Photo by Alex Pluck

Writing in the National Post, Rex Murphy recently took aim at the UN climate conference and the environmentalists, political leaders and business people who will travel to Paris this month to attend it. Often it’s best to ignore this columnist but this time there’s value in assessing what he says. Perhaps he can help us add nuance to an issue we activists spend our lives addressing.

Murphy singles out former U.S. vice-president Al Gore for special scorn. Gore’s best-known work, An Inconvenient Truth, is cited as an example of “alarmist exaggeration” for its claim that climate-induced sea-level rise could reach 20 feet in the year 2100. Hyperbole, if proven, does undermine our cause, but what’s the evidence that Gore is engaging in it? The science suggests that as temperatures go up and continental ice melts, ocean levels will indeed be higher. No one — neither activists nor Murphy — knows exactly how high, of course; such is the nature of events far in the future. But suggesting in 2015 that Gore is misrepresenting the world of 2100 is ridiculous. Only people living 85 years from now can accurately make that determination. Far more reasonable is to say that — based on the work of experts like Henry Pollack, who contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the former VP’s predictions are plausible.

Murphy is outraged by what he sees as the Paris attendees’ hypocrisy. They talk about protecting the planet and reducing fossil-fuel use but “arrive, as always, in jet planes…” After the conference is over they will “retire to their mansions in Hollywood or Silicon Valley or Tennessee, and continue unabated the high life in the high style that oil, minerals and the whole structure of the modern world built on both, allows them to live and display.”

The necessity of climate-change mitigation is so great we ought to employ any legal tactic that has a reasonable chance of producing progress.

This critique is not new of course. It’s been made many times, especially with respect to Gore and activist-actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s tempting to dismiss it as right-wing claptrap but in fact it’s a criticism we should examine and consider.

International environmental meetings do necessitate the burning of lots of fossil fuel. Airplanes, taxis, buses, trains — the UN delegates will likely use all of these. But this makes them no different from, say, advertising executives attending a convention on marketing or real estate agents travelling to a conference on sales techniques. All these gatherings leave a deep carbon footprint. Is it fair to hold the Paris attendees to a higher standard? In fact, it could be argued their CO2 emissions are more acceptable than those from the real estate agents because the point of Paris is to enact emissions reductions.

It’s also true the Paris summit may not accomplish much. In that case, the fuel would be burned largely for nothing. But again this criticism can be levelled against any international meeting. A gathering of scholars, for example, may lead to little or no contribution to human knowledge.

Could the UN have avoided these carbon costs by not meeting in person but through a video system such as telepresence? It’s possible in theory, though the logistical difficulties of connecting delegates from over 190 nations would be formidable. And anyone who has attended a conference knows that person-to-person chemistry — quiet talks over a drink or in the hallway between sessions — can be critical to its success.

I think we need to be honest that the upcoming summit will indeed entail significant consumption of fossil fuels and that the meeting’s outcome may not justify this. On the other hand, if we don’t expend this fuel, the meeting will likely be impossible and we may pass up one of our best opportunities to get international agreement on GHG reductions. The necessity of climate-change mitigation is so great we ought to employ any legal tactic that has a reasonable chance of producing progress. I’d say Paris falls into that category. But Murphy does deserve credit for insisting we be upfront about the conference’s carbon footprint.

What of his claim that wealthy delegates are hypocritical when they advocate emission-cuts but lead fossil-fuel-intensive lives? The critique is not trivial but it’s also not damning.

Gore and DiCaprio’s way of life does depend on copious amounts of fuel but at least they are honest enough to admit it and concerned enough to spend a portion of their time finding ways to reduce their footprint — in Gore’s case a very significant portion. Nor is the inconsistency that Murphy cites unique to the rich. All of us who are comfortable — including environmentalists like myself — live these contradictions to a lesser or greater extent. I know local food has a better GHG profile but I indulge in avocado. I realize sun vacations harm the environment but two winters ago I went to Aruba.

Activists make compromises and there’s nothing wrong with Murphy pointing them out. If he helps to keep us honest, it’s all to the good. But the fallacy in his argument is suggesting that our personal shortcomings erode the soundness of our message. We need, in short order, to reduce our carbon production dramatically. And if we don’t always live up to this imperative that in no way removes its urgency. 

Gideon Forman is a long time peace and environmental activist.

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