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Al Gore’s Carbon Footprint Doesn’t Matter

Conservatives say environmentalists are hypocrites if they consume more energy than the average American. It's a deceitful, disingenuous argument.

Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

Al Gore is back in the spotlight with his new documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel, making him a top target again of the right-wing counter-intel complex. On Thursday, the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research released a report, “Al Gore’s Inconvenient Reality,” that paints the former vice president as a hypocritical climate advocate. In near-creepy detail, NCPPR author Drew Johnson maps Gore’s home in Nashville, Tennessee, down to the number of windows, and concludes that “Gore’s own home electricity use has hypocritically increased to more than 21 times the national average this past year with no sign of slowing down.” Johnson also slams Gore’s numerous attempts to modernize his home through energy efficiency, solar panels, and geothermal heating, saying they have been inadequate in offsetting his energy use. 

“No matter how the numbers are viewed, Al Gore uses vastly more electricity at his home than the average American—a particularly inconvenient truth given his hypocritical calls for all Americans to reduce their home energy use,” Johnson writes. “Al Gore has attained a near-mythical status for his frenzied efforts to propagandize global warming. At the same time, Gore has done little to prove his commitment to the cause in his own life.” The report was a smash hit on the right. In less than 24 hours of its publication, it was picked up by Fox NewsThe Daily MailThe Washington Times, The Washington Free Beacon, and The Daily Callerwhich, in case there was any doubt about NCPPR’s political motivations, allowed Johnson a guest column so he could declare that “Gore’s hypocritical home energy use and ‘do as I say not as I do’ lifestyle has plunged to embarrassing new depths.”

Gore’s team disputes NCPPR’s claims—just as they did in 2007, when Johnson put out a similar report attacking Gore’s personal energy use following the success of his first documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. “Climate deniers, funded by the fossil fuel industry, continue to wage misleading personal attacks on Al Gore as a way of trying to cast doubt on established climate science and distract attention from the most serious global threat we face,” Gore’s communications director, Betsy McManus, told me in an email. She didn’t dispute Johnson’s claims of Gore’s energy use, rather his assertion that Gore has been ineffective at getting as much of his energy consumption as possible from renewable sources. “Vice President Gore leads a carbon neutral life by purchasing green energy, reducing carbon impacts and offsetting any emissions that cannot be avoided, all within the constraints of an economy that still relies too heavily on dirty fossil fuels,” McManus said.

McManus did not respond to a request for evidence of Gore’s offsets. But let’s set aside the dispute over Gore’s carbon footprint, because the report raises a much bigger question: Should prominent climate advocates be expected to live a carbon-neutral lifestyle? Are they hypocrites if they don’t? Right-wing critics would have you believe so—that these moralizing elitists are making rules for the public that they themselves don’t have to follow. This has a powerful appeal, especially today. But ultimately the argument is deceitful faux-populism, and the real hypocrites here are the purveyors of it.

Gore is hardly the only climate advocate whose personal energy use has been attacked by the right. It’s a familiar, longstanding tactic among conservatives who don’t accept the truth about climate change. Republican pollster and consultant Frank Luntz told me he thinks Rush Limbaugh “started the argument that the Hollywood Left flew their private jets to global warming conferences.” The first reference I could find was in 2006, when the  conservative Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Debra Saunders, then writing for the San Francisco Chroniclebemoaned what she called “Learjet liberals who burn beaucoup fossil fuels in the sky as they soar around the planet fighting global warming.” Fox News host Sean Hannity picked up “Learjet liberals” soon after, using it in numerous segments in 2007 and 2008 and as recently as January.

“Learjet liberals” isn’t as prolific as it used to be, but the underlying argument is. Leonardo DiCaprio has been a frequent target for his use of private jets and yachts. Elon Musk was called out in June for flying in a private jet. Conservative outlets attacked former President Barack Obama in May for attending a climate change conference in a private jet and a 14-car convoy. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson’s segment on this, featuring Ann Coulter, was an orgy of incredulous outrage.

