/fire. I might be too weak-willed or cowardly to act to the full extent demanded by the situation, but, in such a scenario, there is still a value in just running around shouting, “There’s a fire!! There’s a fire!!!” And I would of course not refrain from calling 911 out of concern for being a “hypocrite” just because I’m not putting out the fire myself. In a way, trying to figure out how to speak out about the climate crisis sometimes feels like a desperate attempt to reverse engineer this metaphor: What is the fire department? What is the phone? How do we dial? There are many arguments about what’s the most effective way to make the “call”, but one thing that’s for sure is that you don’t stop trying to make the call just out of fear of being labeled a hypocrite.
Another reason often given for behavior that is or seems inconsistent with the message is that the solutions to the climate crisis have to be more systemic than based just on individual behavior. It is not necessarily hypocritical to argue that all of one’s energy should go toward pushing for systemic societal shifts, and that any accounting of one’s personal carbon footprint is a distraction. This is an especially powerful argument given that the concept of the “carbon footprint” was actually popularized by the fossil fuel company BP as part of an advertising campaign that shifted responsibility for climate change onto individuals (rather than fossil fuel companies). Some climate activists therefore believe that making significant personal sacrifices to lower one’s carbon footprint is just falling for fossil fuel propaganda. Of course, this is quite a convenient belief to have if one wants to go hop on a flight for a vacation after a week of protest. But I would say this is not as convenient as the belief that most people seem to have, which is that the climate crisis doesn’t call on us as individuals to make significant personal sacrifices OR protest for systemic change, and we can just keep on more or less going about our business.
One of the reasons I’m not entirely against even the more blatant forms of climate activist hypocrisy is because it offers the message that someone can join the climate movement without it being conditional on their making other personal sacrifices, and hopefully that might mean more people willing to become climate activists. So it actually is hard to say if certain forms of climate “hypocrisy” help or hurt the climate movement. Hypocrisy might turn people off, but so can purism. But this is only to counter the “If you want people to listen to you, do this” rhetoric against apparent hypocrisy. (I once had someone tell me that if I wanted to be taken seriously about climate change, I shouldn’t be wearing shoes because of the plastics in shoes. I don’t know if going barefoot would actually get people to take me more seriously.) I definitely don’t think one should intentionally be less conscientious about their own emissions in order to make the climate movement more open to people who don’t want to make sacrifices.
This all plays into the messiness of marketing a message. It is surprising to me how often a discussion about climate turns into a discussion about marketing, even if the word “marketing” is itself not explicitly uttered. Hypocrisy is bad marketing. Purism is bad marketing. Pessimism is bad marketing. Moralizing is bad marketing. Disruption is bad marketing. Extremism is bad marketing. Etc. It seems that by focusing on the complex calculus of the effectiveness of messaging, people find a way to ignore a more simple moral logic: If you personally benefit from a system that significantly endangers human life, then you are responsible to speak out in order to push to change that system to make it less harmful. And accusing climate activists of hypocrisy works extra well to avoid this clear moral imperative. Not only does it work in the amoral realm of marketing, it carries its own moral counterweight as a rationalization against speaking out. But really, in most cases that’s all it is – a rationalization. In the end, there’s usually quite a simple answer to: Why are climate activists a bunch of hypocrites? Because then you don’t have to join them.