Joe Biden isn’t going to steal your burger — but there’s a reason people want you to think that

This right-wing tactic goes back decades and has its roots in the fossil fuel industry

Jamie Henn
Tuesday 27 April 2021 09:36 BST
El presidente Joe Biden pronuncia un discurso sobre el gasto en infraestructura en Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center el miércoles 31 de marzo de 2021, en Pittsburgh.
El presidente Joe Biden pronuncia un discurso sobre el gasto en infraestructura en Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center el miércoles 31 de marzo de 2021, en Pittsburgh. ((AP))

What is it with the right-wing media and their obsession with progressives coming to steal their hamburgers?

From the conversation that took place on Fox News and online over the weekend, you’d think that the White House climate office was staffed exclusively by the Hamburglar and his henchman. 

The latest freakout came on the heels of last week’s Leaders Summit on Climate, a meeting of over 40 world leaders hosted by President Biden.

The summit was designed as an opportunity to showcase the Biden administration’s renewed commitment to climate action (the White House unveiled a new pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions 50 per cent by 2030) and increase global ambition ahead of this year’s global climate talks in November.

Over the course of two days, world leaders, administration officials, advocates, and experts discussed how to accelerate the transition to an 100 per cent clean energy economy.

There was a panel on how climate change impacts national security. A discussion about the economic benefits of transitioning away from fossil fuels. A call for increased investments in innovation and new technologies.

You know what wasn’t mentioned a single time? Hamburgers. In fact, in all of Biden’s extensive plans on climate change, there isn’t a single mention of any government mandates to reduce meat consumption.

(As Ezra Klein wrote recently in the New York Times, the government really should be looking at ways to spur research into meat alternatives, but there’s nothing there right now). 

That didn’t stop Fox News from putting up a graphic with the title “Up In Your Grill” that asserted that Biden’s “climate requirements” were going to force people to cut “90% of red meat from diet” and eat only “4 lbs of meat a year” and “one burger per month.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbot, whose state recently suffered from a massive blackout caused in large part by the failure of fossil fuel infrastructure during a climate-related extreme weather event, tweeted out the graphic saying, “Not gonna happen in Texas!”

Not to be outdone in the stupid tweets category, Donald Trump Jr. put out: “I’m pretty sure I ate 4 pounds of red meat yesterday.” (Maybe that’s why he looked like such a wreck at the Republican National Convention last year: it was the meat sweats). 

It’s easy to write off all this meat-theft phobia as just the latest conspiracy-laden nonsense from the radical right, but in fact, portraying climate action as a threat to personal freedom, and hamburgers in particular, has been a long-time strategy by conservatives.

You see it in Fox News’ assault on the Green New Deal (which also doesn’t say anything about ending hamburger consumption). Or in Donald Trump’s speeches, where he’d say that Democrats were also coming for your dishwashers, toilets, and washing machines.

Whenever possible, right-wing commentators will shift the conversation about climate change away from the need for systemic change or corporate action and focus on the supposedly negative impacts addressing the crisis will have on individuals.

The right didn’t make up this strategy on their own, however: they learned it from the fossil fuel industry and other corporate polluters.

The polluters’ strategy begins with placing “blame” for environmental damage firmly on the individual, rather than the corporation.

Ever since the environmental awakening of the 1970s, industry has done everything it can to redirect demands for change away from corporations and back onto individuals.

In fact, perhaps the most famous environmental ad of all time, the so-called “Crying Indian,” which features a Native American (played by an Italian-American) shedding a tear as he watches someone litter, was produced by major beverage companies in order deflect attention away from calls to end single-use plastic and instead focus on the need for each of us to recycle. 

This strategy of focusing on individual action has been particularly effective when it comes to climate change. As George Monbiot has written in the Guardian, “The big polluters’ masterstroke was to blame the climate crisis on you and me.”

Despite the fact that just 100 corporations contribute about 71 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, we’re constantly bombarded with messages that each of us is equally responsible for the climate crisis.

In recent court cases, Chevron has argued that it can’t be held accountable for the damage it’s doing to the climate, because “individual consumers” are to blame for all its emissions. 

Once they’ve firmly established that individuals are responsible for the climate crisis, then it’s easy for the industry and their allies to pretend like any actions to address the problem will necessarily revolve around lifestyle changes, rather than systemic ones.

They say that environmentalists want to “turn off your lights” and are going to make you “live in caves.” They say you’ll never be able to fly again. And yes, they say that “Big Government” is coming for your hamburgers.

It’s an effective messaging strategy, but it’s not invincible. Big Tobacco tried the exact same approach of blaming consumers for using their products, but ultimately, thanks to efforts like the Truth Campaign, which kept a tight focus on corporate lies and responsibility, tobacco corporations were held accountable.

We need to take the same approach when it comes to the fossil fuel industry. That means continuing to emphasize the role of fossil fuel corporations in causing the climate crisis, focusing on the need for systemic, rather than individual change, and when we do talk about individuals, highlighting the many ways that climate action will increase our freedom, choices, and opportunities.

It also means demanding that PR and advertising agencies stop working with fossil fuel companies to warp the public debate and deflect responsibility for the problem. 

All this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t cut down on your meat consumption. If you’re eating 4 pounds of meat a day like Don Jr., you probably want to take a closer look at your life choices. But that’s going to be your choice: President Biden isn’t coming to take away your hamburger.

He’s focused instead on building a clean energy economy that works for everyone. So unless you’re a fossil fuel CEO, rest easy. Or better yet, get out and fight for this systemic change.

Jamie Henn is the director of Fossil Free Media and lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is behind the Clean Creatives campaign which aims to hold to account the PR and advertising agencies that work with the fossil fuel industry

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