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Being Honest with Ourselves and The Changing World

Exploring honesty and how it drives relationships within the climate crisis.

Published onAug 30, 2022
Being Honest with Ourselves and The Changing World

“I hope you also find your humanity, your true value. We are alive at this moment. What we do now will help decide the fate of our species and most living things on Earth.”1

- Cameron Russell

In society, honesty is often expected out of us and is a trait taught to humans from an early age. The climate crisis is one of many events where it has been made clear that some honesty, but more importantly, dishonesty, has driven the crisis, response, and the relationships within this era of human history. Not only is there dishonesty in the form of misinformation on the destructive side of climate change (coal, oil, and other fossil fuel industries and those who represent them), but it can even be seen on the alternate side. Some activists are so desperate to get the public’s attention and expose the wrongdoings of others that they end up exaggerating the truth or speaking on claims that are not backed scientifically. Finally, citizens and bystanders of this crisis need to be honest with themselves, admitting what they themselves have done to contribute to the damage of our climate and Earth and listening to the advice of experts on what changes we can make to do better for our future generations. The hope is that humans can eventually come to a harmony between all parties involved and find solutions by expressing our honesty, integrity, and humanity with each other as human beings.

In their chapter on Honesty in The Power of Character Strengths, Ryan M. Niemiec and Robert E. McGrath discuss how honesty is valuable as it often leads to accomplishments, positive relationships, and a greater sense of control of one’s life. “When you are honest, you speak the truth. More broadly, you present yourself in a genuine and sincere way, without pretense, and taking responsibility for your feelings and actions. You are a person of integrity — you are who you say you are — and you act consistently across the domains of your life rather than being one way in the community and a completely different way in your family. As a result, you believe you are being consistently true to yourself.”2 While investigating this character trait, Niemiec and McGrath also discuss ways honesty can go wrong: underuse and overuse of honesty. “Our minds are quick to deflect blame” … “and offer clever ways to evade the truth”1 In the context of climate change, it is common for people to dismiss the climate crisis as a whole or refuse to believe that they have contributed to the harm done to Earth. This is a great example of underuse and being dishonest to yourself as an individual. Honesty takes courage and requires vulnerability to be true to your feelings and beliefs as well as being true to others and reflecting on your own mistakes. There is such a thing as overuse of honesty as well. Niemiec and McGrath state “Too much honesty and truth-telling can be hurtful and damaging to others. Many times, others are not psychologically ready for the truth.”1 Also, if information is shared “in a way that is too blunt or hurtful for the listener, that can just make matters worse.”1 When charts and data are thrown at an audience, accusing them and industries they rely on of wrongdoings, most will get defensive and brush away the topic altogether. This want for over-honesty sometimes drives activists to be somewhat dishonest. When activists come to feel desperate and like no one understands the severity of climate change, far too often they exaggerate the truth or make a claim that is lacking in scientific evidence. There is a delicate balance on how to approach discussing this topic in order to gain the trust of the target audience and provide scientific information clearly that I will dive into deeper later in this chapter. In the case of the climate crisis, I argue that complete honesty is important but sometimes activists need to approach the subject carefully and not be too blunt.

“The virtue of courage refers to your will - your digging deep to find motivation to accomplish your goals despite challenges arising within you (negative thoughts) and around you (a person who disagrees with you).”1 We can see courage from all levels approaching the climate crisis. I visualize this as a pyramid, from top-down there are the industries responsible for the most pollution and emissions, then activists dedicating their time and efforts to make changes and stand up against these industries, and a network of civilians ranging from those who are actively involved to those who dismiss climate change altogether. It takes courage for industries to be honest about their emissions and for them to hold themselves accountable because it could result in repercussions such as decrease in sales, boycotting of their product, and overall loss of profit if they approach honesty in the wrong way. It takes a lot of courage for an activist to stand up for what they believe in and call out a possibly enormous company for their wrongdoings. We have seen repercussions of this frequently such as when the countdown clock in Times Square depicted the time remaining until the point of no return which people said was too harsh for the general public to grasp.3 Finally, the largest group, citizens. Citizens need to have the courage to own up to their own mistakes and make changes in their lives to reduce their carbon footprint. Making these changes takes courage as change can be scary and can mean dealing with some discomfort while learning the best methods for living a clean life. Courage and honesty aren’t usually seen to be related although honesty takes courage and to be courageous, it takes honesty in one’s own self and even their limits.

