As someone deeply interested in the pipeline and climate change debates I encounter the topic of hypocrisy every day. The discussion usually starts with a pipeline supporter pointing out that pipeline opponents who rely on fossil fuels are hypocrites. The standard activist response to the “hypocrite” label is to point out that it is a tu quoque argument and is therefore not valid (typically while posting the famous Mister Gotcha cartoon from Matt Bors). As someone who has studied logic, I understand how hollow the tu quoque response is and in this blog post I want to explain why hypocrisy matters in the pipeline and climate change debates.
Let’s start with an explainer. RationalWiki provides this definition:
Tu quoque is a form of ad hominem fallacy that occurs when it is assumed that an argument is wrong if the source making the claim has itself spoken or acted in a way inconsistent with it. The fallacy focuses on the perceived hypocrisy of the opponent rather than the merits of their argument.
As described the tu quoque argument represents a special type of ad hominem argument. An ad hominem (literally “to the man”) is a type of argument where you attack the messenger to avoid dealing with the message. That is why it is treated as a type of logical fallacy. Whether an activist relies on fossil fuels shouldn’t logically affect our evaluation of the activist’s position. But there is something very important to understand:
Tu quoque is only a fallacy when one uses it so as to divert attention from the issue at hand, or to avoid or fail to respond to an argument that non-fallaciously gave one the burden of proof.
What does this mean in simple language? Tu quoque protects a person’s argument not their reputation. There is no denying that an activist who claims that we should not use fossil fuels while wearing a gortex jacket and driving a car to the protest is indeed a hypocrite. However, that activist can have a strong argument (that we should reduce our reliance on fossil fuels to help fight climate change) and still be a hypocrite and the tu quoque response does nothing to mitigate either of those two truths.
Similarly, a First Nations right’s advocate whose family owns a gas station that relies on fossil fuels that are transported over other First Nations’ lands is truly a hypocrite to insist that a pipeline shouldn’t be allowed to travel freely over her First Nation’s lands.
Now let’s deal with the more important question:
Should hypocrisy matter in the pipeline and climate change debates?
My response is twofold:
- the science says it does matter from a credibility standpoint, and
- morally and logically it absolutely should as well.
Let’s start with the first half of the answer.
Regardless of what activists may hope in presenting a tu quoque response, the truth is that their hypocrisy matters in the court of public opinion and thus in policy debates. The science is clear that statements about climate researchers’ carbon footprints affect their credibility and the impact of their advice.
The public has spoken and the public agrees that the personal behaviour of activists matter. If they behave in a manner inconsistent with their proposed policies their credibility suffers. Put another way, there is a reason their opponents want to label activists as hypocrites, because it works. This brings us to the second half of the question:
Should their hypocrisy matter?
In my opinion it absolutely should.
Climate change and pipelines represent global issues that require global solutions. Because they are such big issues a lot of activists claim that their personal efforts won’t make a difference and that any change will need to be implemented by governments and businesses. This response is a cop-out. In essence, these activists are off-loading the responsibility to show leadership and instead demanding that government force a change in behaviour on the population.
Because of the nature of the policies necessary to address climate change or to get off fossil fuels a lack of personal leadership from the activist community really matters. If the activists are successful in implementing their preferred policies then every citizen will be affected and the hardest hit will be the poorest among us. Isn’t it convenient that most activists come from upper middle-class backgrounds and have the means and the resources to insulate themselves from the policies they want imposed, through the coercive power of the state, on others? If the activists fighting for those policies aren’t willing to lead from the front what does that tell you about both them and their policies?
Another important consideration is that the activist class is mostly made up of people without applicable technical backgrounds. Instead, they are mostly political scientists, sociologists and communications and media studies graduates. I can’t count the number of activists I have heard making hollow claims bereft of scientific merit (see my last blog post) because they have no practical/technical understanding of what these types of policies will entail. Their absence of a technical understanding allows them to credulously make impossible demands. This explains why so many of them present the policies necessary to effectively fight climate change as relatively benign when they will be nothing of the sort. By showing leadership the activists can develop a personal understanding about how hard this transition really will be.
What is even worse are the activists who appear to be acting in bad faith. Any informed citizen knows that electricity and liquid fuels serve two distinct roles in our current society. Electricity cannot replace liquid fuels in our transportation system, so until the transportation system is converted over to electric drive engines and hydrogen-powered fleets we will still need liquid fuels to supply our trains, planes and trucks. Any activist arguing that electricity produced by solar panels can replace liquid fuels in our current transportation system is either ignorant or trying to take advantage of the ignorance of their followers. Neither alternative is terribly flattering.
The truth of the matter is that hypocrisy and bad-faith arguments are a feature of these debates and not a bug and when observed should be called out. There are too many professional activists out there making a living making impossible demands (ostensibly “to move the Overton Window“) and demanding that the government impose a cost on others that they are unwilling to voluntarily shoulder themselves. Their attempts to “change the conversation” actually flood the discussion with fake facts and makes it harder to generate the consensus necessary to make real and necessary changes to our energy systems.
Until these arbiters of others’ behaviour demonstrate their personal commitment to live the life they demands of others their opinions should be given no weight and their hypocrisy called out. Demanding that our government give up on developing means to safely transport liquid fuels and instead build more solar panels in a world where virtually all food is moved in fossil-fuel-reliant modes of transportation is simply a demonstration that the individual making that argument either has no clue or is deliberately spreading misinformation. In either case it should be called out for what it is: either propaganda intended to bring in donations from credulous supporters (and not to make a real change in our society), or virtue signalling from self-important hypocrites who are too ignorant to know any better. Climate leaders should lead from the front and that means being on the forefront of the battle against carbon. It is time they stop just talking the talk and start walking the walk.