The hypocrisy argument for pipelines

Some people who favour the construction of new bitumen sands pipelines have been deploying a particularly weak argument, which echoes a couple of the points that have long been made by people who don’t want to take adequate action to avoid catastrophic climate change. They point out that — in one way or another — any person calling for new pipeline projects to be stopped uses fossil fuels. At a recent Toronto climate change consultation, Adam Vaughan pointed out that a woman wearing plastic-framed glasses was therefore an oil user. In her recent segment on The Current and on Twitter, Martha Hall Findlay has made a similar ‘argument from hypocrisy’, implying that only people with a 100% post-fossil-fuel lifestyle can call for systemic change.

This argument is weak for a number of reasons, but most glaringly it’s because a post-fossil-fuel future isn’t something individuals can ever build through personal choice. The transportation, energy, and agricultural infrastructure around us isn’t something that can be changed without society-wide policy decisions including the use of market mechanisms like carbon pricing, regulations, and sheer governmental determination to leave enough fossil fuel in the ground to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

The fact that we’re presently dependent on fossil fuels is in fact a reason why we need to stop building new infrastructure that perpetuates that dependence. In a Canada where we’re seriously planning to be part of a fair and effective global transition away from fossil fuel use, we simply can’t build projects like pipelines which will lock in global fossil fuel dependence for decades to come.

The weak argument from hypocrisy is sometimes paired with a superficially more convincing but still deeply problematic argument about demand. People like Findlay assert that the real problem with fossil fuels is the enduring demand, and that we should therefore focus our policy efforts on reducing demand. This is questionable for several reasons. For one thing, if they are sincere about their desire to reduce demand sufficiently to avoid dangerous climate change, that would undermine any need for the pipelines they are promoting, which would be built to support expanded production from Canada’s bitumen sands. Furthermore, in the face of a climate crisis which requires incredibly aggressive action to reduce emissions, it makes no sense to only pursue demand-side policies. We certainly should use everything from carbon taxes to building and appliance standards to reduce demand, but we should simultaneously avoid investment in new extraction and transport infrastructure which perpetuates fossil fuel dependence.

The entitled argument that people who live on top of fossil fuel reserves have the right to dig them up and sell them regardless of the consequences for others (and that fossil fuel users are entitled to whatever demand-side activities they have become used to) is seriously faulty from an ethical perspective. We don’t have the right to impose suffering on others around the world, future generations, and nature. Now that science has made so clear that greenhouse gas pollution is terribly threatening and harmful, those whose economic systems depend on them have a strong and immediate obligation to move to other sources of energy. That moral obligation is fundamentally at odds with building new bitumen sands pipelines, and the ethical argument that supports this position is dramatically more credible than the flimsy assertion that anybody who uses fossil fuels should somehow support new infrastructure as a consequence.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

9 thoughts on “The hypocrisy argument for pipelines”

  1. For understandable reasons, the unions whose workers build pipelines and drill wells also resist attempts to change. Consider the current drama over the Dakota Access oil pipeline. In September, even after pipeline security guards armed with pepper spray and guard dogs attacked Native Americans who were nonviolently defending grave sites from bulldozers, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called on the Obama administration to allow construction to proceed. “Pipeline construction and maintenance,” Trumka said, “provides quality jobs to tens of thousands of skilled workers.” The head of the Building Trades Unions agreed: “Members have been relying on these excellent, family-supporting, middle-class jobs with family health care, pensions, and good wages.” Another union official put it most eloquently: “Let’s not turn away and overregulate or just say, ‘No, keep it in the ground.’ It shouldn’t be that simple.”

    She’s right—it would be easier for everyone if it weren’t that simple. Union workers have truly relied on those jobs to build middle-class lives, and all of us burn the damned stuff, all day, every day. But the problem is, it is that simple. We have to “turn away.” We have to “keep it in the ground.” The numbers are the numbers. We literally cannot keep doing what we’re doing if we want to have a planet.

    “Keeping it in the ground” does not mean stopping all production of fossil fuels instantly. “If you let current fields begin their natural decline,” says Kretzmann, “you’ll be using 50 percent less oil by 2033.” That gives us 17 years, as the wells we’ve already drilled slowly run dry, to replace all that oil with renewable energy.

    But to convince the world’s leaders to obey the math—to stop any new mines or wells or pipelines from being built—we will need a movement like the one that blocked the Keystone pipeline and fracking in New York and Arctic drilling. And we will need to pass the “Keep It in the Ground Act,” legislation that would end new mining and drilling for fossil fuels on public land. It’s been called “unrealistic” or “naïve” by everyone from ExxonMobil to the interior secretary. But as the new math makes clear, keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the only realistic approach. What’s unrealistic is to imagine that we can somehow escape the inexorable calculus of climate change. As the OCI report puts it, “One of the most powerful climate policy levers is also the simplest: stop digging.” That is, after all, the first rule of holes, and we’re in the biggest one ever.

  2. Climate Activists Can’t Use Fossil Fuels? Then Advocates Can’t Use Anything

    There’s a common trope among the pro-pipeline crowd that opposing new fossil fuel projects somehow should deny you access to anything fossil fuel related. It’s a ridiculous notion, but with it so widespread, I’m willing to accept it, with one caveat. If I have to give up anything fossil fuel related in my life, pipeline pushers have accept their own version. If opposing new fossil fuel projects means not using fossil fuels, promoting new fossil fuel projects that would wreck the climate should mean not enjoying things that require a stable climate.

  3. I think there’s good reason to see the hypocrisy argument against activists as disingenuous. It’s a method for finding an excuse to reject your policy demands, not a genuine criticism of those potential policies.

    If an activist is able to rebut the superficial objection (proving they live in a sustainable shack in the woods they build themselves and which they power with home made solar panels) I expect that the next step in opposition will be to say that all that is just one person’s individual choice and any other is equally valid.

    First you’re dismissed for supposedly not living up to your values (rejecting the argument that systemic change is the only way to embody them), and then even if you show yourself to be consistent at the level of individual actions it still doesn’t lead to a place where the person making the accusation becomes receptive.

  4. It may be a fallacy but people will take any excuse to dismiss climate activists, whether patronizingly claiming they just know better to not be worried. They will also dismiss movement leaders with the argument that any air travel disqualifies them from commenting on what must be done (while the critics keep flying without guilt themselves).

    Greta Thunberg, made famous by the last COP, has pledged to only fly in emergencies:

  5. The tortured logic seems to be that, because Alberta doesn’t carry out stoning or saw the limbs from pesky journalists, climate change doesn’t matter.

    The argument behind ethical oil has been pumped out by Rebel Media, the oil industry’s attack dogs at CAPP and Postmedia. But it’s never been clear just what audience these arguments are intended to sway.

    “At least we don’t dismember our critics” wouldn’t be the first message you’d pick to win over the growing majority of the world increasingly panicked about tepid government response to looming catastrophe.

    The bonesaw argument is certainly not going to sway the emerging generation of kids who are taking their lives into their own hands and have galvanized global protests unlike anything the planet has ever seen.

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