Politics & Policy

The Religion of Environmental Alarmism

Sign at a rally against climate change in New York City in 2014. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
The New York Times contemplates the end of humanity as our just punishment.

Those who consider global warming as a result of human activity to be not merely a persuasive theory but a proven fact rooted in unassailable science often ask how is it that so many Americans don’t agree with them. With so great a body of opinion in mainstream culture behind them, they find it impossible to understand why anyone could resist environmental orthodoxy.

But the willingness of so many environmentalists to discuss the issue as one not merely of science but of sin and punishment goes a long toward explaining the skeptics.

Given that the climate has changed during the course of recorded history, and that the burning of carbon-based fuel has greatly increased in the last century, the notion that human beings might have something to do with potential rises in temperature seems sensible.

But if so many doubt the claims that are put forward about warming, it probably has to do with the extreme nature of predictions of doom based on marginal increases in temperature. The idea that humanity isn’t just getting a bit warmer, with consequences that may range from serious to not quite so serious, but that we’re facing extinction isn’t rooted in accepted science. But it is part of the theodicy of environmental Götterdämmerung.

This sort of thinking was on display in the New York Times on Monday when it published a piece by Clemson University philosophy professor Todd May that posed the question “Would Human Extinction Be a Tragedy?”

Doubtless, it didn’t surprise many of the Times’ readers that his answer was something of a mixed bag. From his point of view, humans do so much damage to the planet and cause so much suffering to animals that he considers it inarguable that our extinction as a race would be, on balance, a good thing. While he does acknowledge that humanity has achieved some greatness in certain respects, he’s far from certain that even our best achievements — the works of Shakespeare or the accumulated treasures of art in the Louvre Museum in Paris — are worth much human sacrifice, let alone all the trees and animals that have been killed to sustain those of us who enjoy such nice things.

If you think this sounds more like an undergraduate philosophy course bull session than a serious discussion about policy or the future of humanity, you’re right. Highly degreed academics debating whether human beings are more trouble than they are worth and if it would be good thing if we disappeared is the stuff of satire.

Professor May may be something of an outlier in terms of his willingness to treat the end of humanity as something that would, at worst, be a mixed blessing. But the problem is that his attitudes about nature and humanity tell us a great deal about the way intellectual elites take the most irresponsible forms of environmentalism seriously. More than that, they illustrate how beliefs about the environment have not only replaced religious faith for many but also are expressed in ways that mimic religion.

At the heart of the resistance to liberal orthodoxy about global warming is the public’s natural and quite sensible refusal to accept the kind of doomsday environmentalism that is the starting point for the Times’ foray into the debate about whether humanity either deserves to be or can be saved.

The majority of Americans have no problem accepting the idea that temperatures might be inching up and that there are problems that will be associated with this trend. Yet instead of approach the issue as a dilemma that requires solutions that won’t do more harm than good, environmentalists frame the issue as an apocalyptic choice. They consistently exaggerate the dangers and regularly shift the dates of total catastrophe so as to keep feeding the fears of the public even if these assertions have little to do with the actual scientific findings that we are supposed to venerate as revealed truth.

They treat any skepticism about theories rooted in computer models rather than objective observation as flat earth-style denial. They also refuse to consider the possibility that along with the problems there might be some benefits, as was the case every other time the climate warmed over the course of recorded history. And rather than propose reasonable ideas about combating warming, they demand — as was the case with the latest report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued in October — measures that would cripple Western economies and that would cause great hardship and suffering that would do little to halt warming.

So long as the debate about warming hinges on doomsday predictions and radical appeals to cripple the economy, many Americans will ignore them as so much hyperbole.

But the point about this debate is that this sort of extremism is not entirely unconnected to Todd May’s discussion about the end of humanity.

The entire tenor of the discussion about global warming has long since taken on the nature of a theological debate rather than a scientific one. The unfounded assumption that humanity is destroying the planet and will in turn face the possibility of extinction along with the earth’s flora and fauna is a discussion that seems to be rooted in biblical ideas about the punishments God will visit on humanity for bad behavior rather than science.

In an era when faith is no longer universal even in a relatively religious nation such as the United States, both politics and environmentalism serve as replacements for some of us. That isn’t so much reflected in high-tech animism that fetishizes nature as it is in an un-self-conscious adaptation of biblical constructs about sin and punishment.

The reason why philosophers like May are wondering about humanity’s doom is because the catechism of environmental alarmism demands that we denounce the sinful nature of “destructive capitalism” for which punishment is not so much inevitable as it is richly deserved. If our disappearance from the planet is to be contemplated with complacence it is not because it is in any sense a realistic scientific scenario (or at least not until the sun becomes a red giant 5 billion years from now) but because it is the fate such extremists believe we deserve. The talk of extinction from those who accept the gospel of environmentalism is merely a new-age version of biblical warnings that First Temple–era Jews would be vomited out of the land of Israel if they worshipped false gods.

Most Americans may laugh at the way Todd May struggles with the question of whether the disappearance of humanity would, on balance, be a good thing. But they should understand that the price they are being asked to pay to deal with warming is based more in ideas about their deserving to be punished for their prosperity or their dominion over the planet than in science.

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