The Right Calls Climate Change a Leap of Faith. But Denial Is a Leap into the Abyss.

Climate change presents us with an existential challenge: Can humans muster the political will to save ourselves?

Theo Anderson

Arctic ice continues to melt as conservatives shift climate change discourse towards the immaterial. (Wolfgang Sauck via Pixabay)

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.”

It’s curious that conservatives, who are usually quite sympathetic to religious faith, demean belief in climate change as a religion and a faith.

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. 

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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