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Column / Harder Line

Behind the energy and climate change hypocrisy in all of us

Illustration of a tree stump with an axe in it, with a protester walking away carrying a sign saying, "Save the Earth"
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Thousands of environmental activists and politicians are descending on New York City in the coming days for rallies and a major summit. Almost certainly, they will use oil, natural gas and/or coal to get there.

The big picture: That's the classic hypocrisy charge — you're a hypocrite for advocating on climate change while using fossil fuels. Such arguments are shallow because virtually everyone depends on these fuels somehow. Yet the charges are increasing, so it's worth exploring the concrete steps people can actually take in a warming world.

Driving the news: "Flight shaming” is near the top of the list of hypocrisy charges. Jet-fueled airplanes account for just 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions, but on a per-ton basis, it’s one of the most carbon-intensive activities individuals can choose. Some recent and high-profile examples:

  • Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in a carbon-free sailing boat to attend the climate summit, hosted by the United Nations on Sept. 23. But she faced criticism after a Berlin newspaper, TAZ, reported her sailing trip would emit more greenhouse gases than if she would have flown herself because several people would fly to New York to return the boat to Europe.
  • British Prince Harry and his wife Duchess Meghan have recently faced similar criticism for urging action on climate change while flying in private jets.
  • Al Gore, the former vice president turned climate activist, has faced by far the most hypocrisy charges (including but not limited to air travel), waged by people opposing action, according to a peer-reviewed 2018 study on this topic. Yes, people study this topic!

The motivations driving hypocrisy charges vary widely. Those who dismiss climate change as a problem do it to mock climate activists like Gore, but that 2018 study found it’s actually progressives urging action who invoke the hypocrisy angle more in the media.

  • Trying to make people feel guilty for their carbon-intensive activities doesn’t actually get them to change their behavior, according to another study from 2016. Focusing on system-wide changes is best, the authors conclude.
“The reality is, you’re just not going to be effective motivating individual people if you make them feel bad.”
— Nick Obradovich, co-author and senior research scientist, Berlin-based Max Planck Institute for Human Development

Between the lines: Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines hypocrisy as “behavior that contradicts what one claims to believe or feel.”

  • This implies a conscious choice to do Action A that contradicts Belief B. Yet, our society’s use of energy — largely fossil fuels — is mostly passive and in most cases unavoidable.
  • Indeed, most people would not be able to afford — both in money and time — to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in a carbon-free boat like Thunberg did.
  • Since we all somehow use fossil fuels and carbon-free replacements are still the exception (for now), charges of hypocrisy would have to apply to pretty much all of us, thus diluting the whole point.

But, but, but: This concept is increasingly part of our debate, so it’s got me thinking about tangents that are more actionable: to what degree people are willingly taking concrete steps to lower their lifestyle’s impact on climate change, or why people are not. I’m also looking at how much we passively depend on fossil fuels and products coming from them, namely plastic.

What’s next: I’ll be occasionally writing columns tackling these topics going forward.

  • One way people are taking individual steps in response to concerns about climate change is donating more to environmental groups, as I reported in last week’s column.
  • Other topics I’m exploring are companies that seek profits from directly encouraging consumers to move away from fossil fuels, and reality checking the effectiveness of offsets and credits, which are arcane, intangible ways companies and individuals can counterbalance emissions.

What I’m hearing: A big reason I’m pursuing these angles is because I regularly hear from readers asking what they can do to address climate change, or they ask me about my carbon footprint. So, what do you do to reduce the climate impact of your lifestyle? Or conversely, why don’t you take such steps?

There are no right or wrong answers, just your insights. Email me at amy@axios.com.