April 26, 2022
Previously published on Forbes.com
On April 4, 2022, UN Secretary-General António Guterres introduced the latest IPCC report in a damning video message. In his words, “This report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a litany of broken climate promises. It is a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unliveable world.” He added, “Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”
As if on cue, Canada’s federal environmental minister approved a new oil field in the Bay du Nord, off the coast of Newfoundland, and the Biden administration announced that it would resume selling oil and gas leases on public lands, reneging on a campaign promise. On Earth Day, of course, President Biden laughably claimed to be “reasserting America’s leadership on climate,” while Prime Minister Trudeau spent the day burning jet fuel.
Pointing out hypocrisy among elected officials can feel like stating that the sky is blue. However, I believe we grossly underestimate the cost of letting decision-makers say one thing and do the opposite. Democratic publics live in a drought of integrity we seem to quench with cynicism or numb with hope, which I define as waiting for someone else to act.
This Age of Hypocrisy does not bode well for any global effort that requires sacrifice, courage and integrity. From climate change and malnutrition to Ukraine and Yemen, global leaders pretend like they are doing everything possible. I assure you they are not.
The Rewards of Hypocrisy
To be fair, we the public share responsibility for the moral failings of our leaders. We elect them and then offer too much leniency for their equivocations and excuses. We “like” their tweets without really reading them, or we tune out, binging TikTok videos and angry Facebook posts while the world burns. Either way, western publics show an entitled unwillingness to sacrifice any comfort or convenience for a higher good.
What does this look like? Ukraine.
Take for example how German Chancellor Olaf Scholz trumpets his support for Ukraine. His press office insists that “Germany continues to do everything in its power to support Ukraine as best it can.”
Really? Germany has dithered about sending heavy weapons (i.e., tanks and howitzers) to Ukraine, claiming that its own arsenal is too depleted and that Ukrainians will need extensive training before using the equipment anyhow. What’s more, by Tomas Pueyo’s estimation, Germany has spent $1 billion per week on Russian gas since the Bucha massacre was revealed on April 1 and Mariupol was bombed into oblivion.
Germany could easily replace the 12% of electric supply that comes from Russian gas by reopening three nuclear reactors. But no, Germany will close more reactors by the end of 2022, making itself more dependent on imported gas, while it throttles efforts to boycott Russian oil.
Privately, the timid Mr. Scholz perhaps congratulates himself. After all, how many Germans are willing to pay more for petrol, heat and manufactured goods? How many German industrialists are willing to pay more for alternative sources of energy? What are Scholz’s chances of reelection if he tests German willingness to sacrifice in the short term?
Thankfully for elected leaders, they have moronic influencers eager to convince the public that activists and academics are the real hypocrites. Just watch three reporters gang up on a climate activist on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. Offering not one substantive comment about our climate crisis, they merely criticize the protestors’ methods as “childish,” “narcissistic” and “selfish” without a shred of irony. They coddle viewers by enabling them to believe that inaction by politicians is mature and reasonable.
Thus, presented with any wicked problem, our leaders effectively say gee, isn’t that awful, and claim to do “everything” possible while plotting how to win their next election. We the public like to believe their excuses because it spares us cognitive dissonance and, sometimes, higher prices at the pump. Hypocrisy persists because we all get something out of it.
Who’s Being Naïve?
Elected officials behave as if their reelection and their party’s power is a higher priority than solving any national or global crisis. Indeed, they may believe the tacit excuse that without maintaining power, they cannot execute on any of their good intentions. They’ll insist that any stronger action or any faster progress, whether in Ukraine or on climate change, is naïve.
No, naivety is trusting that a Russian dictator will abandon an invasion because you send his victim a few missiles and call him a “war criminal.” Naivety is also believing oil and gas companies when they claim to have a plan for zero carbon emissions by 2050—while continuing to pump more fossil fuels than ever before.
Ah, say the “realists,” this is unavoidable. We cannot confront Russia otherwise we’ll start a nuclear war. We cannot stop exploring and drilling for fossil fuels, otherwise how can we get off the Russian stuff?
Do tell me: how will the oil lease in Bay du Nord slow down the Russian war machine if it doesn’t start pumping until 2028? There’s nothing more naïve than believing your own lies.
If We Were Serious
When world leaders fail to uphold the most basic values—enshrined in their country’s founding documents, constitutions and national myths—they undermine the institutions they’re sworn to uphold and protect. Westerners don’t lose faith in democracy because it doesn’t work (it does). They lose faith because democracy, as it is practiced in our Age of Hypocrisy, is gutless.
If we were serious about saving Ukrainian lives, the war would be over already. President Volodymyr Zelensky and the brave Ukrainian defenders would have access to the world’s best weaponry. Putin already would be facing a political crisis at home for executing this war so poorly.
If we were serious about climate change, we’d tax corporations based on an annual carbon audit of their operations and investment portfolios. Emissions would be taxed high enough to fund clean energy projects that produce an equivalent amount of energy to that which caused further pollution. So-called “ESG” funds would be penalized for holding on to oil and gas stocks in their portfolios, as is often still the case. But they would be rewarded for investments in solar, wind, electric vehicles, hydrogen, fusion and so forth.
If we were really serious, we’d hold individuals accountable, too, through their federal tax income. Oh, you still want to drive a Range Rover with over 500 horsepower? Fine, but you’ll pay a commensurate carbon tax to fund vehicle electrification and clean transit for fellow citizens who cannot afford that luxury. And every year, as the individual carbon limits goes down, that cost will rise.
Soon, carbon taxation of individuals may become possible. Rabobank in the Netherlands just started an initiative that links individual customers’ transactions to CO2 emissions and displays them in their banking app. The bank hopes that this will lead customers to make purchases associated with lower carbon emissions. Backed by legislative teeth, such technology could open the way to rewarding or punishing carbon choices through tax incentives.
Ending the Age of Hypocrisy
There are not yet incentives, however, for elected officials to grow spines—because we are conditioned to be cynical or hopeful for a savior. We should be furious that world leaders drill for more oil after a UN Secretary-General accuses world leaders of hypocrisy and warns that “We are on a fast track to climate disaster.”
Yet the evidence suggests that we care more about comfort and luxury than the issues we indignantly tweet about. Or, particularly in North America, decades of wage stagnation and poor policymaking have forced people into brutal, underpaying jobs that leave no time or energy for civic duties.
I don’t envy elected officials nor pretend that their situation is easy. Part of their job is to make compromises. But there are differences between compromise and hypocrisy; between restraint and cowardice; between realism and defeatism.
This is not a safe, predictable world and never will be. There are no safe, easy ways to confront a bloody dictator or to stop a climate catastrophe. Innovative approaches are required. Collaboration is required. Sacrifices are required. Humility, perhaps above all else, is required.
To end this Age of Hypocrisy, we must give up cynicism, and we must give up the helplessness of hope. Until we do, innocent Ukrainians will die needlessly, and Earth will become less and less hospitable. It’s time to stop fooling ourselves, and act.