February 5, 2020

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Joel Nodelman

Appealing to Hypocrisy in Climate Argument – The Number 1 Shabby Way to Attack the Person

About the author

Joel is an engineer and risk management specialist with over forty years of professional practice. He is committed to helping his clients achieve climate resiliency and sustainability.

Today, I want to revisit a topic I covered in a recent video, appealing to hypocrisy in climate argument. I talked about this late last year, at the height of the social media firestorm around Greta Thunberg. The tactic is so common though; I think it warrants another look. It is a form of attacking the person — the ad hominem argument.  But, it is a special case, and one we see a lot in climate work. It’s tinged with smugness, shared on social media, and supported by scads of  attaboy messages and re-shares. In fact, it’s a circus!

I want to stop for a minute and consider the implications of this message.  None of us are perfect, and we all share a society dependent on fossil fuel and resources. That is just reality. But living in the real world doesn't mean we don't want to improve. We base progress making things better, not on blindly accepting the status quo.

The Implications of Appealing to Hypocrisy in Climate Argument

Demanding that somebody live a perfect carbon-free lifestyle before we allow them to even comment on climate is just plain stupid. So, right off the top, I reject the insinuation that it’s hypocritical to live in the modern world. That is a sham. I am supposed to accept that before I am allowed into the conversation; I have to pass a purity test with unwritten rules, judged solely by the very people who want to reject my message in the first place. If I accept this, the conversation is over, in fact it never starts.

This is the ultimate in fakery, a total sham. As I have said many times — It's a crock!

What is Appealing to Hypocrisy in Climate Argument?

So, what is appealing to hypocrisy? This is one of the most common arguments against climate action. The idea is to undermine my integrity by showing that I am not perfect. Then anything I have to say about climate is wrong.

The Problem!

There is a problem here. The underling assumption is people who lack integrity are wrong about everything else. But my integrity has no bearing on the truth of climate change. In fact, there is no connection at all. The science stands or falls based on data, observation, thermodynamics, and peer review. My integrity doesn't change any of that. 

Some Thoughts about Greta and Appealing to Climate Hypocrisy

I follow Greta Thunberg with deep interest, both because she is a very successful public advocate but also for the simplicity of her message.

All she has ever said is that:

The IPCC says that climate is changing. This change is a real threat, especially to the youth who will have to deal with it. And finally, we should listen to the science and take real action.

This is not radical. In fact, it's true, and a concern shared by many sensible folks. And yet, critics regularly attack Greta. You’ve heard it:

She wears carbon-based fabrics!

She eats food that has a carbon footprint!

Her sailboat is made from carbon-based materials.

What a hypocrite!

This is all intended to make the discussion about Greta, divert us from the real issue, and have some fun shooting the messenger.

I think we can all learn lessons from how Greta manages the onslaught. She simply repeats her message, points out the threat and moves on. This isn't about her. It's about the threat of climate change.

A Cautionary Note

I have one cautionary note. Sometimes charges of hypocrisy are relevant. The conversation really is about integrity. These are the debates we have when we are questioning the fitness of a politician, or the honesty of a possible new hire for our company. At these times, integrity is the actual question. But this is not the case with climate change.

Appealing to Hypocrisy is Part of the Climate Grieving Process

Appealing to hypocrisy is a symptom of the denial phase of the climate grief process. The person doesn't want to talk about climate. So, they try to change the subject by attacking our character. It's easy to understand integrity, climate is much more difficult.  

This is a common ploy of trolls. But trolls are not the only folks at the table. I focus on the discussion with the average person, the person who is trying to understand climate change. They are trying to make sense of the issue and may repeat the appeal to hypocrisy because is seems to be common sense. As I said, integrity is easy to understand, climate — not so much. 

Responding to the Appeal to Climate Hypocrisy

The way forward with the true questioner is to listen, and share our concerns and feelings. We need to find a common ground. We are all human. We are all worried about our security, putting food on the table, and our families. We need to work with each other to understand we all share these core human values. Only then, can we finally discuss solutions,  working together rather than fighting unproductive battles. 

Let's Chat about Appealing to Climate Hypocrisy

I'd love to hear your thoughts about appealing to climate hypocrisy. Join the conversation by commenting below. Here are a few questions to stimulate your commenting juices.

  • When is the last time somebody accused you of climate hypocrisy? 
  • Did you recognize the tactic right away, or did it take a while for it to dawn on you?  
  • Have you ever caught yourself unintentionally appealing to climate hypocrisy?

It seems that I have been discussing climate tactics for a while now. Here is a link to one of my earlier videos, when I first started on this theme. Once you start to see these things, it is hard to ignore them. 

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