Prince Harry, Greta and cakeism: the cognitive dissonance clouding the climate change debate

Written by Evan Byrne, Account Manager in Madano's Energy practice.

Cakeism – the art of ‘having your cake and eating it too’ – is an excellent term, which has found a brand new application, outside of the UK’s approach to Brexit negotiations. It seems increasingly apparent that public figures concerned about climate change, love a bit of cakeism themselves, (especially it turns out, when it comes to climate change itself).

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have come under justified criticism for speaking about climate change and the need to protect the environment while simultaneously allegedly making liberal use of private jets.

What seems to be the real problem is not rich people using private air travel, but the growth of cognitive dissonance towards climate change within a section of the climate movement.

Elton John defended the use of the private jet (which he paid for) and said he had made the trip carbon neutral by offsetting the emissions with a donation to carbon reduction projects. However, that act of offsetting doesn’t make the emissions that were put out vanish, and the effectiveness of the offsetting is highly questionable.

This entire thought process of offsetting is a workaround – you damage the climate, but then you offset that damage with something that does either less future damage or tries to claw back those emissions in the future.

One cannot help but be reminded of the ‘Indulgence’, in which (rich) Catholics in the Middle Ages could offset their sin tally with donations to the Church. That was one of the practices that led to the Protestant reformation, a backlash against the blatant hypocrisy of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century.

The contradictory thought process on display here is very prevalent. Al Gore is well known for his climate activism, and made sure to fly all around the world to tell everyone about it. Every year, the World Economic Forum, based in Davos, warns us about climate change; the same World Economic Forum which is attended by thousands of CEOs and global elites, who fly in on private jets. The recent ‘Camp Google’ in Sicily (one of Prince Harry’s private jet trips), was the same.

It’s just as well then that we now have an example of someone who is attending such a summit to talk about climate change via a low carbon transport method – ‘school striker’ Greta Thunberg, who is giving a talk on climate at the UN in New York.

But the cognitive dissonance is pervasive, and even Greta is guilty.

There have now been several questions raised over how low carbon the boat trip/PR stunt really is, but the news that that the five man crew which will return the yacht will fly to America (and the crew that took Greta on the outbound journey will fly back), is proving to be quite damaging.

You might think at some point someone organising the trip might have asked if this was the best approach, if the aim was to actually limit carbon output, as opposed to amplify media interest.

There is a real risk with these stories seeping into the public consciousness, because there are two damaging consequences.

Firstly, disillusionment. If the people telling us that we must tackle climate change are themselves are seen as guilty of cakeism, then regular people may become indifferent to tackling climate change themselves. There is a risk that what might be cognitive dissonance now could roll over into outright hypocrisy. Offsetting serves to justify this hypocrisy more than anything else. Even if it does work, it only promises to balance out new emissions, not reduce emissions overall.

The other risk is that this is all a distraction from the real challenge anyway. According to varying statistics, aviation emissions only account for something like 2-5 per cent of total emissions globally. Now it is obviously important to tackle these emissions, but if this is the furore over a few flights, it does not bode well for us for when we need to get around to tackling the other 95 per cent. Communicating that challenge to a public so that they truly understand was is at stake, is a real issue.

What we need now is not virtue signalling, but practical solutions for reducing our emissions.

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