On climate hypocrisy

During COP23, I attended a side event for journalists. It was good, but I have kept thinking about one panel discussion. It led me to my New Year’s resolution for 2018: connecting with people, not preaching to them. Craig Morris explains.

It isn’t easy to practice what we preach – but is it better not to preach at all? (Public Domain)

Journalists are in a weird place at present. Most are modestly paid but ironically face criticism for being part of the establishment. Environmental or climate journalists are in an even worse situation; their subjects are not widely read. When newspapers decide who to lay off in order to save money, these journalists sometimes have to go. In 2013, for instance, the New York Times closed its environmental desk, leaving only the Los Angeles Times with a dedicated environmental desk (here) among major US papers.

The situation is no different in Germany. One of the country’s senior environmental writers was recently told to stop writing so much about such issues. He declined and is now working for a consultancy. Another award-winning climate journalist told me years ago, “Anyone who can leave journalism for a better job does.” This year, she became the press spokesperson for a major German energy commission.

The panel discussion that kept me thinking included the head of a German NGO, an EU parliamentarian, and a representative of the German Environmental Ministry. The official from the ministry started off by asking the journalists in the audience how many of them had come to COP23 in Bonn in a carbon-neutral way. Some hands went up, but the question rubbed me the wrong way: so we invite people to come to a conference and then call them out if they do so without offsetting their emissions?

The governmental official has probably faced such questions herself, I thought. Indeed, I myself had previously noted that the German organizers of COP23 provided oil heating for the temporary pavilions. It was the simplest and cheapest option, apparently. Maybe the journalists present also worked within tight budgets when planning their travel?

When people don’t practice what they preach, they are called hypocrites. Psychologists have found that hypocrisy bothers people more than lying. Here’s how the Guardian summed up the research:

Take two kinds of claims about environmental activism. Under one set of conditions, a speaker claims to recycle his rubbish, after which it is revealed that he does no such thing. Under the other, a speaker tells his listeners they should recycle their rubbish, after which it is revealed that he does not do it himself. The first is a liar. The second is a hypocrite, but not a liar, since what he says is still true (people should recycle their rubbish). Most people respond with relative equanimity to the lie. But they loathe the hypocrisy, because the hypocrite seems to be patronising them.

People who talk about the environment and climate are often perceived to be telling others how to live. When we then learn that these people don’t follow their own advice, they seem hypocritical.

Talk about yourself, and you can’t be a hypocrite. In a recent podcast I made, Mark Lawrence, Scientific Director of the IASS, described (in episode 1) all the things he had done to cut his ecological footprint in half over the past decade: no flights in business class, a vegan diet, green electricity at home, etc. He added, “I haven’t the slightest idea how I can stay functional in society and do another 50% over the next decade! I can’t stop eating. I can’t stop flying…. That’s where you realize how hard it will be.”

I found this admission admirable. Rather than telling others what to do, Mark focused on his own inability to comply with the Paris Climate Accord under real-world conditions. I liked his statement so much, I decided to ask others to talk about what they are doing to reduce their ecological footprints – but everyone declined to comment. They must’ve been worried about being called hypocrites.

The panel at the COP23 event may have also had such concerns. The governmental official complained that climate news didn’t receive proper coverage and challenged the journalists in the room: “How many of you were writing about the Sustainable Development Goals in 2012?” Very few hands went up. The question was unfair in two ways. First, the SDGs did not yet exist; the idea for them had merely been proposed to succeed the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. And second, the journalists present didn’t need to be told to write more about sustainability; they had already dedicated their lives to it. It would have been easy enough to tell this group how important the work they do is – how much they are appreciated.

The whole exchange seemed unfortunate, but I learned a lesson. We need to communicate what needs to be done without sounding preachy. We can do that partly by openly discussing the limited impacts of our own efforts. When people tell us how hard our proposals for emissions reductions sound, we can say convincingly, “yeah, I get that.”

As chance would have it, I bumped into Arthur Neslen, a journalist at the Guardian, on a train after the COP23 side event. In 2015, he broke this amazing story about fossil fuel firms buying influence in renewable energy associations. His report made waves across the EU. “The great Arthur Neslen!” I exclaimed unabashedly upon recognizing him in the train. Probably unaccustomed to meeting fans, he somewhat uncomfortably listened as I told my associates how great he is. The next day, he published this.

So in 2018, let’s work on connecting with people, not preaching to them. My New Year’s resolution? No, it’s not shrinking my carbon footprint. I get all of my journalism for free at present, so I’ll buy at least one subscription to something worthy. (And if I chance upon another journalist I like, I’ll tell them I’m a fan.)

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.


Craig Morris (@PPchef) is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.


  1. I’ve made the same resolution. I also write articles without charge for organizations like the Grüne Liga that are staffed by people working visibly beyond the willingness of society to compensate them fairly.

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