What Bill Maher Gets Wrong About the Climate Struggle

The comedian's recent monologue was designed more to provoke than to illuminate.

A closeup headshot of Bill Maher.
Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images

This past weekend, comedian Bill Maher laid into young climate activists. Or, more accurately, he laid into the broader idea that Gen Z is "the climate generation." The monologue was pretty much signature Maher—designed more to provoke than to illuminate—and essentially can be boiled to one central and absurdly generalized assertion: Unless Gen Z gives up its consumerist ways, then they’ve lost the credibility to speak up on climate or to point the finger at Boomers for destroying the planet.

Unsurprisingly, as someone who has spoken and written ad nauseum about the pointlessness of purity tests, I took serious issue with Maher’s straw man assertions. Here’s why: Firstly, there is no reason why someone cannot both be concerned about climate and engage in consumerism. Sure, there’s some added credibility that comes with walking your talk but, ultimately, we’re all complex and imperfect individuals who have no choice but to interact with a world that incentivizes emissions-intensive behaviors. 

Secondly, there are few among the younger generation of climate activists who really see this as a generational struggle—as opposed to a struggle that’s rooted in politics, power, wealth, and class. There are plenty of boomers who are busting their tails on the front lines of the climate fight (looking at you Lloyd Alter!) and plenty of Gen Zers who are oblivious to the threat. 

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Maher is hardly in a position to decide who does and does not have credibility on climate. While his claim that kids can either be the “private jet generation, or the one that saves the planet” might raise a cheap laugh, it sounds pretty hollow from a person that takes private jets all the time

“We’re all driving off the Grand Canyon holding hands, it’s the decision we make,” Maher once argued on HBO—apparently without much reflection on who was in the driver’s seat. 

Ultimately, though, the main problem is simply that Maher, like so much of our culture, continues to view a profoundly collective problem through a lens of individual consumer choice. While he is correct in his previous assertions that if everyone could take a private jet, they probably would, he fails to take that thought to its obvious conclusion: Private jets should be taxed so onerously—and/or legislated so heavily—that people start making different choices and the options available shift as a result. 

As Alter, Treehugger's design editor, wrote recently, we already know the world’s mega-rich have carbon footprints that are many times larger than the rest of us. We also know that they play an outsized role in setting social norms, driving fashion trends, and pushing an aspirational culture of consumption. Is it really fair to say, as Maher seems to be suggesting, that kids who "like" an Instagram post by a private jet-flying celebrity are equally culpable for the crisis as the celebrity who is pushing that aesthetic in the first place? 

As I was thinking some more about Maher’s monologue (and why I disliked it so much) it occurred to me that the comedian may be suffering from that age-old problem: We tend to react negatively to people who live into our values better than we do. Maher knows that the climate crisis is real. He knows that there is an urgent need to fix it. And yet because he continues to live a high emissions lifestyle, he appears to be projecting the (mostly perceived) preachiness of climate activists onto an entire generation of young people who neither asked for nor claimed the moniker of the climate generation.

Rather than telling kids who are concerned about their future to shut up, he might be better placed thinking about how he might productively raise his voice.