The hypocrisy argument has even traveled beyond conservative circles, and it’s perfectly suited for today’s populist climate. “These multimillionaires are asking us to sacrifice by paying more for energy or using less of it,” Luntz explained. “But while we’re asked to sacrifice, they’re riding and flying in style.” To the average American, Luntz says, this is hypocrisy at its finest, “asking people to give up something while their lifestyle goes unchanged.” Even Donald Trump made this case as a candidate, using it to attack Barack Obama. “You know, he talks about the carbon footprint, OK?” Trump said during a July 2016 campaign speech. “He wants to solve the carbon footprint, but he gets on an old 747 that’s spewing stuff into the air.” (It’s worth noting that Trump’s travel habits are much more ostentatious than Obama’s.)

The claim that Gore and his ilk are hypocrites is a classic conservative attack strategy of redirection (because it ignores the core issue of climate change) and of poisoning the well (because it attempts to discredit the message by discrediting the messenger). This is much easier, and perhaps more rhetorically effective, than debunking climate science itself. That’s why you only see groups like the National Center for Public Policy Research releasing “studies” on Gore’s energy use. NCPPR, which has been funded by oil interests, advocates against policies to fight global warming because it denies that global warming exists. “The world isn’t warming,” the group falsely claimed in a 2014 paper arguing against climate regulations. Thus, it’s in their interest to try to undermine one of the most effective advocates of aggressive climate action.

But the hypocrisy charge simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. An anti-abortion advocate who believes abortion is immoral and should be illegal, but gets one herself, is a hypocrite. But climate change advocates who don’t live a carbon-neutral lifestyle aren’t hypocrites because, for the most part, they’re not asking you to live a carbon-neutral lifestyle. They’re asking governments, utilities, energy companies, and large corporations to increase their use of renewable energy so that you can continue to live your life as you please, without contributing to global warming.

Advocates like Gore certainly have suggested ways individuals can do their part. In 2007, he stated, “The only way to solve this [climate] crisis is for individuals to make changes in their own lives.” But just a year later, he said“In addition to changing the light bulbs, it is far more important to change the laws and to change the treaty obligations that nations have.” Last month, he said the three best ways are to talk about climate change (which he does), look for environmentally responsible choices when making large purchases (which he does), and support climate-friendly political candidates (which he does). Individual action has never been the focus of his message. 

As David Roberts pointed out in Vox last year, the reason climate advocates don’t intensely advocate for personal behavioral changes is that they’re “insignificant to the big picture on climate.” That’s true even for huge energy users. DiCaprio’s emissions “are a fart in the wind when it comes to climate change,” Roberts wrote. “If he vanished tomorrow, and all his emissions with him, the effect on global temperature, even on US emissions, even on film-industry emissions, would be lost in the noise.” And it wouldn’t be hypocrisy, since DiCaprio isn’t asking you to stop flying.

This is not to say that celebrities and other wealthy people should be given carte blanche to consume as much dirty energy as they want. If Gore and DiCaprio and Obama and Musk want to be good advocates of emission reductions, they should do as much as they can to signal that they’re doing their part. But if we’re to take this hypocrisy argument seriously, then every rich person who wants to advocate for climate action must live in the smallest home possible and bike to work and not fly anywhere; they’d have to give all their speeches via Skype, I guess. And unlike Tucker Carlson or Ann Coulter, who almost certainly have above-average carbon footprints, people like Gore are using their wealth for good. “He’s devoted his life to making sure we act in time to avert a global climate crisis,” the climate scientist Michael Mann told me. “The lowering of carbon emissions resulting from his efforts dwarfs whatever his own personal carbon footprint (which I know he is mindful of) might be.”

But the most unfortunate aspect of this argument is how it misleads vulnerable populations. Rich people like Gore and DiCaprio and Obama won’t be affected by climate change. If rising seas threaten their vacation properties, they can just move. And they will always be able to afford air conditioning, no matter how high electricity rates climb. That’s also true of Carlson and Coulter, but the irony is that their working class and rural viewers are likely to be hardest hit by climate change. So as the seas, temperatures, and energy bills rise, and America’s crops begin to fail, the vulnerable will be left screaming “hypocrites!” into the hot air—their cries aimed, too late, at the right.