Honesty of Industries

Most activists for repairing climate damage believe the main source of the problem is large corporations and industries that overuse resources, exploit smaller communities for profit and resources, and often cover their tracks by creating mistrust of science and generating large profits for many involved. Humans in the modern world have relied on these resources of oil and coal, among others, throughout their daily lives. One example of this is our reliance on gas for personal vehicles. As demonstrated by the Russian - Ukrainian war, gas is not always readily available and we rely on a select few companies/countries for a majority of our gas imports. From refusing to export out of just one country, gas prices have skyrocketed and it is the consumer that is heavily impacted. If anything, some people think this situation has demonstrated that humans living in more developed societies need to be less reliant on a single source of energy (especially one as harmful as oil) and instead do more to use alternative sources such as wind, water, and solar power.

Not everyone agrees with the removal of fossil fuels from society. Alex Epstein claims that fossil fuels have benefited society and have made for greater life however, he fails to be completely honest with his readers or bring up scientific evidence that goes against his claims. In The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein claims they have actually improved the environment with supplemental graphs and data. “Pessimistic predictions often assume that our environment is perfect until humans mess it up; they don’t consider the possibility that we could improve our environment. But the data of the last forty years indicate that we have been doing exactly that - using fossil fuels.”4 Epstein makes it clear that the discussion of climate change can be dramatically split and it isn’t hard to understand that people who share his beliefs on the subject would really resonate with this book, no matter the scientific data. All of the charts seem similar throughout the book and he chooses not to mention the scientific facts that go against his argument. Epstein works to strengthen his argument in favor of fossil fuels, but fails to demonstrate willingness to discuss the opposing side, making his argument lack complete honesty. Without serious scientific backing, even if some data is true, it doesn’t make the use of fossil fuels “moral” as Epstein claims. Morality is a difficult subject to understand but I believe that if the harm outweighs the benefits, it should not be considered moral. Yes, fossil fuels have allowed countries such as America to develop and thrive but if they prevent that in the future by creating negative effects that greatly harm the human population as a whole, they should not be considered moral. Although they may have been moral at a time in human history (take the advancements of medicine for example), the cons will eventually outweigh the pros as demonstrated by scientific evidence. Epstein also states, “Fossil fuel technology transforms nature to improve human life on an epic scale. It is the only energy technology that can currently meet the energy needs of all 7+ billion people on this planet. While there are some truly exciting supplemental technologies that may rise to dominance in some distant decade, that does not diminish the greatness or immense value of fossil fuel technology.”4 While it is reasonable to claim that we are heavily reliant on fossil fuels and they have allowed for many humans to live much better lives than they may have without them, Epstein fails to discuss all the downsides and how fossil fuels will affect the future of human society. Fossil fuels have harmed many communities who have been displaced for drilling and other methods of obtaining the fuels. Also, although we are reliant on them, Epstein doesn’t think about how we may be too reliant. As mentioned before, the Russian-Ukrainian war has demonstrated our dependence on oil and what happens when it isn’t readily available. Additionally, fossil fuels will eventually run out and what happens then? If we don’t dedicate time and effort to finding and making other sources of energy available, we will be stuck with a great deprivation in energy and yet another crisis will occur.

Epstein’s take on the climate crisis is an unusual approach and one that definitely resonates with those who deny climate change although he happens to back his arguments with data and graphs. His views are entirely one-sided and it seems that he is dishonest with himself and refuses to understand those who oppose him. In an interview with GB news, he stated “If you don’t admit that today’s world is amazing because of fossil fuels, you are totally unqualified to make any predictions about the future because either you are anti-human or ignorant.”5 Epstein seems to be stuck in the past and unwilling to admit that the past and the success of fossil fuels will not predict the future of planet Earth. Claiming those with views opposed to his are “anti-human” is an interesting claim to make when the people working to reverse climate change are doing so partly to benefit the human race and those who will be affected by these changes. I argue Epstein needs to be more honest about the science backing the climate crisis and be more honest with himself that although fossil fuels have benefited us in the past, our future is on the line because of their negative effects.

