For Climate Action, stop shaming fellow climate advocates

In any battle or war, nothing can be more demoralizing than taking friendly fire from your fellow allies. As a climate organizer, I consider climate shaming (criticizing a fellow climate activist for not taking actions such as owning an electric car, installing solar panels, going vegan/vegetarian, flying in an airplane, having children, etc) very infuriating. I have been on the brunt end of this several times over the years and I have no patience for it now. For climate advocates, it is time to stop shaming our fellow climate advocates NOW.

It started the day after Christmas, December 26th, when I posted on Facebook: “For #ClimateAction, 7 years ago today, (my wife) Tanya and I test drove a Tesla to learn more about Electric Vehicles. I am still a huge fan of EVs and Teslas, but not of their CEO, Elon Musk.” The picture and the original post popped up on my Facebook memories. The original post from seven years ago: “Tanya and I test drove a Testa, a 100% electric car today. It was a lot of fun. I hope to blog more about the experience soon.” Yes, blog about it soon afterwards, I did. Just four days later, December 30, 2015, I blogged, With climate change action, you can receive far more than you can seek.

My wife Tanya and I love EVs (Electric Vehicles). With my climate organizing, for years I have dreamed about owning a car that is not dependent upon fossil fuels/gasoline for fuel and emits carbon dioxide from the tail pipe that contributes to climate change. Tanya and I were newly weds, getting married the month before, in November 2015. This was a very sweet gesture for her to book a free appointment for us to test drive a Tesla. Even more, the cost was free. Thus, I highly recommend everyone go for a test drive of an EV so they can see how quiet, quick and enjoyable they are to drive.

Brian Ettling and Tanya Couture test driving a Tesla Model S on December 26, 2015.

Not long after I posted this 7th anniversary of our Tesla test drive, my mother-in-law Nancy commented in jest: “It suits you!!!” I responded: “Yes, Nancy…Tanya and I dream of having a nice electric car someday. So, yes, it does suit me. My green Honda Civic is still going strong that is almost 21 years old. I have also heard that one of the greenest things you can do is to keep your present car running as long as you can. We also have the problem of living in an apartment without the ability to charge an electric vehicle yet.”

Just a few hours later, this was where the ugly monster of carbon shaming reared its head. A friend named David wrote: ‘Brian Ettling: just remember that “green” Civic at say 40 miles/gal Is putting out .6lbs CO2 per mile or nearly 3X that of a Tesla on the Oregon grid.’ Ouch!

I had reached my limit with what I perceived as carbon shaming over the years, so I was not going to let that comment slide. Years later, someone had shamed me on Facebook because my wife and I had thought about having kids. This person was very worried about over population, fair enough. So am I. However, this is a sensitive subject for my wife and I since we met later in life. As it turned out, too late to have kids. We would have loved to the opportunity to create our own children. This person would not listen to my reasoning and kept wanting to lecture me how having children is bad with overpopulation. That conversation left a very bad taste in my mouth.

Sadly, I have encountered other carbon shaming over the years from not buying an EV yet, flying on airplanes to attend climate conferences, etc. Apparently, I am not the only climate advocate on the receiving end. Climate scientist Dr. Katherine Hayhoe tried to address some of the biggest topics of climate shaming in her 2018 Global Weirding video, ‘The easiest ways to fix climate change is population control and going vegan – right?’ One year later, climate scientist Dr. Michael E. Mann addressed these same concerns in a 2019 USA Today opinion commentary he co-wrote fellow Penn State Professor Jonathan Brockopp, You can’t save the climate by going vegan. Corporate polluters must be held accountable. Their op-ed stated: “Many individual actions to slow climate change are worth taking. But they distract from the systemic changes that are needed to avert this crisis.” Taking even more direct aim at carbon shaming, they wrote: “a focus on personal action can divide us, with those living virtuously distancing themselves from those living ‘in sin.'”

In 2021, Dr. Mann wrote his most recent book, The New Climate War: The fight to take back our planet. In chapter 4 of this book, Dr. Mann devotes pages to the futility of carbon shaming for those who are not vegan, still flying, having children, etc. Dr. Mann frequently points out that he gets his ‘electricity from renewables, has one child, drives a hybrid, and does not eat meat.’ However, that has not been enough for the purists criticizing him. It’s a “purity test” where no one, not even the top climate scientists in the world can measure up. It’s incredibly unproductive for decarbonizing the U.S. and global economy to reduce the threat of climate change. In 2022, I wrote blog to review of The New Climate War when the paperback edition was released in the spring. In my blog, Dr. Michael E. Mann says: ‘We need urgency & agency to solve the Climate Crisis’, I applauded Dr. Mann devoted for drawing attention to the harm of shaming in the climate movement. I stand with Dr. Mann, Dr. Katherine Hayhoe and others denouncing carbon shaming. It must end now if we are serious about fully addressing the climate crisis.

