In defence of climate change 'hypocrisy'

Why it’s nonsensical to suggest that having a carbon footprint means you can’t legitimately raise concerns about climate change and its potential dire ramifications.

When it comes to the environment, perfect should not be the enemy of good

Young Calgarians traveling to Edmonton for a climate rally with Greta Thunberg. Critics called them hypocrites for using buses to get to the event. (Helen Pike/CBC)

For Duncan Kenyon, the implicit criticism frequently comes in the form of a question. 

Despite years spent developing sustainable energy projects, the Alberta regional director of the Pembina Institute still gets asked how he heats his home or if he drove to a meeting. 

It's the go-to criticism incessantly spat at environmentalists: if you produce even a modicum of greenhouse gases, you can't say anything about climate change.

And this criticism stings.

"It makes me feel shitty, and I do everything I can," says Kenyon. 

That's the burn of being branded an environmental hypocrite.

Duncan Kenyon is program director for responsible fossil fuels with the Pembina Institute. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

And then there's the scorched-earth fire environmentalist Greta Thunberg's recent visit to Alberta drew. The 16-year-old Swedish activist attracted both a crowd of thousands to the provincial legislature in October to join her weekly climate strike, and an explosion of scornful taunts of duplicity and pretence. 

Despite using an electric-powered Tesla vehicle to travel around Alberta, Thunberg was called out for using petroleum byproducts. And critics branded the young demonstrators, who joined her climate strike in Edmonton, hypocrites on Twitter, chastising them for using buses to get to the event. 

Even Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, opening a $200-million pipeline delivering gas to two of Alberta's largest power plants on the same day protestors took to the streets of the oil-rich province's capital, couldn't resist taunting the demonstrators, wondering how they "charged their iPhones." 

"When they power up the speakers at the Legislature today," added Kenney outside Pioneer Pipeline, 70 kilometres west of Edmonton, "the power … came from power generated at power plants like this." 

But is this really hypocrisy? Philosophers doubt it, calling the criticism a non sequitur that shuts down a crucial debate about climate change. Besides, what's wrong with being a hypocrite? It may, indeed, be hypocritical to protest oil extraction while also using fossil fuels to power up speakers at a climate change demonstration — but maybe that's the point.

People who want to change society also live in it. 

A non sequitur 

In the art of argument, a non sequitur doesn't logically flow from the statement that came before it. It's a bad argument.

The hypocrisy criticism thrown at climate activists is also an ad hominem or personal attack because it's directed at the environmentalist (the person) and not their argument about reducing greenhouse gases.

"The point of making that argument," says Mount Royal University philosopher Sinc MacRae, "is to label somebody a hypocrite and somehow denigrate them."

Sinc MacRae is a philosopher at Mount Royal University. (Brooks DeCillia)

MacRae points to the anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela.

Mandela, stresses MacRae, was highly critical of politicians — but he became a politician, himself, serving as South Africa's first black head of state. 

Was Mandela a hypocrite?

Sure, but becoming a politician allowed Mandela to dismantle the legacy of apartheid. Many credit the former African National Congress head's skilled leadership with preventing a civil war and fostering reconciliation in post-apartheid  South Africa.

"In order to justify the charge of hypocrisy ... you have to show a connection between what [the so-called hypocrite says] or what they do," says MacRae, "and it being a bad thing."

Nelson Mandela strongly criticized politicians, then became one. Does that make him a hypocrite? In this file photo, he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, when he was president of South Africa. (Reuters)

Branding climate activists hypocrites for wanting to decrease fossil fuel consumption while at the same time burning them is, therefore, a logical fallacy.

Abolitionists who opposed slavery in the United States, for instance, wore clothes that were spun from the cotton harvested by slaves.

"But that did not make them hypocrites," Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes told The Nation in 2015.

"It just meant that they were also part of the slave economy, and they knew it. That is why they acted to change the system, not just their clothes."

The hypocrite argument also falls apart because it ignores big structural factors. 

Personal decisions or forced decisions? 

Sure, some people do live off the grid, or walk and ride their bikes everywhere. But, for most of us, it's nearly impossible to escape creating greenhouse gases. 

Fossil fuels don't just heat our homes and fuel our vehicles, they are also the foundation of almost everything from electronics to painkillers.

"Our whole society is structured around fossil fuels," says Duncan Kenyon of the Pembina Institute.

"It's the backbone of our society, our economy."

It's, therefore, nonsensical to suggest that having a carbon footprint means you can't legitimately raise concerns about climate change and its potentially dire ramifications.

Protestors demonstrating cuts to the health-care system wouldn't likely forgo lifesaving treatment at a hospital if they needed it.

Demonstrators protest health-care cuts in this file photo. If one of them then needed to go to the hospital, would they have to refuse treatment in order to avoid being labelled a hypocrite? Or is it valid to participate in the system you are trying to improve? (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Similarly, you can be a capitalist and critique the free-market system. You can work in the oil and gas industry and recycle. In fact, people who work in the energy industry have done a lot to cut greenhouse gas emissions

Climate change activists don't deny they use fossil fuels. They just want to stop or limit their use of them. Plus, individual action won't be enough to address climate change. 

Despite its flawed logic, the hypocrite criticism gets repeated over and over again. It's become the go-to line for ending discussion about climate change.

And maybe that's the point.

