Climate, hypocrisy and the citizen

— by Bob Hackett —

Anyone who’s criticized Big Oil’s political power or advocated for a low-carbon economy has probably heard a familiar rhetorical chestnut: “You hypocrite! You use oil products all the time. Hah! I bet you even drove to the protest rally.” Before handing out Applied Ethics awards to these critics, the chestnut deserves closer inspection.

First, nobody is saying that we must turn off the fossil fuel taps tomorrow. The real choice is between a planned and fast phase-out of fossil fuels, or a catastrophic economic and social collapse as the fuels that took millions of years to produce, run out in a few decades. Most of the protests focus on the expansion of extreme energy, like the Alberta bitumen sands.

Second, most people I know who recognize greenhouse gases as a threat to human survival take reasonable steps to limit their carbon footprints. In our household, we wear sweaters indoors, frequently use public transit, avoid red meat (feed growing and cattle farts are big emitters), and recycle or compose everything possible. Our worst environmental sin is probably taking several flights a year – for business, family visits, a vacation every year or two. As a partial offset, we donate generously to organizations advocating for sane climate and energy policies. And we’d be fine if air fares doubled to pay for the airline industry’s real costs of business, so long as income taxes were more progressive.

Point three: consumers can take small valuable steps, but they can’t easily opt out of a high-carbon economy. Are we supposed to live in mud huts, communicate via bongo drums, and travel by foot-and-pedal power only? If it’s winter, be sure to wear your parka. Oh wait, that’s got synthetic fibres – a petroleum product.

In many cases, there aren’t alternative products readily available; for example, electric cars are still an out-of-reach luxury for many. The consumer-focused market (i.e. capitalism) produces that which is profitable, not necessarily what is socially necessary, shifting responsibility onto consumers and away from where it most belongs: the institutions that are working to lock us further into fossil fuels. Public health advocates won the fight against Big Tobacco and saved thousands of lives by switching from blaming individual smokers, to focussing on the corporations that aggressively marketed it.

So it’s time to flip the argument about hypocrisy. Who are the real hypocrites in the fossil fuel debates? They fall into three groups.

First, there’s the supporters of fossil fuel expansion, and particularly extreme energy. They are hypocrites if they use products like coffee, that depend on climate stability. Oil executives should be required to vacation, or better still, live in the polluted, blasted landscapes on which their profits depend. How about a one-way ticket to Fort McMurray?

Second, how about politicians who promise to take climate action, and do the opposite once elected? The world’s foremost example must be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The Paris accord on climate change, and his proposed carbon tax, were measures already weak enough before Trudeau made a mockery of Canada’s climate commitments by agreeing to expand rather than phase out the bitumen sands.

The third group really takes the cake – Big Oil corporations. They have known since the 1970s and 80s about climate change – but like Big Tobacco a generation ago, chose to mislead the public and carry on their deadly business. They deliberately blocked investment in renewable energy – squeezing every last profitable drop out of the ground regardless of the consequences.

Fossil fuel use is hard-wired into the economy: the design of cities, transportation, and food supply, the very fabric of everyday life. It’s ridiculous to suggest that we could turn off the taps tomorrow. But it’s equally ridiculous to dismiss pro-climate public advocacy because people still have to use oil products. Do you have to drop out of society in order to participate in society? That’s an impossible demand.

Pro-climate advocates as hypocrites? It’s time to put that mouldy chestnut on the compost heap.

Bob Hackett is a Professor Emeritus of Communication at Simon Fraser University, and a co-founder of Media Democracy Day. His most recent co-authored book is Journalism and Climate Crisis: Public Engagement, Media Alternatives (Routledge, 2017).

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