Greta Thunberg, the teenager from Stockholm, is the prophet of a new religion sweeping the West. Call it Climatism. Like any religion worthy of the name, it comes with its own catechism (what to believe) and eschatology (how the world will end). Thunberg’s bible is the latest report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which gives us 12 years to save civilization as we know it.
We have prayed to the false gods of fossil-fired growth, runs Thunberg’s indictment. Guilty are the adults who have “lied to us” and given us “false hope.” But her children’s crusade—no-school “Fridays for Future”—will show the path to redemption.
And so, the youngsters did. For September 20, the 16-year-old had managed to organize worldwide protest marches. From New York to Nairobi, from Asia to Australia, tens of thousands thronged the squares and streets of their cities, chanting: “You had a future, and so should we!” 2019 is the year 1 a.g., Anno Gretae.
Of course, Greta Thunberg did not come out of nowhere. All new religions emerge from competing sects, as Jesus did in Jerusalem and Muhammad in the Arabian Hejaz. Why did she succeed so quickly, virtually in a space of months? An “innocent child,” muses Gerard Baker in the Wall Street Journal, “is an inspiring story that is very effective in offering role models and propagating the faith.” A guileless demeanor trumps reams of data and multiple regressions churned out by the IPCC. But it also helps that Greta has a flawless PR machine running in the background at all times.
Environmentalism is not a new thing under the sun. It has a long tradition going back to the American Sierra Club, founded in 1892 for purposes both secular and wholesome. Among the club’s feats are wondrous national parks such as Yosemite and Yellowstone. But I first noticed the creedal nature of the movement 12 years ago in California. In Napa Valley, the Gaia Hotel had ditched the Gideon Bible in favor of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.1
Eclipsed by Thunberg, Gore is nonetheless still in the prophecy business. Writing in the New York Times last September, he doubled down on doom. “More destructive Category 5 hurricanes are developing,” he wrote. “Monster fires ignite and burn on every continent but Antarctica, ice is melting in large amounts there and in Greenland, and accelerating sea-level rise now threatens low-lying cities and island nations.”
For the believers, the debate is closed, and exhortation has segued into excommunication. No more catty humor, like that on display in the unforgettable bumper sticker from the 1970s: “Save the Planet! Kill yourself!” Those who reject the faith are “climate-change deniers,” as in “denying the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:23). Relate Climatism to Judeo-Christianity, and the psycho-structural analogies abound.
First, you need a prophet like Isaiah who rains damnation on the wayward. “Woe to a people whose guilt is great, a brood of evildoers! They have forsaken the Lord and turned their back on him” (Isaiah 1:4). Greta, and Gore before her, replicates the language of the Good Book. Today, penitence demands renouncing the obscene material pleasures that doom our planet with megatons of noxious gases.
Second, invoke the apocalypse, as in the Revelation of St. John (Revelation 13:13), where God will “make fire come down from the heavens.” Religion, pagan or monotheist, is shot through with cosmic angst attacks. The Deluge goes back to the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic (1800 b.c.e.). Sodom and Gomorrah are incinerated for their debaucheries. Egypt is punished with the Ten Plagues to force Pharaoh to “let my children go.” Hardly had they fled when God wanted to slay them all for praying to the Golden Calf. In a brilliant plea, Israel’s greatest prophet, Moses, manages to stave off extinction. God reduced the death sentence to 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.
Today, the harbingers of doom are armed with assumptions, models, and data. Melting ice will raise sea levels, swallowing coasts and islands. What the floods spare will be devastated by droughts or hurricanes. The most recent sign from up high is the darkened skies over the Amazon’s rain forests, the “lungs of the world,” which presages collective death by asphyxiation. For the first iteration of this threat, one need only go back to Revelation 6:13: “The sun became black, and the whole moon became as blood.”
Whereas Isaiah 3:14 thunders, “You have devoured the vineyard, and the spoils of the poor is in your houses,” today’s climate prophets target the exploitation of the Third World by the rich West. Hence, “the Lord will take away their finery, the anklets and headbands” (Isaiah 3:18). And “before me every knee will bow” (Isaiah 45:23).
Third, if you “repent and believe” (Mark 1:15), Armageddon will yield to hope and salvation. But deliverance demands sacrifice, an idea going back to the earliest days of humanity. You could once expiate your sins by burying your baubles. Today, you must trade cars for bicycles. Stop gorging on meat whose production destroys forests and poisons the atmosphere with methane. Shrink your carbon footprint by using trains instead of planes. Ditch plastic in favor of hand-knitted shopping bags. Turn down the thermostat and pay a price for CO2 emissions. Such a levy makes economic sense by putting a market price on profligacy, but one can’t help recalling the indulgences condemned by another prophet, Martin Luther, in the 16th century.
Of course, faith has nothing to do with earth science. The latest IPCC Report (2018), authored by luminaries in the field, looks like the very model of scientific inquiry. It is 618 pages long and packed with graphs, math, and time series. Given the dense academic language, it is doubtful whether anybody apart from the proofreaders has read the tome in its entirety.
Nor is it necessary to run the whole course in order to get at a basic truth—a truth regularly ignored by the media, with its penchant for turning “might be” into “is” and “could happen” into “will happen.” For our purpose, it is enough to read the 24 pages of the “Summary for Policy Makers.” It is preceded by a motto taken from the beloved French children’s book author Antoine de St. Exupéry that gives the game away: The report is about salvation but written in the language of science. The quote reads: “As for the future, the task is not to foresee, but to enable it.”
