As denying climate change becomes impossible, fossil-fuel interests pivot to ‘carbon shaming’

Illustration of fingers pointing at a black private jet with Leonardo DiCaprio, Prince Harry, and Al Gore
  • Fossil-fuel interests no longer bother denying that climate change is real.
  • So they’ve pivoted to new tactics, including painting climate advocates as hypocrites.
  • Drawing attention to advocates’ non-eco-friendly habits undermines their credibility and distracts from policy changes.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

After Prince Harry told Oprah Winfrey that climate change and mental health are two of the “most important issues facing the world today,” the New York Post threw the words back at him. In a story earlier this week, the Post reported that the “double-talking dilettante” had taken a private plane from Colorado to California.

Sky News and The Times too, have lambasted Harry’s carbon-intensive jetsetting. All three publications are tied to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which previously denied the science of climate change. Murdoch is on the advisory board of Genie Energy, an energy company that invests in oil and gas projects.

London mayor Sadiq Khan, an anti-pollution advocate, got similar treatment from The Sun, another Murdoch-owned publication, for flying 32,000 miles (51,499km) between 2016 and 2019 and purchasing 4.3 million paper towels in a year.

According to Michael Mann, an atmospheric science professor at Pennsylvania State University, these types of stories are part of a larger strategy: Groups that support the continued use of fossil fuels have increasingly begun to point out climate advocates’ seemingly hypocritical behavior, rather than denying that climate change is real. It’s one of many new strategies the fossil-fuel industry has adopted, according to Mann’s latest book “The New Climate War.”

Mann told Insider that in his view, “2009-2010 was the last hurrah for good old fashioned climate-change denialism.” By 2019, 62% of Americans agreed that climate change was affecting their day-to-day lives.

“It’s beyond not being able to deny the science,” he said. “It’s now a matter of having to deny reality.”

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A car moves through a flooded street as Hurricane Delta approaches, in Baker, Louisiana, October 9, 2020. Marco Bello/Reuters

So instead of hammering the “climate change isn’t happening” message, the fossil-fuel industry now seems to be fostering finger-pointing and infighting among environmentalists. That siphons time and attention away from efforts to bring about systemic changes to cut emissions – policies like carbon taxes, incentives for renewable energy, or restrictions on fossil-fuel infrastructure.

“What better way to discredit thought leaders and key messengers than to tar them as hypocrites based on accusations that they don’t walk the walk?” Mann said.


‘Mr. Global Warming?’

Leonardo dicaprio
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio. Stefania D’Alessandro / Contributor / Getty Images

Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Gore, and Barack Obama have all been targets of this “climate hypocrisy” line of attack.

DiCaprio started a multi-million dollar environmental conservation fund and used his 2016 Oscars speech to talk about the climate crisis. But when he flew from France to New York in a private jet to accept an environmental award later that year, the headlines followed.

“Hollywood hypocrite’s global warming sermon,” the Herald Sun‘s read. (The Herald Sun also belongs to Murdoch’s news empire.) The New York Post called DiCaprio a “megapolluter” and “Mr. Global Warming,” and suggested that the actor’s flight “expanded his carbon footprint by 8,000 miles (12,875km) in about 24 hours.”

Gore, meanwhile, is known for the 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” But after he starred in a sequel to the film in 2017, an op-ed in The Daily Caller suggested that Gore’s home devoured 34 times more energy than the average US household. The Daily Caller, founded by Tucker Carlson, received $US3.5 ($AU5) million in funding from the Koch Family Foundations and the Charles Koch Institute in the last decade. According to Greenpeace, the Koch brothers spent $US15 ($AU21) million to finance 90 groups that attacked climate science and policy between 1997 and 2018.

Al Gore
Former US vice president Al Gore signs ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Truth’ at Barnes & Noble, 5th Avenue on August 2, 2017 in New York City. John Lamparski/WireImage

The Daily Caller piece was written by Drew Johnson, founder of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a libertarian think tank. Johnson was, for the most part, doubling down on a tactic that had worked for him a decade earlier.

“He tells other people how to live and he’s not following his own rules,” Johnsen told ABC in 2007, after the center published a report describing how Gore’s 20-room home used 20 times as much electricity as the average American house.