Image given by permission from Dr. Michael E. Mann

With my deep animosity when I see carbon shaming, I posted this response to my friend David on Facebook: “Hey David! Careful what you say there, buddy. I am sensing some ‘carbon shaming,’ which I don’t really appreciate. Unfortunately, I live in the U.S, where sadly, most places, you need a car to get around. When I bought my “green” Honda Civic almost 21 years ago, it was the most fuel efficient economical car I could afford then. If you spend much time with me, you would know that I don’t like to drive and I use public transit as much as possible. I live in Portland, Oregon, which does have great public transit and I do use it as often as possible. You don’t need to remind me how much CO2 my car emits. As a climate organizer, I find that to be rather insulting. If you are reading this post, I will notice that I love EVs and want to own one. However, I can’t afford one right now. Even more, I live in an apartment complex with no access to charging. I keep my car running in top condition to get the best mileage and my wife depends upon this car for work. When I do eventually have to replace my “green” Honda Civic, I hope to get an EV. Instead of wagging you finger at me, I wish you would spend more time lobbying and engaging your elected officials for more mass transit, policies to incentivize charging outlets for apartment owners, more charging stations, and more affordable EVs.”

I then shared a photo of me from 2019 using public transit of me sitting on board the MAX light rail commuter train, taken in October 2019.

David replied: “ah Brian I DO lobby (CCL – Citizens’ Climate Lobby) and write Congress often and even write a monthly opinion column in the local paper. But I find those fully walking the talk to be most convincing. Yes you are doing many good things and have a plan to do more in the future. That is all good. But if we who are truly concerned about climate change do not ourselves change how could we expect others to change?”

My response: “David: I wish you could shadow me for a day in Portland OR because I do take public transportation a lot. To the extent that I feel very spoiled living in Portland and I will probably feel frustrated moving to another city where the public transit is not as good, unless I move to NYC, Washington D.C, Vancouver B.C, Boston, or a couple of other North American cities with amazing public transit. I always try to take public transit when I attend climate organizing meetings in Portland, meeting up with friends, going to see movies, going downtown, to the airport, various jobs I have held, or even to some of the trails that my wife and I enjoy hiking. As a matter of fact, I don’t think my car would have lasted this long if I would have been using it to run around for all of these short trips. Even more, my wife needs this car for work. My wife has dutifully taken buses and ridden a bike to work when I absolutely needed the car for work or my organizing. Sadly, we live in a part of Portland that is not bike friendly, even though we live in a city that is very bike friendly overall. If I had a huge Cadillac or Hummer that I was constantly driving all over the place, then you could call me out for not “walking the talk.” However, I wish you could shadow me to see how often I use public transit, such as what I did this evening to meet up with a friend.”

At this point, my friend Claire stepped in to comment: “This conversation is utterly frustrating.

I am walking the walk in every way I can. I’ve a long climate mitigation to do list I made nearly a decade ago and just about everything is done on it. One thing after another done. Electric cars, heat pumps, superinsulation, heat pump hot water heater, solar panels, electric lawnmower, recycle, reuse, reduce…I do everything I can think of right down to using a bidet instead of toilet paper.

And you know what? All those actions eliminate a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the US emissions. Heck, they eliminate a fraction of my own footprint when you consider the roads I drive on and the public buildings I frequent.

Our personal actions are critical because they are political speech. They convey the depth of our convictions and our commitment. They scream to others how much this matters.

But without public policy changes, these are a drop in the bucket.

And here’s the thing, being able to afford all the stuff I’ve done is a privilege. I’m really fortunate.

What is really great is the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law. Those will make these actions more affordable and accessible to more folks. But even that spreads the incentives over a span of a decade.

There should be zero shame in our climate efforts. There should be a boatload of making electrification and decarbonization affordable and the most accessible option.

Climate action is not penance. It must not be made into penance. It has to be integral to mainstream life.

In the meantime, each of us must find the things we can do (lobby, protest, drive electric, superinsulate our home, frequent businesses that do the same, buy solar, eliminate meat, reuse grocery bags…) and push for support for the things on that list that we cannot do.

Because our system is designed to make this hard. Impossible for many.

Stop climate-shaming people.

Brian Ettling is a dedicated climate activist finding every avenue where his skills and passion can work. We would be very fortunate if everyone was doing just that.”

The list my friend Claire Cohen-Norris created in January 2019 to reduce her carbon footprint

At this point, I admired David for conceding in this discussion and trying to seek common ground. He wrote: “Claire: There is no shaming. I was just point out a fact that EV’s do have a much lower carbon footprint than burning gas. That is ALL I said. Sorry as I did not mean to hit such a sore spot. I respect Brian and I do appreciate what he does do.”

Claire had more to say in her exchange with David that you can find in comments on this Facebook post from December 26, 2022.

At this point, I decided it was good for me to extend an olive branch to David. I admired his passion as a climate advocate with his comments on my wall, even if I thought he was going a bit too far. I wrote back to him: “Thank you for your comments, David. I absolutely know that EVs have a much lower carbon footprint than burning gas. Don’t get me wrong, I love EVs. I have EV envy when I see friends and strangers drive theirs down the street. This green Honda Civic is the first car I ever owned and I do want to see how long it will last. At the same time, it won’t last forever. It will be 21 years old in February. At some point, it will wear out. When it does, my wife and I hope to get an EV or EV hybrid that we can afford. Until then, I will continue to be using public transit as much as I can, getting our bike fixed up, and keeping this car running in the best shape possible.”

