March 19, 2010
By Jeremy Lovell of ClimateWire
The New York Times
LONDON -- Apocalyptic visions and the muscular language of religious fervor are invading the climate arena, replacing issues of fact with those of faith and bringing high emotion into science -- an area where it should have no place -- politicians and religious leaders complain.
People who say human-induced climate change is a fact that demands urgent action are described as "believers" or "climate evangelists," while those who reject the concept are "deniers," "skeptics" or "atheists." Those in the middle who say they are unconvinced either way are "agnostics."
"The use of this language has become increasingly an issue," said Colin Challen, chairman of the United Kingdom's All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group, a committee of U.K. lawmakers studying the global climate phenomenon.
"Some people would like that to happen, because in some eyes proving that climate change is man-made becomes as difficult as proving the existence of God," he told E&E.
The contagious, semi-religious linguistic brew is further fueled by climate alarmists, from environmentalists to politicians, warning of looming apocalyptic disasters or seeing themselves pitted in an Armageddon-like struggle between the forces of good and evil.
Both ends of the spectrum are described as zealots, but confusingly, each accuses the other of being "flat Earthers." While the debate is at its most vitriolic in the blogosphere, where opinions and insults are often more frequent than facts and where exchanges rapidly descend into personal abuse, senior politicians are by no means exempt from using the religious metaphor.
"The climate world is divided into three: the climate atheists, the climate agnostics, and the climate evangelicals. I'm a climate agnostic," Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh explained in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Linguistic contagion seen spreading from the U.S.
For Tom Burke of the London-based climate change think tank E3G, the introduction of such religious labels is symptomatic of a far more sinister agenda at work than the simple but emotive issue of lifestyle and sustainability. He claims it is spreading from the United States, where the climate debate is far more politicized and polarized than in many other parts of the world.
"The use of this kind of language has become very prevalent. The parallels with creationism are undeniable. Creationists and climate deniers are the same people. They are from the political and religious right," he said.
"Climate change becomes a question of reason against unreason, and the use of the religious labels -- propagated by lazy journalism -- is all about controlling the agenda through language. It is a classic right-wing ploy," he added. "The deniers who call themselves agnostics are obfuscating. It is a lie and should be exposed as such."
Environmentalists have long used apocalyptic language to promote their causes, which include saving iconic creatures, plants or the planet from the worst human depredations. But they don't talk about financial sacrifices necessary to achieve their ends. Few people even approach the question of whether the current rate of consumption of physical goods and energy in the rich, developed world is in any way sustainable.
But for theologian and environmentalist Martin Palmer, the constant references to potential oblivion have gone much too far and have become self-defeating.
'You can't keep telling people they are guilty'
"They are playing games with very emotive language," said Palmer, the co-founder of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. "Negative images just don't work. You can't keep telling people they are guilty. They stop listening, and that means nothing gets done."
"In the 1970s and '80s, the environmental movement was utopian: 'Do what we say and everything will be all right.' That was rejected. So they turned inwards and became exclusives, saying, 'We are the only ones with the truth. Unless you follow us, you will be eternally damned.'"
"That doesn't work, either. The church should know. We have been there. We have been utopian and then apocalyptic. We know that the way forward is calm and gentle argument and persuasion. I think you will see within the next two to three years that this violent environmental language will fade away and be replaced by something much more measured and moderate," he said.
Extending the religious metaphor, Palmer likened the trade in carbon emission credits as part of the battle against climate change to the sale by the church in the Middle Ages of so-called indulgences by which rich people could buy their way out of having to do penance for bad deeds.
"It removes from individuals the responsibility for their actions and is morally bankrupt," he said. "We had the Reformation in Europe to get rid of that. We need a reformation of the environmental system."
Some scientists keep the faith
But part of the problem is that the science underlying the whole climate change issue, which was supposed to have been settled three years ago when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced its latest report, has now been brought into question once more.
Climate critics have never accepted the Fourth Assessment Report's conclusions that it is a near certainty that the current bout of climate change is human-induced, and their cause was given a boost late last year due to a series of leaked e-mails from Phil Jones, the head of the University of East Anglia's highly respected climate change unit.
In the e-mails, Jones asked for data to be deleted, said he would fight to ensure certain papers were not published, refused requests for the raw data on which his conclusions were based, and wrote of a "trick" to make seemingly contradictory data suddenly fit the desired outcome that climate change was happening and was primarily human-induced.
The climate skeptics leapt on this information, despite the fact that it was based on highly selective extracts from thousands of e-mails stretching back over several years, as proof that the scientists had been biased in reaching their climate change conclusions.
This view was seemingly supported by later revelations that some of the IPCC's climate report had been based on erroneous data -- particularly its conclusions on the rapid rate of Himalayan glacial melt.
While the University of East Anglia and the IPCC are both being investigated to see what happened and why, climate scientists insist that the science is sound and conclusions remain fundamentally correct.
Sloppy reporting makes the labels stick
But for Oxford University economist and climate specialist Dieter Helm, the scientists made the basic and unforgivable error of allowing their convictions to color their judgments. "Of course there is a place for religion in the climate change debate -- there is a moral question of what we are doing to our planet, of which, after all, we are the stewards. But there is absolutely no place for it in science," he said.
"Faith is anathema to science. A scientist should always question his or her hypothesis and should welcome others doing likewise, because if the questions don't prove it to be wrong, then they strengthen it. Some scientists in the climate field have evidently forgotten that fundamental principle," he said.
Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation public policy think tank, which was the first to propose the idea of the "green New Deal" to help reboot the world economy and shift it onto a low-carbon development path, said it was understandable but regrettable that religious language had entered the climate change arena.
But like Burke, Challen, Palmer and Helm, he pointed the finger at sloppy reporting of the highly complex issue. "The people who shout the loudest or use the most colorful language and images tend to be the ones who get noticed and reported on," he said.
"But it is a mistake to use a form of religious language, because it is unnecessary and misses the central point that we have 200 years of scientific data that tells us we are playing a very dangerous game with our environment. This is a matter of fact. It should not be muddied by faith," he said.