The criticism of Obama came in 2019, when an op-ed in the Hill blasted him for buying a house in Martha’s Vineyard. Purchasing ocean-front property, the piece argued, suggests one isn’t actually worried about sea-level rise. The article was written by Katie Pavlich, an alumna of the Young Americans’ Foundation – an outreach organization of the conservative movement with financial ties to the Koch Brothers.

“If the former president is truly concerned about sea levels rising as a result of climate change,” Pavlich wrote, “his latest real estate purchase places doubts on his sincerity.”

That type of argument, Mann said, directs attention away from the companies emitting the carbon that contributes to sea-level rise.

“It would be funny if it weren’t so pernicious,” he added.


‘Carbon shaming’

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A Tunisair flight takes off. JOKER/Hady Khandani/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Shaz Attari, a climate-communications researcher at Indiana University Bloomington, thinks this new tactic is working. Her research suggests that scientists and communicators with large carbon footprints have less credibility than those with reduced carbon consumption, and that people are more likely to support policies or recommendations if the leader promoting them has a small carbon footprint.

“When it comes to message uptake, advocates are judged for inconsistency between their behavior and advocacy,” Attari told Insider. “This judgement is dominated by flying or home energy consumption.”

Attari said she even once gave a talk in New York City about reducing personal energy use, and someone in the audience asked: “Hey, you flew to this meeting – why should I listen to what you say?”

“The tactic of carbon shaming is quite an effective way of inciting infighting among climate advocates,” Mann said. “There are armies of bots and trolls deployed to generate these arguments online of, ‘Why do you fly?’ ‘Why aren’t you a vegan?'”


‘Climate sadism’

Mark Maslin, an Earth science researcher at the University College London, told Insider that “attacking the messenger has always been part and parcel” of fossil-fuel interests’ strategy to counter environmental movements.

What’s changed, he said, is the tenor of these attacks, which Maslin says have escalated into a vicious pageantry of “climate sadism.”

Take, for example, the backlash against Greta Thunberg. The teenage activist is a difficult target for the hypocrisy argument, since she doesn’t eat meat or fly. One staff member at the Heartland Institute, a Koch-funded think tank, did point out that the boat Thunberg once used to cross the Atlantic was made of plastic, but for the most part, conservatives and anti-environmentalists have chosen to target Thunberg’s personality instead.

Greta thunberg
Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg speaks at the ‘Friday Strike For Climate’ on March 6, 2020, in Brussels, Belgium. Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro called her a “little brat” in 2019. Donald Trump said she had an “anger management problem.”

Conservative commentator Michael Knowles called Thunberg, who has Asperger’s syndrome, “a mentally ill Swedish child” on Fox News. Fox host Laura Ingraham, meanwhile, compared the Thunberg’s youth climate movement to a murderous cult of children from a Stephen King novel.

“The blowback is directly related to the impact you’re having,” Kim Cobb, a climate scientist from Georgia Tech, told Insider. Thunberg’s movement, she added, was “striking a nerve with every single human on the planet at that point.”

Greta thunberg selfie
Swedish activist Greta Thunberg takes a selfie during a Fridays for Future demonstration in Brussels, Belgium, February 21, 2019. Ana Fernandez/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

The Heartland Institute even briefly worked with the German anti-environmental group EIKE to hire a German teenager, Naomi Seibt, to fashion herself as an antithesis to Thunberg.

“Many people believe I’m being pushed as an ‘Anti-Greta,'” Seibt told Insider last year.

“It’s wrong to look up to her as a climate puppet and symbol,” Seibt said of Thunberg, adding, “I don’t want people to panic about the world ending.”

Over the course of four months, for a monthly salary of $US2,000 ($AU2,735), Seibt produced videos for the institute like “Naomi Seibt vs. Greta Thunberg: Whom should we trust?” and spoke at the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference. Seibt quietly parted ways with Heartland in April 2020.

“The Anti-Greta just shows how cynical they are,” Mann said, adding, “they think it’s all a shell game about distraction and deception – that’s what they’ve got left.”

Exxon refinery
An oil refinery. Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

In Prince Harry’s case, reports about his plane flights do seem to have discredited the prince’s climate agenda. A recent Newsweek poll in the UK found that 66% of respondents viewed the prince as “hypocritical on air travel.” But the number most stories about Harry’s trip left out is the US’s total emissions from fossil fuels: 4,853 million metric tons of carbon in 2019 alone.

Harry’s private flight from Aspen to Santa Barbara, meanwhile, emitted at most 9 metric tons of carbon dioxide.