Shutting down climate change dialogue 

Asking environmentalists how they charge their iPhone or if they drove to a protest is really aimed at shutting down debate. Calling someone a hypocrite usually ends a conversation fast. And there's power in that.

Silence is strategic.

These personal attacks lower the quality of our political and economic discourse, says MacRae.

"It leaves only two choices," he adds. "Either you're perfect … or you're evil and you're a complete, complete failure."

And if you're a failure, you're deemed a phony whose concerns about climate change aren't valid.

Crowds of people marched on the Alberta Legislature at a climate rally addressed by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Asking environmentalists how they charge their iPhones or if they drove to a protest is really aimed at shutting down debate, says Duncan Kenyon with the Pembina Institute. (Emilio Avalos/CBC)

Kenyon says politicians such as Jason Kenney are really using the hypocrite critique to discredit climate change activists and shut them up. It's much easier, after all, to not talk about complex issues than to tackle them. 

It's a powerful trick politicians use to discount environmentalists because they are "talking out of both sides of their mouth," says Kenyon.

"It's actually a way of shutting down discourse or discussion."

Some environmentalists, however, wear the scarlet letter of hypocrite like a badge of honour.

Embracing hypocrisy 

Like minority groups who have reclaimed derogatory terms used to vilify them, some environmentalists embrace the label of hypocrisy.

After all, recognizing the inescapable nature of fossil fuels is kind of the point.

"No one can live a non-hypocritical lifestyle in a meaningful way," says Adam Kingsmith, a self-proclaimed hypocrite, who highlights his hypocrisy in order to  spark change.

Adam Kingsmith is a doctoral student in philosophy at York University. (Twitter)

Kingsmith says he's forced to consume fossil fuels. It's unavoidable.

The doctoral student with York University's political science department remembers being called a hypocrite while at an environmental protest in Vancouver. Of course he is, he concedes.

Instead of a bad thing, Kingsmith argues that hypocrisy actually highlights how central fossil fuels are to our lives.

Even people such as Kingsmith, who want to reduce their carbon footprint, must use fossil fuels. 

"We have to be hypocrites to exist," he says.

"Hypocrisy is based on the kind of idea that there's … a choice to not be hypocritical," he adds.

"And I think that sort of choice doesn't really exist. And I think if we had more frank conversation around the fact that ... to be hypocritical or not hypocritical is really a non-choice."

Instead of hypocrisy being a criticism, it should be an important launching pad for conversations about addressing climate change and our reliance on fossil fuels, argues Kingsmith.

And a big part of that conversation could play out in the news media. 

Is hypocrisy news? 

Deceit, duplicity, deception. Hypocrisy is a hallmark of stories in the news.

But should the news media highlight the carbon footprint hypocrisy of environmentalists?

Sean Holman, a professor of journalism at Mount Royal University, thinks journalists need to be careful when shining a light on hypocrisy in this way.

Holman, who recently wrote an open call to Canadian journalists to start reporting on climate change as an emergency, calls the hypocrisy criticism directed at environmentalists who use buses to get to protests, for example, a "specious argument."

"The perfect," he stresses, "should not be the enemy of the good."

"Pillorying people who can't be perfect because the world doesn't allow them to be perfect is not the approach [the news media] should be taking."

Sean Holman is a professor of journalism at Mount Royal University. (Laura Balanko-Dickson)

Holman says it's fair game for the news media to call out environmentalists who take private jets or yachts to get to climate summits.

But it's another thing to echo and amplify the hypocrisy criticism when politicians such as Jason Kenney use it to question the validity of climate change protesters because they dare to charge their mobile phones.

"It's being used as a weapon to attack those people who are taking action on the most important issue of our time," says Holman. "And that does not seem to be a particularly honourable political tactic nor does it seem to be a particularly honest political tactic."

And such criticism can poison the water, polarizing the debate about climate change. 

Getting beyond a dead end argument 

No doubt, many of the people criticizing environmentalists feel threatened. Alberta's stubbornly sluggish economy has many worried about their livelihood and future. A convoy of counter-protesters made its way from Red Deer to the legislature at the same time as Thunberg, stressing they are "tired of celebrities coming into our province and trying to tell us how to run our oil and gas sector." 

Trucks assembling in Red Deer. The convoy drove into Edmonton as a counter protest to a climate strike rally at the Alberta Legislature at which Greta Thunberg spoke. (David Bajer/CBC)

The convoy crowd feels threatened. 

And climate change activists feel the planet is in danger.

There is no consensus about what comes next. The old ways are threatened and the new way is opaque, sparking this nasty clash.

Kenyon, with the Pembina Institute, argues the new way for Alberta is a low-carbon future. He says the province needs to do much more to prepare for an economy with much less fossil fuel at its centre. 

And part of getting there will involve changing attitudes. He stresses that the growing public concern across the country about climate change shouldn't be seen by Albertans as an attack on them.

The hypocrite criticism, warns Kenyon, could also erode the goodwill of the many Canadians who currently consume Alberta's oil and gas but want to reduce their use. He predicts those people would switch to renewable alternatives now if they could.

"If I was an oil executive or the premier of a province [such as Alberta] relying on oil products ... I would be quite worried about that," he says, especially with more and more green energy sources becoming available.

The more you criticize people, cautions Kenyon, the happier they'll be to switch to renewable energy.



Brooks DeCillia spent 20 years reporting and producing news at CBC. These days, he’s an assistant professor with Mount Royal University’s School of Communication Studies.