Guilt, Celebrities, and Climate

During a recent trip to the Arctic with Greenpeace, the actress Emma Thompson said, “We’re told that it is all our fault, global warming—we want the fuel, we want our cars, and that the oil industry is merely responding to the needs of a greedy public.  But that’s simply not fair.  Most of us want to live cleaner lives, but our government doesn’t make these things easily available. . . We need electric cars to be cheaper and more accessible.”  She went on to say, “Yes, keep recycling; keep using your own shopping bags, taking transit and using your bike.  But also use your voice.  Know that you have power and you can make your government listen.  Above all, I hope that people stop feeling so guilty and powerless about climate change.  That’s the lie that keeps us paralyzed.” . .”

Emma Thompson’s comments echo a mantra in progressive climate circles that there is a “culture of guilt” foisted upon us by the fossil fuel industry, and that the guilt holds us back from effectively confronting climate change. This view also holds that the importance of reducing one’s own carbon footprint is secondary to taking political action and pressuring fossil fuel companies to change their behavior.

The view that guilt (defined here as self-reproach for failure to meet our personal standards and responsibilities) is paralyzing the public from acting politically in relation to climate change hasn’t been empirically tested.  But there is strong evidence that the public’s lack of concern about climate change is the foremost barrier to political action to address it effectively.  A recent Pew poll showed that Americans ranked “Dealing with Climate Change” as the 19th most important concern out of the 20 issues surveyed.

So why do Emma Thompson and many climate leaders focus on guilt?  One reason may be that they want to feel free to advocate for pro-climate policies without repercussions when a finger is inevitably pointed back at them for their high personal CO2 emissions. Al Gore, for example, took flack for his enormous carbon footprint.  John Travolta, and other celebrity climate spokespeople, who jet between multiple large homes, far-flung vacations, and work engagements, emitting hundreds of thousands of pounds of carbon in the process, have been the subject of embarrassing exposes.

This type of criticism may have made celebrities feel guilty, and had a chilling effect on their pro-climate advocacy.  But celebrities’ advocacy on climate issues will ultimately ring hollow if they are profligate in their CO2 emissions, because their actions say that maintaining their high-carbon lifestyle is more important to them than minimizing harm to the environment.  If they aren’t willing to sacrifice for the environment, what gives them the right to ask taxpayers and oil companies to sacrifice for it?  If our role models, heroes, and arbiters of taste are profligate in their CO2 use while absolving themselves and others from guilt, what is the likelihood that the rest of us are going to be motivated to make the necessary sacrifices to drastically reduce our carbon footprints?

Emma Thompson is correct that all of us, regardless of our present level of CO2usage, need to keep pushing politicians hard to enact carbon taxes and other incentives to reduce CO2 usage.   But given that putting a substantial price on carbon will likely take many years to achieve, what can be done that will have immediate effect now?  And even if major legislation were to occur overnight, it almost certainly wouldn’t be enough to bring down the world’s carbon emissions to where they need to be.    Voluntary action motivated by a shared sense of responsibility for reducing emissions will always be a critical part of carbon emissions reduction.

Effectively combating climate change requires broadly-shared sacrifice, and our efforts to deal with it will take flight only we all feel that the sacrifice is shared fairly by taxpayers, countries, oil companies, and industry.   While no one individual, country, or corporation is solely responsible for climate change, every individual, country, and corporation should be responsible for the CO2 they emit.  Those emitting more than their fair share of CO2 should rightfully feel guilty, and should assuage that guilt not by receiving celebrity absolution, but rather by substantially reducing their carbon emissions, offsetting the carbon they do emit, and by persuading their friends and governments to do the same.

Because of the media attention they attract, celebrities have the best platforms for showing the public how to live a desirable, glamorous low-carbon lifestyle, much as they now show off (and sacrifice for) their low-carb diets.  Celebrities’ winnowing down of their carbon footprints will take real sacrifice, because their carbon footprints tend to be very large.  But if celebrities are willing to make sacrifices, Americans will take notice.  Baseball stars such as Ted Williams volunteered to fight in World War II, and their sacrifices boosted the desire of other Americans to make their own sacrifices for the cause.

Emma Thompson is partly right.  Paralyzing guilt that prevents people from acting to prevent climate change is bad.  But guilt that arises because people aren’t doing their part to control their CO2 emissions is an important weapon against climate change, and should be encouraged, not dismissed.

-Matthew Metz