Ever heard the argument that climate protesters are hypocrites because they drive cars, use petroleum products and otherwise don’t practice what they preach? It’s a PR line designed to shut down criticism without addressing its substance, and, what’s worse, it’s a logical fallacy.
This isn’t about politics. Everyone has the right to their opinion, and if yours is that climate change isn’t real, or isn’t a threat, or that it is but we should keep burning fossil fuels anyway, you’re welcome to it. But if your argument rests on a non-sequitur, then don’t be surprised when the rest of us point and laugh when you trot it out.
The central fallacy is this: one doesn’t need to abstain from using the oil that powers society today in order to argue for change tomorrow.
As human beings, we make decisions both individually and collectively. In the case of climate change, only a charlatan with shares in a compact fluorescent light bulb factory would try to argue that individual actions are sufficient to address the problem we face.
But that paralyzing inability to effect change individually is okay, because we aren’t limited to individual action. Humans are pack animals, and throughout history we’ve banded together to face common challenges. It’s the basis of our societies.
Whether you agree with them or not, climate activists are participating in a social debate over how we respond to climate change. They’re advocating for a broad shift away from fossil fuels and a corresponding investment in renewable energy. In many cases they’re just arguing that government subsidies currently going to oil companies should be redirected to the development of alternative energy sources.
They aren’t denying they use petroleum products; we all do. They’re arguing that this fact itself is a problem and advocating for societal change. They recognize that even if they could eliminate all petroleum products from their lives, it would make no difference to the climate. This isn’t hypocrisy. It’s an attempt to instigate change in response to a threat that almost all scientists say is clear and present.
Climate change is a collective problem, and it requires a collective solution.
Setting aside for a moment the fact that it would likely be impossible for anyone to live in this day and age without using petroleum products, let’s follow this argument to its logical conclusion.
“To say it is hypocritical to divest while still using fossil fuels is equivalent to telling parents they must remove their children from class while advocating for better schools,” wrote Jamie Henn of 350.org in a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe. “We must fight in the world we have, not the world we want.”
If members of society were disqualified from advocating for change while participating in the systems they want to alter, we’d still be bashing rocks together to make fire. Humans have always had to use one source of energy while transitioning to the next. No doubt many of the early oil barons of Pennsylvania in the mid-19th century conducted some of their business using whale oil lamps.
Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes told The Nation why the “but we all use fossil fuels argument” is flawed in an April interview.
“Of course we do, and people in the North wore clothes made of cotton picked by slaves. But that did not make them hypocrites when they joined the abolition movement. 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.”
After I tweeted about a group of “kayaktivists” in Portland trying to block the path of an icebreaker required for Shell to resume drilling for oil in the Arctic, two Twitter users responded with the same argument about the kayaks being made from petroleum. Then I did a search and found dozens upon dozens of users making the same point, using similar words. This meme dates from a similar protest in Seattle in May.
@Ansel pic.twitter.com/tErErLcpmw— Mo L. Onlabe (@quitwritingme) May 18, 2015
But this fallacious argument goes far beyond anonymous Twitter users echoing industry talking points. I’ve heard it often from mainstream journalists. Take for example this tweet by Keith Baldrey, a political journalist for Global BC.
Protesting Big Oil by using kayaks made from Big Oil does seem... What? .....what's the word I'm looking for here? #bcpoli #cdnpoli— Keith Baldrey (@keithbaldrey) May 19, 2015
There’s nothing to be done about Twitter trolls, but the next time someone you know makes this argument, call them out on it. If a journalist or commentator uses it, tweet them to explain why they’re wrong and ask them to stop.
The only way this nonsense will stop flooding our social timelines every time a climate-related protest happens is if those who use it begin to feel embarrassed when they do.
If you’re on the other side of this debate, and perhaps think all scientists are part of a global conspiracy to take down capitalism, then great. Let’s talk about it. But please, retire this particular logical fallacy from your repertoire. If nothing else, it’s getting old.