STEVEN D. HALES – The Futility of Guilt-Based Advocacy


Companion piece to James Trafford’s ‘Against Green Nationalism’ posted before.


In his Quillette article Hales writes, ‘It not only makes us guilt-ridden and worse off psychologically, but even more harmfully it also provides only the illusion of effective action, thereby allowing global problems to fester without a proper solution.’

Both Hales and Trafford point to a certain futility of individual or even larger group activity ‘against’ current inaction on climate change. Both perspectives argue in favor of a global approach (with Trafford advocating for more Global North to South transfers and reparations, although it remains vague how and by whom, institutionally, that would be implemented, considering the manifold foreign aid plans already in place and they can’t all be futile or corrupt or benefiting only the few?).

Hales argues against guilt-based advocacy and for coercion – ‘we have an air-pollution problem, say, so the government raises taxes to pay for pollution abatement. Or the government orders manufacturers to meet emissions standards on pain of penalty’. I agree it would be more effective, immediately, than any XR (or other) effort. Coercion via carbon taxes is perhaps the only way to counter emissions globally, but as Hales writes ‘we will need world-wide coercion for genuine success’. In other words, there is no global regulatory framework in place to deal with climate change. Nation or region-wide (let’s say EU) coercion is meaningless it it’s not implemented on the global scale.

Hales’ argument for coercion and against guilt-based advocacy is half-hearted because he is well aware that worldwide coercion is unrealistic in the current sovereign nation state model. Worse, Hales’ argument remains disengaged as he does not even make an effort to propose or sketch a pathway of how a worldwide regulatory cooperation on carbon taxing could be initiated. 

Without (individual) citizens raising their voice, in any form, there would be even less efforts by governments to address, or think about, the issue. Dying from air pollution is also a way, however indirectly, to address the issue at hand. I agree with Hales that guilt-based advocacy is not just, well, kind of annoying (counterproductive even as it could lead to people voting conservative in order to stop being morally lectured; enjoying life and quietly dying of air pollution), yet if Hales cared about coercion and carbon taxes, he would provide (perhaps in a second essay?) a pathway of how such a coercion could translate into a worldwide regulatory framework. By not proposing anything constructive, Hales reveals a passivity bordering on climate change denial deluxe (think of all the creative ways f.ex. petrol companies undertake to question climate change, kind of accepting its existence but also brilliantly seeding doubt because it’s cold today). Mentioning coercion as an effective tool to cut emissions without providing possible pathways of achieving it is not enough.

Coercion needs a powerful institutional entity to be effective. It would need to emerge from a new or, more realistically, an already existing global institution. The United Nations in cooperation with the World Trade Organization is probably the best option. The UN would need to gain executive powers via a parliamentary assembly currently discussed.(1) This UN branch would essentially be a Global Parliament that could impose global carbon taxing. Why mention coercion and not talk about the elephant in the room, the institutional framework required to implementing coercion? Is that too much to ask? Is the UN taboo because it is perceived as costly, ineffective and ‘globalist’?  The UN is a work in progress and can adopt new directions and responsibilities for the common good.

If Hales’ coercion advocacy has any juice, it would empower a United Nations Global Parliament: ‘The Campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly proposes that the United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) begin as a consultative body whose powers could be augmented as it evolved into a directly elected assembly: “Step by step, it should be provided with genuine rights of information, participation and control vis-à-vis the UN and the organizations of the UN system.”(2)

Climate knows no borders. No other institutional body than the United Nations is equally equipped to plan beyond borders. No other body would be able to regulate and cut emissions through coercion. This is not a world government totalitarian fantasy, it’s the pragmatic evolution of the United Nations. In the absence of Hales’ imagination of what coercion could look like institutionally, Greta needs to suffice. Hales and Greta have more in common than assumed. Both seem to favor action rather than stupid advocacy. Both seem to agree on worldwide coercion implementation. Therefore both are in favour of institution-based advocacy. Which translates into the formation of a Global Parliament.