Hypocrisy and climate dishonesty

Melbourne Global Climate Strike, 20 Sep 2019.
Challenging climate delayers and the charge of hypocrisy.

In an imperfect system, it is virtually impossible to not be contradictory or take part in some kind of high carbon activity.

Climate delayers demand perfection of activists or seize the opportunity to cry hypocrisy. But until the structural challenges of the climate emergency are addressed, it is impossible for individuals to be entirely consistent.

Over recent years, it has become ever harder for the opponents of climate action to maintain a position of outright denial.

Some do, but in a context where, as Mark Lynas articulated, it’s likely that there is a consensus of over 99 per cent that human caused climate change is happening, many have switched to the politics of delay.


At this point, climate delay is a familiar approach for the opponents of action. For ‘delayers’, making significant changes would just be ‘too costly’.

An argument that is easily countered with facts about the devastating environmental, social and economic cost of climate breakdown. But the politics of denial and delay have never relied upon rationality or reasonableness. It is the ultimate in short-termism.

With a backdrop of scientific consensus, ever present climate activism and regular reminders of the peril that humanity faces from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is a tactic that the delayers, deniers and opponents of action love to use – the hypocrisy charge.

For those that want to use it, crowing about hypocrisy is an easy ‘go to’ argument. It’s the ‘how can you possibly be taken seriously in climate as you fly?!’ argument. Or it’s Piers Morgan savaging George Monbiot’s position on the need to reduce meat consumption because he’s been seen wearing leather shoes and a leather watch strap.

It’s a simple tactic. It demands perfection of those demanding and fighting for change. It also conveniently individualises a fundamentally structural set of problems. It circumvents the arguments being made and rather insists that the individual making them shouldn’t be trusted or listened too as they are a brazen hypocrite.


But here’s the thing – we all live and operate in an imperfect world. The nature of our economic and social systems mean that it is almost impossible not to engage in some activities that are high carbon.

A small number of people decide to live off grid and as close to the earth as possible, which is great but if you want to affect change and push for genuine structural solutions, you have to be more actively a part of mainstream society.

Everyone who argues for leaving fossil fuels in the ground or reducing meat consumption - or for that matter any number of other essential facets of tackling the climate emergency - will be contradictory at some point. But the fact that someone flies twice a year doesn’t take away from the veracity of their arguments.

In an imperfect system, it is virtually impossible to not be contradictory or take part in some kind of high carbon activity.

Recently, the climate denying Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) has been reported to the charity commission, for alleged breaches of its duties with regard to the use of its charitable funds. The charge being that countering the scientific consensus, to delay or prevent action on climate breakdown, can never be charitable.

The GWPF may now be facing greater scrutiny than it has in the past, but the effects of its actions and those of similar organisations remain.


For a long time, doubt was sown abut the veracity of evidence for human caused climate change and the mainstream media often presented proponents of climate actions and deniers as having a debate on an even footing, despite the strength of the scientific consensus.

At a time when outright denial is harder to sustain and the politics of delay have become a permanent feature of the debate, the hypocrisy argument serves to both discredit those arguing for change and at the same time rubbish their arguments.

The opposite case is harder to make, but it must be done. In an imperfect system, it is virtually impossible to not be contradictory or take part in some kind of high carbon activity.

But writers, activists and anyone making these arguments, must shift the spotlight back off their own perceived hypocrisy and individual actions as a whole. 

It is essential to counter such arguments calls for systemic approaches with social justice at their heart. It will then and only then be possible for all individuals, not just those who live remove all high carbon activities from their lives.

This Author

Andrew Taylor-Dawson has been involved with the social justice and environmental movements for over fifteen years. He works in the NGO sector as well as writing about civil society, campaigning and progressive causes. He tweets at @Andrew_J_Taylor.

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