Culture Wars, Economics, Politics

Has the Climate Change Movement Become a Religion?


While there’s no question that Climate Change presents an existential threat, whether or not the Movement’s adherents have imbued it with religiosity is a matter of debate. Here, the ‘For’ side argues that the fervour, blind adherence and occasional intolerance of the Climate Change Movement resembles religious practice, which threatens an unbiased application of scientific evidence.

The ‘Against’ side argues global scientific consensus ought not be construed as religion, on the basis that the compelling evidence and significance of the threat should impel us to immediate, decisive action. 

The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere in between.

Yes. Belief Has its Place, But it Also Has its Price

“Pack your shit, folks, we’re going away!”

George Carlin
The problem with graphs like this is that they infer correlation = case closed. In this case, the sharp increase in temperatures coinciding with the industrial revolution has successfully focused the mind on the anthropogenic causes of climate change. Were we to pull back on this graph 14,500 years, we would see a similarly sharp increase during the Younger-Dryas mass extinction. Whether caused by comet shrapnel, pole shift or something else entirely, the Younger-Dryas climate event demonstrates that neither human hubris nor advanced carbon capture technology will save us from history’s grand oscillations.

Disclaimer: Lest this blog inspire the sharpening of carrots in anticipation of some Trumpian-level climate change denial, let me state from the outset that its purpose is not to debate the validity of anthropogenic climate change, but to demonstrate that the Climate Change Movement has become a religion.

Throughout human history challengers to popular orthodoxy have met with crucifixions, town square pyres, pond bottoms and latterly, professional exile, dole queues and social media shadow bans.  And while hindsight may favour the fortunes of some Contrarians, history comes all too late for most who dare utter aloud, ‘Wait now, one hot second!’

For the politically agnostic who struggle with group think or blind faith, the Climate Change Movement (CCM) poses a particularly wicked problem.  Most of us of are ill-equipped to accurately assess the data, and therefore must choose between consensus science (an oxymoron that demands to be overlooked) and pariah-dom. 

It is easy to see why then, after wading into the literature on historical temperatures and CO2 levels, ocean currents and solar radiation—never mind data modelling, financial influence and political imperatives—that the clever layperson closes the books and places their chips on CO2 and anthropogenic climate change.  After all, going along to get along is a no-brainer when there’s a possibility, however slim, of annihilation.  Which leads nicely to the thesis that the CCM has in fact become a religion, complete with its own eschatology, sacred texts (IPCC AR 1-6, Green New Deal), sacraments and ceremonies (Patagonia jackets, cloth bags, Birkenstocks, Die-Ins, glacier funerals, #ClimateConfessions), sects (DeGrowthers, XR, Deep Adaptationists), tithing (CO2 tax), indulgences (discounted diesel, meatless Mondays) and dare I say it, Pope. 

Every successful cult claims a monopoly on The Truth, and a monopoly on The Truth is much easier when dissenters are quickly vanquished and professional doubters brought to heel.  All it takes is an utterance of conspiracist or denier and the debate is closed, the debater excommunicated.  It may have taken four rebranding efforts in as many decades (Inadvertent Climate Modification, Global Warming, Climate Change, Climate Crisis), but as of today, the crusades have succeeded in delivering The Truth, to which 97%* of climate scientists will testify. 

Like the divinity of Jesus the matter of CO2 is not up for debate amongst believers.  And while hinging the entire argument on plant food isn’t exactly unfalsifiable, the fact that the IPCC has closed ranks on the matter (Consensus Science, you rascal), positions the CCM’s case for CO2 outside the realm of the scientific and inside the realm of belief. 

But what harm?  In an age with so little to believe in, the CCM fills the void once occupied by the local church and regional deity.  So far as an externality that lends meaning and purpose to life, the CCM is arguably better than alcohol, most work and some drugs.  And, its supranational nature places it above and beyond the sullied realm of the political.  Doesn’t it? 

But what if the eggs-in-one-basket approach is incorrect?  What if the devotional focus on CO2 means we miss another culprit?  Moreover, what if scenarios like those outlined in the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2019 are correct?  What if even the most ambitious Sustainable Development Scenarios are not enough to reverse the trend in growing CO2 emissions?

Well then, let us pray.


*of scientists polled

No. If it Walks Like a Duck,
Sometimes it’s a Goose

About 15 years ago, I volunteered to supervise a student thesis around the topic that ‘(commercial) branding is just a contemporary form of religious practice’. It was one of the smartest pieces of work to which I’ve ever been a party, and I remain intrigued by the notion to this day. True, conventional religious practice is in steep decline throughout the developed world. But the hunger for certainty, for direction and for personal meaning that it attempts to satisfy remain powerful motivators. So it is that ritualised commercial brands have come to symbolise religious artifacts, personal totems if you will, for milllions of users.

Think of commercial consumer brands as diverse as Nike, Lynx/Axe, Heineken, Rolo, Gillette and Apple. Each comes with a set of beliefs, symbols and most of all behavious attached, all of which have specific, deep meanings for their adherents.  While there can be substantial, objective evidence to support these beliefs and behaviours, it is just as likely that loyalty to these brands comes from an emotive well-spring, based as much on faith and longing as it is on tangible product delivery.

When we turn to Climate Change, the cynical instinct is perhaps to ascribe religious characteristics to it. The emotions stirred by the subject of are understandably deep. Climate Change activists, especially in crowds, have all the zeal (and intolerance) of fervent religious adherents.

Late last year, I attended a Naomi Klein event, billed as a conversation with a journalist around her book On Fire, which is a passionate plea for immediate action to deal with the Climate Emergency. There was all the fire-cracker atmosphere of a Nazi rally about the evening, and certainly the gentlest diessenting voice, even when it was that of Naomi Klein herself,  seemed little tolerated by the members of Extinction Rebellion who were present.   

And yet, the grim facts of the climate emergency must over-ride any impulse to label climate activists as unthinking zealots adopting the clothing of the latest trendfy social movement. The scale, the reality and the urgency of the unfolding climate crisis make fulfilling the demands of the Climate Movement a rational and immediate necessity if our obligations to future generations are to be honoured.

Merriam Webster defines a religion as “a cause, principle or system of beliefs held to with ardour or faith.” Religions are, at their heart, powerful stories which millions use to organise and direct their lives. Religions offer answers to unanswerable questions, most notably ‘what happens to me when I die?’

The Climate Change Movement, sadly, requires no such investment of faith, no such suspension of reality or of cogent thought. In fact, it is the only sane response to a set of scientifically established facts, the day to day effects of which we can witness with our own eyes.

The UN Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, comprising the world’s leading climate scientists says unequivocally that, on the current trajectory, we will see the world warm by 3.2 degrees celsius on pre-industrial levels before 2100. The tipping point beyond which feedback loops make this trend irreversible is just 12 years away.

If one Australian bush-fire season alone can exterminate 1.2 billion animals, there is nowhere to hide, no reason to justify any delay in action. The world is indeed on fire, and we have but the blink of an eye to put it out. This is scientific fact not religious myth.

Simply, the Climate Change Movement is an act of self-preservation not one of religious practice. It is based on objective science and verifiable truth. If it is surrounded by a somewhat messianic fervour; if it is attended by urgency and, yes, by anger, then this is just the apporpriate response of a generation who see their inheritance being snatched away before their very eyes.