In contrast to Epstein, Cameron Russell represents the opposite side of the argument of the morality of fossil fuels in her chapter of the book All We Can Save : Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. The chapter titled: “Dear Fossil Fuel Executives” talks about misinformation campaigns, what enables the fossil fuel industry, and how they have exploited their power for their own benefit without worrying about others. She challenges the executives, asking if they feel remorse for events such as “the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, or at the public’s horror when it became clear that Exxon management had not only known about the climate repercussions of fossil fuels since the 1970s but had gone to great lengths to cover them up and, further, to wage a massive misinformation campaign to instill doubt about global warming.”6 This is a dramatic difference from Epstein who praised fossil fuel industries and all they have done to better the world, where in reality it is likely quite the opposite where these executives are responsible for great dishonesty to the public as a way to generate more profit for themselves. “The Fossil Fuel Industry is also enabled by many broken systems. In the United States alone, direct and indirect subsidies exceed annual spending by the Pentagon, propping up the profitability of oil, gas, and coal. It is enormously difficult to incorporate long-term thinking when short-termism dominates boardroom strategy, as the market encourages quarterly growth above all else.”6 Russell makes it abundantly clear: these companies' sole purpose is to create profit while the long term effects of their business are completely out of mind. It is true that they have had great success and are allowing for employment and good pay for their employees, but this is merely a grain of rice in the big picture of what will happen to these employees when their house floods or they’re hit with more severe storms than they’ve ever seen. This big picture should be in the front of these executives’ minds if they can be honest with themselves and admit that they have contributed to a great disaster.

Russell ends her chapter by pointing out a critical view: “If some of the least-resourced communities are finding ways to build a just and sustainable future, then certainly fossil fuel companies, with their vast power and resources, can find ways to transition with fairness to the people they employ.”6 Smaller businesses and communities have made great strides and sacrifices to do what they know is right and moral for the Earth yet these enormous corporations fail to do everything they can. They fill their customers heads’ with broken promises and misinformation when they could be doing something to make a difference and reverse the damage they have first-handedly caused. Russell even gave examples of these communities including Native American and Alaskan tribes living without electricity, and PUSH Buffalo helping low-income communities access solar power and develop energy-efficient affordable housing. If low-income communities and even anyone willing to make personal changes in their energy use are able to do it, there is no excuse for this 100-billion dollar industry to not make an effort.

Honesty of Activists

On the other side of this debate are activists, who happen to have the opposite approach as fuel industries and are often overly honest. Activists are often said to be too harsh about the climate crisis and their efforts are said to be overzealous and they can sometimes put blame on their audience. Katharine Hayhoe, a spokesperson for climate change discusses approaches to talking to people about climate change, including what usually turns people away. Hayhoe notes how she often had difficulties resonating with her audience when she just threw science and facts at them. Maybe they didn’t believe them, or understand them, but what Hayhoe learned was: “when I encounter someone who’s doubtful about the reality or the relevance of climate change, I don’t start by talking science; instead, I try to identify something we have in common.”6 Through the years she has learned that the topic of climate change needs to be seen as a personal one, as it is, because that is how to make people understand the severity and the impacts it can have on individual lives. Hayhoe concluded her chapter with an example of how she persuaded a man from Texas to put his skepticism aside and listen: “I had persuaded him by beginning with his values, showing my respect for them, and then connecting the dots between what he already cared about and a changing climate. And it worked - because to care about climate change, all we really have to be is a human living on planet Earth.”6 This is a delicate subject for many and honesty plays a big role in creating an open communication. The activist has to be honest about the subject but not take it so far as to scare away their audience. This should not be mistaken as an excuse to be dishonest, but instead approach the conversation lightly and introduce the facts lightly instead of all at once. If they fall too far below this line, not sharing enough information or not being transparent about the subject at hand, that can also be a problem in relaying information about the climate crisis and leaving people to second-guess your knowledge.