The data-driven language of the climatologists is more timid than the thunder of the Prophets. Isaiah, Jeremiah et al. mince no words when they let loose death and damnation. Unless you repent, God will strike. You will suffer hellish retribution. You will perish. The authors of the IPCC “Summary” hedge their bets. “Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming” (emphasis added). “It is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase” (emphasis in original). Anthropogenic global warming is again “estimated” as such and such. Extreme weather is explained by “attribution studies,” which suggests that the authors are not sure about whether one variable drives another, but they offer probabilistic assessments. Anthropogenic emissions “alone are unlikely to cause global warming of 1.5°C” (emphasis in original). (Note that the media are comfortable bandying around the figure of 2 or even 4 degrees.) Risks are not certain, avers the report, but depend on all kinds of factors, such as the “rate of warming, geographic location, levels of development and vulnerability.” So if X goes up, as assumed, then Y and Z might follow.
The language here is similar to that used in reports of the National Intelligence Council on various geostrategic threats faced by the U.S. Such reports are sprinkled with conditionals and subjunctives, estimates and projections. In the vernacular, this technique is called “covering your behind,” which actually is proper and prudent for intelligence officials as well as scientists. Humans, after all, are not gifted with foresight. Alas, these cautionary rules do not govern the public discourse, where St. Exupéry’s dictum reigns instead: The issue is not predicting the future but enabling it.
Nor does a sober sense of the conditional bite into Greta Thunberg’s gospel. She goes the Prophets one worse by dispensing with the “if, then” framework and asserting that doom is already upon us. So, she told her disciples at September’s New York climate strike: “Our house is burning”—right here and now. Jeremiah gave Israel a bit more wiggle room.
Yes, exaggeration helps when serving a good cause. But conditionals are not enough when the Democrats have proposed a “Green New Deal” that costs $50 to $90 trillion over the next decade to stave off global catastrophe. Politicos who are running for the party’s nomination seek to outbid one another, and so the Good Gospel beats jejune budget matters.
Agnostics might question the coherence of Climatism. It takes considerable effort to explain why God permits evil. Likewise, how can the climate account for opposite phenomena such as rains and droughts, too much and too little snow, fires and floods? Not to worry. If Theory A does not work, then let’s add B and C. Yet merely to raise questions is to demonstrate naiveté, obtuseness, or “denial.” You don’t quibble with a vengeful God who must be propitiated.
And those who do not bow their knees? They must be made to see that this is no time to shrug off dire tidings. For even if we do not know what awaits the planet, the Precautionary Principle demands prudence and insurance. Better to be good than oblivious. Better to act like a risk-conscious homeowner who cannot predict whether or when his house might go up in flames. He will still buy a policy, and rightly so. But precaution must not translate into a blank check to protect against all predictions, no matter how flimsy.
It is critical to keep fear and faith from dividing the world into disciples and heretics. “I am holier than thou” is not a compelling argument. If climate trumps civil conversation, the world will not become smarter. Inspired by Aristotle and David Hume, the philosopher of science Karl Popper wrote: “All theories are hypotheses; all can be overthrown. The game of science has no end. Those who decide that scientific propositions are final retire from the game,” leaving behind “pseudo-science or faith.”
Is warming progressive? Or is it cyclical, as in eons past? For hundreds of thousands of years, warming followed regularly on ice ages. Climate historians assert that each temperature surge came with precipitous rises in atmospheric CO2. Which came first, though? Did CO2 raise temperatures, or did the warming increase the level of CO2? If cyclicality is the case, then man-made CO2 could not quite explain today’s warming, as there weren’t very many belching smoke stacks and gas guzzlers around ages ago. Consider an alternative hypothesis: If warming is not anthropogenic, then it might not help to plug all oil wells, close all coal pits, and slaughter all methane-producing cows while covering the land with solar panels and windmills.
What’s more, the adherents of Climatism rarely consider the trade-offs that arise from their solutions. Electric cars instead of conventional vehicles? The manufacture and disposal of car batteries is not exactly eco-friendly. Apart from blighting the landscape, windmill blades kills birds and insects that pollinate fruit-bearing trees. Going vegan is good for bovines (and possibly for humans as well), but it would require chopping down forests to make room for millions of acres of crop lands—and no synthetic fertilizers, please. What are the effects on welfare when massive subsidies for solar power raise electricity prices, which weigh more heavily on the poor? Faith can move mountains, but politics is about costs and consequences.
To note such issues is not apostasy—different diagnoses come with different prescriptions. If man-made CO2 is the key culprit in climate change, then it’s worth investing in an aggressive and comprehensive policy to meet this urgent challenge—and getting China and India to do likewise. But remember that $50 trillion, the lower estimate for the Green New Deal, is $30 trillion more than America’s current GDP. If man-made CO2 is not the supreme malefactor, as it could not have been in the pre-industrial Medieval Warm Period, then limited resources are better spent on levees, dykes, and heat-resistant trees and crops.
Karl Popper had an incontrovertible point: Science is never a closed book. Only one thing is for sure. Faith, as Martin Luther preached, is a “mighty fortress.” Unflinching certainty locks out relentless inquiry—which goes for both sides.
1 This was widely reported in the international press in 2007. The Gaia Hotel developer then backpedaled, insisting that the staff had forgotten to provide Bibles in their haste to prepare for the grand opening. Afterwards, Bibles went into the nightstands along with Gore’s book.