Climate Change: is it a new religion?

Sydney Walk Against Warming 2008
Sydney Walk Against Warming 2008

The Murdoch rearguard action against climate change science just won’t die, although these days it tends to be confined to the opinion section of the newspapers, rather than counting as ‘news’. In today’s Sydney Telegraph, columnist Piers Ackerman gives another outing to his argument that climate change is natural (and, since you ask, probably isn’t happening anyway). He blames the state-run ABC media and the Fairfax press for perpetuating the myth. Which is slightly ironic, since in today’s Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax owned) columnist Miranda Devine writes almost the same article excoriating the ‘church’ of climate change ‘fundamentalists’ and promoting the same climate sceptic, who happens to have a new book out this month, Adelaide University professor Ian Plimer.

Paralleling Devine’s use of religious metaphor, Ackerman sees climate change as a kind of ‘religion’, which is not to be questioned, and has its own orthodoxy and its own high priest in Al Gore.

This is hardly a new line of argument, and it still doesn’t look like dying away any time soon, so what’s going on here?

Well, in a sense they’re right to see climate change concern as a socially constructed ideological position. That’s because every viewpoint is socially constructed, and every viewpoint acts, to an extent, like a ‘religion’ in that it involves a measure of ‘belief’ – making use of working assumptions rather than going back to first principles all the time. According to the theory of four cultures, explored on this website, those keenest on raising the alarm about climate change tend to be egalitarians, who are very interested in potential threats to the coherence of the group. So it’s not surprising that the same bunch who worried about nuclear power in the 70s and acid rain in the 80s now worry about global warming. In general, they think doom is worth talking up. For them, large-scale threats are useful to encourage the group to pull together, to encourage the wider society to become more group-oriented. ‘Because of this or that great threat, we need to change our values, share more, etc etc’ – this is a familiar and well rehearsed story.

In contrast, climate change deniers are par excellence individualists, for whom risk equals not doom but opportunity. Change is good, because for those with the skill and graft to benefit from it, it spells success. In general, they think opportunity is worth talking up, and what is climate change, if not a great big opportunity? Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction‘ in spades! That’s if it’s actually happening, of course, which for individualists, it probably isn’t. For them, the world doesn’t really work that way. For them, doom and gloom is for losers. The world is a skill-controlled cornucopia, with endless opportunity for innovators and winners – and everyone else has only themselves to blame. Again, you get the story, because you’ve heard it a thousand times.

So let’s do a quick ‘four cultures’ test. Wouldn’t his views be more convincing if Prof Ian Plimer was actually an egalitarian, or a fatalist, or a hierarchist, who had looked at all the so-called facts of climate change and in spite of his egalitarian or fatalist or hierarchist biases, just couldn’t make climate change stack up? Surely to goodness he isn’t an individualist,  using the ‘scientific facts’ as a justification for his pre-existing ideological position, in which climate change a priori cannot be a problem?

As it turns out, the Prof is an ‘associate‘ of think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, whose Executive Director wrote:

“We are many things – but ‘right wing’ is not one of them. Any combination of free market, liberal, conservative (on some issues), liberal/conservative, (even) libertarian (on occasion), would be an appropriate description of the IPA – but not right wing. Since when has being in favour of small government, lower taxes, and less government been ‘right wing’?,”

The IPA, watchword ‘Free people, free society’ is a near perfect example of the individualist cultural bias. The point is that there is on the face of it nothing to connect a denial of anthropogenic CO2 forcing (as per Plimer) with  support for ‘small government’ or ‘lower taxes’. Yet, time and time again, this pattern is what we see. It looks very much as though individualism is shaping the collection of and responses to CO2 data every bit as much as egalitarianism is.

Prof Plimer is not merely against climate change as such – he is against interventionist policy responses. He wrote in The Australian :

Even if the sea level rises by metres, it is probably cheaper to address this change than reconstruct the world’s economies.

Given that many of the world’s largest cities, rich and poor, would be under water in such a scenario, including New York and London, it’s hard to see how he’s presenting a realistic set of alternatives. A two metre sea level rise would reconstruct the world’s economies for us, whether we liked it or not.

In the same article he wrote:

Only a strong economy can produce the well fed who have the luxury of espousing with religious fervour their uncosted, impractical, impoverishing policies. By such policies, Greenpeace continues to exacerbate grinding poverty in the Third World. The planet’s best friend is human resourcefulness with a supportive, strong economy and reduced release of toxins.

The markers of individualism here are clear: a promethean trust in ‘human resourcefulness’; advocacy of a ‘strong economy’ – a phrase given direction by association with the IPA; and strong opposition to egalitarianism, as typified by Greenpeace. These things have nothing to do with science as such, and everything to do with the way ideologies are constructed.

Conclusion: just as journalists like Piers Ackerman and Miranda Devine see cultish, religious and fundamentalist attitudes in the ‘greenies’ who bleat on about global warming, we can observe exactly the same, though inverted, cultish, religious and fundamentalist attitudes in those who make an effort to deny it. The only difference is one of assertion or denial as mirror images of one another.In fact, since these cultural biases are so pervasive in climate change debates, it may be wise to stop labeling them perjoratively and start trying to understand why they take the shape they do.

The ‘four cultures’ approach, summarised here, indicates ways in which debates about climate change are still primarily more about the kind of society we want than about the climate and its chemical composition. As humans our observations are strongly conditioned by our heuristic preconceptions. Only when we start to recognise this can we begin to rise above it and start talking sense.

In the mean time, are there any examples of climate change sceptics who are egalitarians or, conversely, of climate change believers who are individualists?

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