Even if you can successfully discuss climate change and express its information to others, the real issue isn’t climate deniers, says Hayhoe, “it’s that when it comes to supporting climate action, the urgency just isn’t there for many of us. Seventy-three percent of us believe climate change will affect future generations, but only 42 percent think it will affect us in our lifetimes. As for the solutions, we’re tond - incorrectly - that they’re expensive and ineffective, and so we wonder why we should bear the brunt of the financial impact.”6 Most of the world believes in climate change, but the majority of them don’t realize we’re currently living through it. It happens slowly and with the seasons so it’s hard to understand the stronger storms, flooding, and melting of glaciers are because of us. This is the main piece of information that people need people to understand. Since the majority of people think climate change won’t affect our generation, they don’t see a need to do anything and think there is plenty of time to reverse the damage but this is simply not the case.

Katharine Hayhoe also stresses the importance of simply talking about climate change and finding common ground between the people involved. “It isn’t only about what we accomplish ourselves: connecting with others imbues us with a stronger sense of collective efficacy and builds a network of like-minded people. Sharing our opinions and actions alters social norms, the informal rules that govern our behavior.” … “It’s like knocking over the first domino: action eventually changes us all.”7 Simply talking about the problems we all face brings humans together as people suffering the same burden. This is the first step to creating an open communication about the climate crisis and is extremely important in taking steps to make a difference.

But what happens when we don’t talk about it? Nathan Geiger, a communications researcher studied environmental educators who are employed by talking to the public about the climate crisis. “He found even they often hesitate to talk about climate change. And not doing so has repercussions for them; serious ones, he discovered. Many of them say they suffer from “severe psychological distress.” … “as a result of not being able to connect with others by discussing a topic about which they report concern.””7 It is interesting that environmental educators are even hesitant to talk about climate change although it can be a scary thing to do, requiring courage. To stand up in front of people and discuss what you think is right with something that is basically a political matter can mean facing backlash, especially if your views on climate change don’t line up with your political party’s average views. This shouldn’t be a topic of such divide in our democracy yet it is the cause of much distress and turmoil for many who know they should be honest but find it difficult to do so. This could likely be applied to those working in the fossil fuel industry if they understand the impact of climate change and their role in it but fear standing up for what they believe in will cause them to lose their standing or even their job. This is the unfortunate case of our society and we all need to work to be more honest with ourselves, and those around us in order to form a stronger humanity in our communities and around the world. Standing up for a cause and going against the grain takes courage as mentioned before. Honesty is very courageous on multiple levels and activists and people who stand up for what they believe in are great examples of courage.

After comparing temptations towards dishonesty or some downsides with being overly honest, it has been made clear to me that honesty is truly a difficult trait to master but is a great way to define someone’s character and courage. It takes courage to be honest with those around you and to understand what is appropriate to speak on but telling the truth is one of the most important factors in the climate crisis. For years we have been fed misinformation and have lied to ourselves that the Earth can fix itself and the real changes in the climate won’t be seen for hundreds of years yet they are happening in front of our eyes. If industries could be honest with the public about their emissions and contributions, it would be easier to judge the extent of the damage and how to fix it. If industries are honest with themselves, they would be willing to make changes for the benefit of themselves, their employees, their customers, and planet Earth instead of only worrying about themselves. Activists need to be honest with their audiences while approaching the topic carefully so that they are able to better connect with each other. By spewing facts and data, their listeners could take offense or dismiss the subject without really understanding what is being said. And every individual needs to be honest with themselves and understand that this is a crisis that we have the power to fix. It can be as simple as switching to products that produce less waste or making an effort to recycle more often. Additionally, if more people are able to make the switch to renewable energy it would encourage those around them to do the same and see the benefits. Change is hard, especially when much of the population doesn’t have information on renewable energy or reducing their carbon footprint. But if we continue to damage the environment and Earth at this rate, it will make survival of humans and the species we share this planet with difficult. These changes led by honesty can lead to a stronger sense of community, a cleaner way of living, and a way to ensure our ability to thrive on planet Earth.

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