Michael Crichton, the author of Jurassic Park, once said in a speech to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco that environmentalism had morphed into “a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths,” transforming it into “one of the most powerful religions in the Western World.”
“There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature,” Crichton said. “There’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge; and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability.”
Calling environmentalism a form of religion goes back at least to the 1960s, but Crichton’s reputation and precise formulation gave the equation a new power and stickiness. The meme has become one of the Right’s favorite digs at the green movement, and especially at belief in climate change.
Conservatives waste few opportunities to trot it out. A writer for The National Review argued in response to the March for Science, for example, that “this is the dirty little secret of the Left’s sudden embrace of Science — it’s not science they support, but religion. They support that which they believe but cannot prove and do not care about proving.” The New York Times’ newly minted opinion-page writer, Bret Stephens, wrote for the The Wall Street Journal two years ago that belief in climate change is “a religion without God.” And on the day that Donald Trump announced that the United States would abandon the Paris climate-change accord, conservative pundit Mark Steyn appeared on the show Fox and Friends. When a panelist asked why climate change had become “the religion of the Left,” Steyn said that it’s because “it’s so meaningless.”
In 2012, The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media (now renamed Yale Climate Connections) did a deep dive into the Right’s religion argument. The Forum looked at 100 climate-themed pieces written by conservatives over the previous year, and found that 10 of them raised it. The rate had once been even higher: In the years after Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, 2006 to 2008, about 40 percent of conservative essays “framed concern for climate change as a religious belief.”
It’s curious that conservatives, who are usually quite sympathetic to religious faith, demean belief in climate change as a religion and a faith. What’s usually left unstated is the deal-breaking modifier: It’s not a faith but a false faith, a golden calf, an idol that must be denied by conservatives who are faithful to true religion, generally meaning evangelical Christianity.
This either/or choice between being a conservative Christian and believing in human-caused climate change is troubling, to say the least. Via the GOP, evangelicals block meaningful action while the problem accelerates. March was “the latest freakishly hot month after three years in a row of record heat,” according to Climate Central. And the trajectory is steadily, remorselessly upward. Every month since the mid-1960s has been warmer than the 1881 to 1910 average for that month. To prevent the kind of runaway warming that will unravel human civilization, we’re left with two options: sharp and immediate reductions in our carbon emissions, or a game-changing technological solution at some future point, such as capturing carbon and storing it underground. More or less by default, we’re betting “our collective future on being able to bury millions of tons of carbon,” as David Roberts notes in Vox.
The Right is correct that it requires an element of faith to accept such facts, since most of us don’t have the expertise or resources to verify them. But the alternatives involve a much greater leap of faith, and land us on wild theories about the total incompetence of climate scientists or a global, leftist conspiracy that has successfully duped the entire world, save for one political movement and one political party in the United States.
“Who can accept it?”
For all that, there is at least one key similarity between religious questing and the problem of climate change, since confronting it involves wrestling with some basic questions about human existence.
Take Christianity, and the Jesus of the gospels. What did he mean when he said that he came to bring, not peace, but a sword, and to set fathers against sons, mothers against daughters? When he told the rich man that, to gain eternal life, he should sell all he had and give his money to the poor? When he said that the faith of a mustard seed can move mountains? Or that his followers must love their enemies and hate their families? That the meek are blessed, and will inherit the earth?
I have no idea what he meant. As far as I can tell, the “family values” conservatives who claim to follow Jesus don’t know either. I take him to be a revolutionary who posed questions that still have the power to haunt us.
There is a priceless, disquieting passage in which Jesus says that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood “remains in me, and I in him.” To which, as the account has it, his disciples replied, “This is a difficult teaching. Who can accept it?” Many of them then abandoned him. And not without reason — a lot of what he said sounded pretty much insane. Taking him seriously would raise basic questions about our ways of being the world, and would force a revolution in our ways of relating to one another and sharing resources.
The same is true of climate change. At its core, there is a teaching as difficult as that of prophets and revolutionaries, and no less difficult to get your mind around. We face a crisis that demands a revolution in our traditional ways of thinking — a conversion, if you will. The stakes may not be eternal life, but they are substantial: life on this planet for this species, and for the millions of other species whose fate depends on our behavior and choices. These things are true. They demand action and focus. Whether we’re up to that challenge is another matter.
You can say that the idea that carbon emissions will destroy human civilization is a secular substitute for sin, as Michael Crichton thought. Really, it’s just a matter of physics that presents us with the most fearsome spiritual challenge of all: Not whether a divine being will transform and save our souls, but whether we can find the political imagination and will to transform and save ourselves.