In accepting an Oscar for “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore said, “People all over the world, we need to solve the climate crisis. It’s not a political issue. It’s a moral issue.” Gore is not the only one defining climate change and other environmental issues in moral terms, and, as more and more environmentalists focus on the morality of stewardship, we are witnessing the emergence of a Green religion.
J.R. Dunn’s A Necessary Apocalypse and John Kay’s Why the Green Lobby Must be Treated as Religion both describe remarkable parallels between environmentalism and Judeo-Christian beliefs. Briefly, Eden is the paradise destroyed by man; there are dire apocalyptic warnings urging us to change our wicked ways; and, if we do change our lifestyles, paradise can be regained.
When environmentalism becomes religion, we should be wary of high priests in Green vestments. They use apocalyptic visions to scare us into making sacrifices for the earth. Such sacrifices, though, run the risk of resembling those made to pagan gods by high priests in agrarian times. Abundant crops depend upon knowing when to plant and when to harvest—after and before killing frosts—not on the favor of the supernatural. If our environment is to be “saved” today, “sacrifices” need to be based on science and informed by policy analysis, e.g., a weighing of costs and benefits and recognition of opportunities foregone in achieving meaningful environmental improvement.
Humans have attempted to understand and influence nature for thousands of years. The Mayan observatory at Chichén Itzá and ruins in Greece, Japan, and east Africa provide evidence of systematic observations of seasonal variations by ancient civilizations. We have learned much since then, but, as anyone living in Bozeman knows, weather prediction is far from accurate. Probabilities of precipitation and temperatures on any given day are the best that can be done, and, even then, meteorologists disagree. Climatology is not an exact science, but it is a science, not a religion.
Our climate is changing; it always has. Should we reduce human impact? Of course we should. But it is immoral and economically imprudent for a community, state, or nation to commit to doing something without some confidence it will have significant benefits. There is much uncertainty about what actions to take, and whether those actions can significantly retard global warming. According to the latest IPCC report, temperatures and sea level will continue to rise for centuries in spite of what we do.
Thus far, proposed solutions, like the Kyoto Protocol, have been inadequate. For example, according to a 1997 estimate from Geophysical Research Letters, if every country reduced its emissions to levels described in Kyoto, by the end of the century warming would only be reduced by about 0.237 degrees Fahrenheit—a change so small it could be the result of natural variation. As it stands, the Kyoto Protocol is insignificant and economically costly.
Efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions will be expensive. It is a painful truth, but a truth nonetheless, that resources used for mitigation will not be available for other beneficial purchases, i.e., malaria bed nets. Acts of contrition may make us feel better, but sacrifices, like bloody hearts on the altar, will not impress Mother Nature. Are today’s calls for sacrifice to “stop” climate change but a present day manifestation of our attempt to change the climate through human sacrifice? We don’t want to propitiate Gaia by sacrificing the world’s most vulnerable –the poor.
It may be wise to adopt modest policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Policymakers, however, must be alert to unintended consequences. Consider the recent UN report documenting the environmental damage caused by the push to use palm oil for diesel in Europe. One consequence of this policy is the clearing of large tracts of Southeast Asian rainforests. Indonesian peatland is being drained and burned to plant palm plantations. The tradeoffs may well be worth it, but they are in fact tradeoffs and are indicative of choices we must make. Green preachers like Al Gore, Sheryl Crow, and RFK Jr. should be morally responsible and use their immense influence to help people understand the importance of such tradeoffs.