Furthermore, I appreciated Claire’s input and positive support of my climate organizing on this chat thread. Thus, I wanted to respond to her. Thus, I posted: “

Thank you so much for your comments Claire Cohen-Norris because I really do appreciate all that you do and always learn from your comments. You have been a model climate advocate for me with getting electric cars, heat pumps, super insulation, solar panels, electric lawnmower, recycle, reuse, reduce, etc. You amaze me and I say that with all sincerity.

Claire’s 2022 EUV (Electric Utility Vehicle) Chevy Bolt.

I am sorry if this conversation frustrated you because I do love a good debate now and then. I don’t mind people questioning me, as long as they know that on my wall, I am going to push back when I feel like they might have gone too far. Yes, I will admit that I am a sensitive person and sometimes this gets me into trouble when I should let more things slide.

At the same time, I am sensitive when I feel there’s any kind of shaming among fellow climate advocates. 11 years ago, a fellow climate advocate tried to shame me for flying to San Francisco to at attend the American Geophysical Union Conference to learn what I could from the world’s top climate scientists about climate change. A few months later I flew to Washington D.C. and New York City to look into grad schools to be a better climate advocate. This person did not realize that I had sometimes gone through many years of not flying to do these actions to further myself as a climate advocate. This person did not make a good case for himself because he said that he refused to fly or travel to see his grandchildren. Thus, he had not seen them in years. It is sad if we become too virtuous in our climate actions that we harm relationships with our families and love ones.

My wife and I met in our 40s. We would have loved to have children, but it just did not work out. However, I still had more than one climate advocate shame me at even the thought of having children. That was very painful for me to be shamed that way. Thus, I am sensitive to the potential of shaming.

My thought is that if one wants to go vegan or vegetarian to “save the planet,” go for it! Even more, I encourage them if they can afford to have their friends and family over now and then and cook the most tasty vegan/vegetarian food they can . Make that food so good that they will be dying for the recipes. One of my all time favorite stories is about Linda McCartney (Paul’s wife). In the 1990s before she passed away, a couple of her vegetarian cookbooks were published. She had some people come up to her to say, ‘You know that people are stealing your recipes and claiming them as their own.’ Her response: ‘Good! Now I can retire!’

As advocates we should be doing what we can and having fun doing it that people will want to steal our ideas and actions.

Having said that, I can and should do better. Last week, the weather got unseasonably cold in Portland OR, down to the 20s. That’s cold for here, but laughable if you are from upstate NY and many places in the U.S. As a result of this cold, our apartment complex asked us to keep our heat on all night, open our kitchen & bathroom cabinets underneath the sinks, and let the water drip all night so that our pipes would not freeze. We dutifully did this to protect our pipes, but this was the antithesis of everything I try to do as a climate advocate. Even more, I am going to dread the heating bill when it comes. Then I remembered that I was given a weatherization kit from a local community organization 5 years ago that had been gathering dust. I broke out the kit, but I am not good at ‘fix it/carpentry/home repair’ stuff. Thus, I tucked it back in the bag and sheepishly put it back in the corner. Even worse, I had recently borrowed an electric drill from a friend to try to buff the UV haze off one of my car headlights, which I was able to fix. Thus, I do have potential here. I think my solution is that I am going to have to invite a fellow climate advocate friend over, the same one whom I borrowed the drill, to finally weatherize my apartment.

On October 30, 2022, I (Brian Ettling) successfully changed the lightbulb on my 2002 Honda Civic. It shows I have potential to possibly fix things and weatherize my apartment.

The point I am trying to get to is that the airlines do give us the best advice on all of this: ‘In case of an emergency, put your oxygen mask on first. THEN assist your children or those needing help around you.’

Thus, if a climate advocate has the means, yes, please do buy an EV, get solar panels, an electric heat pump, etc. However, their job is not done. THEN they have to help their neighbors to get these products also by publicly lobbying and advocating them to be as affordable as possible. They should do these things in a spirt of fun and engage their neighbors when they have questions about it so that their neighbors will then want to ‘Keep up with the Jones’ in the best way.

I always enjoy our conversations and I learn so much from you. I hope I get a chance to meet you and (your partner, who am I also Facebook friends) someday.”

For me, a good conversation is about learning from others, testing previous held ideas, gaining new knowledge, shedding incorrect assumptions, standing firm on principles, and finding common ground so that everyone feels like they gained from the experience. While I felt strongly that David veered into carbon shaming me with his comments, I still felt like David and Claire challenged and inspired me to be a better climate organizer.

Now I just have to reach out to my friend to see if he will help me with my weatherization for my apartment. Stay tuned!

Brian Ettling taking Amtrak to give a climate change talk at the October 2019 National Association of Park Rangers Conference in Everett, Washington. Brian loves traveling by trains to go “car free.”