I was asked last week by a TV producer to discuss accusations of hypocrisy levelled at national leaders flying to the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow. In this case, however, I believe it was essential that leaders turned up in person to try to agree on a way for humanity to avoid destruction. Besides, total emissions from Cop26 were on a par with a single international football tournament – that’s a small price to pay in the fight to cut global emissions to zero.
No, the kind of climate hypocrisy that has been bothering me lately runs deeper than that. At every level of society, people are saying one thing, but doing the opposite.
Take my local volunteer green group, for example. It was set up to enable our community to be more eco-friendly. During a monthly session to carry out maintenance work at our community orchard, two of the members attacked the government for doing so little on climate. But they then whined about the additional new low traffic neighbourhood(LTN) that our council had created nearby to make it safer for walking and cycling. I asked why, as I knew they both liked that our neighbourhood had been an LTN for years? The hypocrisy of their answer floored me. They agreed that they loved our own LTN, but were angry with the new one as it inconvenienced them when they wanted to drive to Camberwell.
As co-organiser of cycling campaign group Stop Killing Cyclists, following the death of another cyclist in central London this summer, we organised a peaceful die-in protest at the junction where she was killed. But the protest demands had to deal not just with one level of hypocrisy but two.
The UK government had cancelled the funding which had been allocated to make the junction safer, while they had nationally boasted how post-Covid they were going to make roads safer for cycling. We also called on the London mayor not to proceed with his proposal to slash the congestion charge hours at the junction and across central London at evenings and weekends. Sadiq Khan’s proposal is to encourage more people to drive into central London at these times to boost the economy. This hypocrisy from Khan, the newly elected chair of C40, the global network of city mayors “committed” to tackling the climate crisis, is breathtaking.
Then at national level we had Boris Johnson lecturing world leaders that (rightly) we were at one minute to midnight and facing irreversible climate catastrophe. Meanwhile his own government minister, Scottish secretary Alister Jack, was claiming that the government was 100 per cent behind new UK oil and gas-fields.
And finally at international level, the UN secretary general declared that we must end fossil fuels if humanity is to avoid civilisational collapse. But he has failed to table the International Energy Agency’s call for an immediate ban on new fossil fuel investments, which it says is necessary to reach even net zero by 2050.
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While I was experiencing all of this hypocrisy at local, city, national and international levels, I was doing a punishing round of right-wing radio interviews, which poured attacks on Extinction Rebellion climate protectors for having cars and Insulate Britain for having not had their rented homes insulated. Anything to distract their audiences from debating how we are going to save Britain and what is left of the natural world from climate catastrophe.
Yet the global media is also riddled with hypocrisy. While outlets report on terrifying climate research, many still promote long-haul holiday flights and destructive consumerism as the social norm.
So what is my conclusion from these painful months in the middle of the climate hypocrisy wars? It is that Boris Johnson’s private jet flight back from Glasgow to attend a dinner at a London club reflects the climate hypocrisy that runs through every level of society.
We almost all want to stick to our nice comfortable business-as-usual, fossil-fuelled lifestyles, wanting everybody else to make the changes necessary to save us. No wonder the government says great things about climate action but actually cuts fuel and aviation duties. They are simply reflecting the attitude of many members of the public.
Personally, I am Gandhian when it comes to being the change we wish to see in the world. With the time, money and knowledge I have, I try to reduce my carbon emissions as far as is practically possible and then campaign for governments, businesses and people to do the same. Our voices for urgent government changes are more powerful when founded on the rock of actually making the changes ourselves. If millions of campaigners around the world lived their lives with a carbon footprint as low as the climate emergency dictates, the moral power generated would be a rocket booster to get us to where we need to, in our advocacy with governments, media and businesses.
With the failure of Cop26 to even agree to phasing out coal, we are in dire need of miracles. Tackling our own and society’s hypocrisy might be the way to get the real action on which the very lives of all future generations now depend on.
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