In the debate over climate change (which is not happening among climate scientists), an increasingly common tactic among deniers is to accuse the other side of hypocrisy if their life happens to benefit from fossil fuels in any way. Obviously, if global warming is as big of a threat as the scientific consensus claims to be, shouldn’t we be doing absolutely everything in our power to reduce our carbon footprint? Shouldn’t we stop driving our cars completely, stop using energy that origninates from our coal-fueled power plants, and live out our days in Amish-level simplicity to avoid producing any level of emissions as we can?
Speaking for myself, I’ve definitely taken steps to reduce my carbon footprint. I bike when going somewhere local, I ride the bus going to Denver and the airport, I am a vegetarian (one of the best ways as an individual to cut down on emissions), I use a drying rack instead of a dryer, and my household pays a little extra on our bills so that our energy comes from a nearby wind plant*. However, I still need to use my car when there’s a blizzard or my destination is more than a few miles away. My home still needs to be heated in the winter. I take flights across the country as regularly as anyone else. I am certainly not carbon-neutral. When I spread facts on social media about climate change, I inevitably get interrogated to find out if I use fossil fuels, and I cannot avoid being honest and tell them the truth.
Of course, there are obviously more prominent figures than me on the climate front who, despite championing climate activism prominently, have also been raked across the coals in conservative spaces for engaging in decidedly carbon-positive activity. Leonardo diCaprio, who has started a foundation to support sustainability and combat climate change, and also has supported the Climate March, has been criticized on Twitter for regularly renting a diesel-guzzling yacht. Al Gore, famous for producing the climate documentary An Inconvenient Truth, has been called a hypocrite for utilizing roughly 20 times as much energy as the average citizen. We can’t ignorse some prominent activists who have contributed their share to greenhouse gas emissions.
Does this mean that climate change isn’t happening? Obviously not. The actions of the messenger have zero impact on the rate of global temperature. Accusing climate activists of not living up to a reduced-carbon lifestyle is largely an ad-hominem attack on the messenger of the facts, as opposed to addressing the facts as they stand. So, yes, this is a terrible argument if you are trying to convince anyone that climate change isn’t real (or that we humans aren’t causing it).
Of course, an accusation of hypocrisy is worth taking a look at and teasing apart. We definitely shouldn’t defend “climate celebrities” when they indulge in elaborate lifestyles that contribute more than their fair share to the carbon budget. But some criticisms are more overblown than others.
It’s often the case that activists are criticized, for example, for flying in planes to participate in political action. There’s no way around it, flying a plane contributes a lot to carbon emissions. As FiveThirtyEight puts it, “a roundtrip flight from, say, Denver to New York produces the equivalent of nearly a year’s worth of emissions from a car”. It’s pretty difficult to get a multi-ton object moving fast enough to fly, and even if you split the emissions among all the passengers and the flight crew you will still make an impact when you fly.
However, this reflects the practical choices that activists must take when participating in direct action. For activists to have the best impact they can, it often helps that they can meet face-to-face with politicians. Marches exist because a large number of people are gathered to bring visibility to an issue. Bodies matter. When a climate activist travels to a nearby city or Washington DC to take action, there’s little they can do short of a horse-drawn carriage to completely eliminate emissions in their travel (and even then, it wouldn’t work, as horses produce methane). They can drive, which will reduce their output relative to flying, or they can split the carbon footprint among multiple people and take a bus or a train into the city. But to some degree they will have to make a choice of how their travel impacts their carbon footprint.
The alternative to traveling, however small a distance, is doing very little activism. If an activist is not going to leave the house, their options basically amount to speaking out on the internet and calling their politicians. Both of these acts, while important and potentially impactful, are limited in scope and scale. It affords very little impact to the person involved. Even someone who does have a major media outreach like Bill Nye is criticized for utilizing GHG emissions to travel, yet this ignores where this carbon investment is going. Yes, this carbon input is going into the atmosphere and will be another (small) factor in the Earth’s warming, but it is also going to changing the system. If someone like Bill Nye has a major audience and has the power to influence many people to inspire change, this carbon “investment” has many positives. Mass media communication, however, comes with many requirements, including travel. It is fairly difficult to build and maintain an audience outside of places like LA and Manhattan in America, and if activists are going to be involved in direct change, some minor sacrifices must be made.
On an even more trivial level, we have to keep in mind that communicating science and participating in political activism requires resources beyond travel. Electronic media requires power and climate organizations require electricity for their buildings. Making change requires resources, and resources require power. In a world where usually the only thing available is what we’re fighting to change, we’ll take what we can get.
