Politics & Policy

The West’s Self-Destructive Global-Warming Penance

(Mbolina/Dreamstime)

The global-warming crusade (we mustn’t call it a “jihad”) is a strange exercise in Protestant virtue. Consider the endlessly repeated argument: “Even if the threat is being exaggerated; even if the models aren’t as reliable as they say; even if the scientific consensus isn’t quite so iron-clad as the activists claim, wouldn’t we be better off, still, if we consumed less, conserved more, and invested in efficiency and green alternatives?”

This is a question of virtue masquerading as a question of engineering.

There is One True American Faith, and Joel Osteen (in the shadow of whose church, a former professional-sports arena, I type these words) is its prophet, the latest in a line that includes such diverse figures as Cotton Mather, Norman Vincent Peale, and Dave Ramsey.

One current of that faith is the so-called prosperity gospel, the belief that if one performs the proper offices honoring God, then He will proffer blessings in this world, as well as in the life to come. Put another way, some Christians believe that the One who commands us to take up our crosses and follow Him also cares a great deal about who wins at bingo and whether you get a preferential rate on your mortgage. (“Not a sparrow falls,” etc.) Material prosperity of supernatural origin comes with some indentures, however, and thus we have the ancient American cult of thrift, the deep-seated prejudice against indulgence and extravagance (our Protestant friends sometimes lament the fact that Europe’s Catholic altars are garnished with priceless masterpieces), and the mania for efficiency in American life. The ancient Calvinists believed debt to be wicked; Ramsey, their modern torchbearer, merely insists that “debt is dumb, and cash is king.” King of kings, for some, to be sure.

EDITORIAL: The Climate-Change Distraction in Paris 

Religious impulses are fungible between deities. Hilaire Belloc, the great Catholic polemicist, argued that Islam was in effect merely the extension of Protestant aversion to clerisy and ecclesiastical bureaucracy to its logical conclusion, with nothing to stand between man, scripture, and divinity itself. (And surely he was correct, in that the wild profusion of Protestant denominations and factions is nothing less than the takfiri impulse.) It has often been remarked that the global-warming panic is rooted in a kind of religious sentiment, but nobody ever says which religion: American Consensus Protestantism, which, having been divorced from its service to that boring old Divinity with practically Republican attitudes toward sex and marriage, seeks a new god to serve.

RELATED: Business as Usual at the Paris Climate Conference

Sacrifices will be required, of course: As Barack Obama promised, we are going to be obliged to adopt national policies that will raise our energy bills and thereby lower our standards of living. As Mrs. Clinton insists, “We’re going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good.” But a few Elect among us — Al Gore and his compadres, any number of companies that will shortly be vying to lure a retired Barack Obama onto their boards of directors — will become green billionaires, having propitiated the gods. And through the magic of broken windows, we’ll all end up somehow better off as we are obliged to rebuild our energy and manufacturing infrastructure once the holy vandals have had at it.

#share#Meanwhile, at the UN’s climate conference in Paris, what is actually happening? The business afoot is thoroughly secular: Narendra Modi, speaking for the developing nations, seeks an accommodation in which all of the burdens fall upon India’s main economic competitors (to whom much has been given . . . ), while lesser figures associated with a similar point of view have made it clear that they are not averse to accepting simple cash payments.

RELATED: The Great Climate Lie

But what of the original question? Even if this turns out to be an exaggeration — even if the alarmist view of global warming turns out to be wrong on the substance and recent variation is all a matter of Milankovitch cycles or solar activity — wouldn’t we be better off adopting the reforms that the wise and holy men put forward? Wouldn’t it be better — morally better — if we consumed less, made a little less go a little farther, conserved, burned less oil and coal, exploited fewer natural resources, and exercised a little of what the old virtue-mongers used to call continence?

Better for whom?

#related#Certainly not better for the poor, who, we have it on good authority, shall always be among us. (Jesus was a pretty good economist, but I believe that He may have gotten that one wrong: Poverty is, in fact, a solvable problem.) Technological and economic regression is almost always borne by those with the least power to forcibly pass along costs to other parties, and that ensures that forgone gains in the quality of material life will burden the poor rather than the well-off, whatever formal agreement is forged in or after Paris. But this exercise in virtue isn’t really about them — the poor and sweaty and miserable Them, who when they are not foundering in picturesque poverty are scheming to (sing along, Senator Sanders!) steal our jobs. No, this is about us rich people in the West, and our endless need for mortification, if not of the flesh then at least of the SUV. We’ve reduced the concept of sin to almost nothing in our shared common life, but the instinct for penance is unabated.

This isn’t a particularly creative age of spiritual thinking, and we haven’t even bothered to come up with a distinctive mode of punishment: They’re still threatening us with burning for our sins.

The hunger for moral reformation is an excellent spiritual instinct. It’s poor economics.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.

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