It is fairly convenient for climate denialists that they don’t have to do anything to avoid appearing hypocritical. Denying the climate doesn’t really take any effort, and since they have no motivation to take any action whatsoever, they can also feel comfortable in their seats without changing their lifestyle. However, once climate activists take even one minor step to improve the world or speak out about mankind’s impact on the planet, they can’t do so without being criticized. If a newly-informed citizen realizes the impact they are having on the climate, apparently their opinion doesn’t matter until they ride around exclusively on a bike and stop using all electricity. It must be nice for climate denialists to have the freedom to do nothing, while anyone who has anything to say at all must make a radical lifestyle change to completely divest from using any fossil fuels whatsoever. If this complaint were to be taken seriously, it would effectively selectively remove most climate activists from the conversation entirely. It is an appeal to perfection, something that cannot be expected of any activist, yet apparently it is an acceptable retort to anyone presenting mere scientific facts.
This goes to say that it’s not hypocritical to using the system we live under to change the system. Our current economy and energy infrastructure relies on fossil fuels, there’s no sense in ignoring that. That is part of the picture that climate activists are trying to change. If they are living in a society that relies almost entirely on fossil fuel infrastructure, then forcing them to abstain from fossil fuel infrastructure is absolutely crippling them and preventing them from carrying out their message. It’s convenient for climate deniers to invalidate any argument where a climate activist has room to improve, since that’s practically every climate activist. It also allows them the luxury of not having to heed a climate activist’s concerns.
But really, how are we going to reduce emissions? In all likelihood, most big gains are not going to be from private citizens changing their lifestyles, though that would help. I’m under no illusions that most people will change the way they live. When we look at the sources of most of our carbon emissions in the United States, little of it has to do with the behaviors of private citizens. Only 4% of emissions in the United can be traced back to the residential sector, which is going to have the most relevance to the lifestyle of a private citizen. 14% of emissions also account for electricity usage for residential use. 26% of emissions are in the transportation sector, and 61% percent account for light-duty vehicles, which means that roughly 16% of all emissions are due to light-duty vehicles (of which some are still going to be industrial and commercial use, but for lack of better data I will assume the 16% accounts for private homeowners). This adds up to roughly 30% of emissions for private citizens. The rest of that can be chalked up to industry and commercial use.
Perhaps my calculations aren’t quite perfect, but I contend that even if you fiddle with the numbers, on a per-capita basis, the contributions of any given private citizen is miniscule compared to industrial and commercial output. Many climate focused activities are putting pressures on things like carbon taxes, which would disproportionately affect industry and commercial interests. It also focuses on investing in research for renewable energy, which should provide a large return on investment. Transitioning energy as a utility to renewable sources and away from fuels like coal and natural gas affects all sectors, causing a net drop in emissions across the board. To be clear, I’m not saying this won’t affect private citizens, since there will certainly be economic effects. But reforming our infrastructure to rely more on renewable energy would also make it affordable to be sustainable and reduce the amount of lifestyle change required for the average person, since everyday utilities like electricity could come from wind and solar sources instead of fossil fuels. While I find it important to walk the walk myself and take steps in my personal life to reduce emissions and encourage others to do the same, a lot of the big steps aren’t going to be done by my lifestyle alone.
It comes down to how much we are allowed to use the system we are forced into even if the system is something we are trying to change. I personally find that the ends thoroughly justify the means in this case. As an analogy, I don’t find it hypocritical when a right-leaning libertarian works as a politician to reduce the power that politicians have. I may have some issues with their ideology and the outcomes of their goal, but I wouldn’t criticize them for that particular tactic. The simple reason I wouldn’t criticize them for that is because it might be effective anyway.
Ultimately, calling out climate-change activists for utilizing fossil fuels seems to function effectively only as a silencing tactic. It diverts the conversation away from the relevant discussion of facts and what steps we can take to mitigate Anthropogenic Global Warming’s effects. It also works as a silencer, because if all climate activists were to cease immediately from using any fossil fuels whatsoever, they would not be able to spread their message nearly as effectively as the side that wants to muddy the conversation and ignore the scientific message. Yes, many of us use fossil fuels, and many of us are trying to change that. But if someone is going to focus on activist lifestyle instead of the major problems that can be changed, the conversation is a waste of time.
* I recognize that I am privileged enough to live in a progressive utopian people’s republic such as Boulder, Colorado that facilitates this lifestyle, and not everyone can live in a bike-friendly town with access to renewable energy.