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Ed Driscoll

‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Climate Apocalypse’

November 29th, 2011 - 8:35 am

Actually, a couple of funny things happened to global warming’s Vatican, as Bret Stephens notes in a must-read Wall Street Journal essay: ClimateGate and the world’s financial meltdown:

The U.S., Russia, Japan, Canada and the EU have all but confirmed they won’t be signing on to a new Kyoto. The Chinese and Indians won’t make a move unless the West does. The notion that rich (or formerly rich) countries are going to ship $100 billion every year to the Micronesias of the world is risible, especially after they’ve spent it all on Greece.

Cap and trade is a dead letter in the U.S. Even Europe is having second thoughts about carbon-reduction targets that are decimating the continent’s heavy industries and cost an estimated $67 billion a year. “Green” technologies have all proved expensive, environmentally hazardous and wildly unpopular duds.

All this has been enough to put the Durban political agenda on hold for the time being. But religions don’t die, and often thrive, when put to the political sidelines. A religion, when not physically extinguished, only dies when it loses faith in itself.

That’s where the Climategate emails come in. First released on the eve of the Copenhagen climate summit two years ago and recently updated by a fresh batch, the “hide the decline” emails were an endless source of fun and lurid fascination for those of us who had never been convinced by the global-warming thesis in the first place.

But the real reason they mattered is that they introduced a note of caution into an enterprise whose motivating appeal resided in its increasingly frantic forecasts of catastrophe. Papers were withdrawn; source material re-examined. The Himalayan glaciers, it turned out, weren’t going to melt in 30 years. Nobody can say for sure how high the seas are likely to rise—if much at all. Greenland isn’t turning green. Florida isn’t going anywhere.

The reply global warming alarmists have made to these disclosures is that they did nothing to change the underlying science, and only improved it in particulars. So what to make of the U.N.’s latest supposedly authoritative report on extreme weather events, which is tinged with admissions of doubt and uncertainty? Oddly, the report has left climate activists stuttering with rage at what they call its “watered down” predictions. If nothing else, they understand that any belief system, particularly ones as young as global warming, cannot easily survive more than a few ounces of self-doubt.

Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is ultimately about the various strains of what Richard Pipes has called “heresies of socialism” building and rebuilding counter religions to the west’s Judeo-Christian traditions. As Jonah wrote:

The notion that communism and Nazism are polar opposites stems from the deeper truth that they are in fact kindred spirits. Or, as Richard Pipes has written, “Bolshevism and Fascism were heresies of socialism.” Both ideologies are reactionary in the sense that they try to re-create tribal impulses. Communists champion class, Nazis race, fascists the nation. All such ideologies—we can call them totalitarian for now—attract the same types of people.

Today, we often use the word “holistic” as a kinder, gentler substitute for totalitarianism — particularly since the left has made not just the personal political, but everything a person does, says, eats, wears, buys, etc. And global warming is nothing if not a mechanism to politicize those aspects of an individual’s life, as well as shared experiences such as work, housing, transportation, and everything else. And in that sense, it really is a substitute religion or a core component of an larger substitute religion, which has long been a goal of the left as both Jonah’s quote above highlights, and as Umberto Eco wrote in 2005:

The ideologies such as communism that promised to supplant religion have failed in spectacular and very public fashion. So we’re all still looking for something that will reconcile each of us to the inevitability of our own death.

G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: “When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing. He believes in anything.” Whoever said it — he was right. We are supposed to live in a sceptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous credulity.

The “death of God”, or at least the dying of the Christian God, has been accompanied by the birth of a plethora of new idols. They have multiplied like bacteria on the corpse of the Christian Church — from strange pagan cults and sects to the silly, sub-Christian superstitions of The Da Vinci Code.

And this has been a leitmotif of the last 100 years or so, as well explore right after the page break.

Because neither of my flights back home on Monday after visiting relatives for Thanksgiving had Wi-Fi, I ended up rereading big swatches of the Kindle version of Paul Johnson’s Modern Times on my Galaxy Tab. Modern Times begins famously with Johnson’s brilliant “moral relativity” opening:

At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.

No one was more distressed than Einstein by this public misapprehension. He was bewildered by the relentless publicity and error which his work seemed to promote. He wrote to his colleague Max Born on 9 September 1920: ‘Like the man in the fairy-tale who turned everything he touched into gold, so with me everything turns into a fuss in the newspapers.’ Einstein was not a practicing Jew, but he acknowledged a God. He believed passionately in absolute standards of right and wrong.

He lived to see moral relativism, to him a disease, become a social pandemic, just as he lived to see his fatal equation bring into existence nuclear warfare. There were times, he said at the end of his life, when he wished he had been a simple watchmaker.

The public response to relativity was one of the principal formative influences on the course of twentieth-century history. It formed a knife, inadvertently wielded by its author, to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture.

Those sorts of observations are peppered throughout the book. I was struck yesterday by this juxtaposition a third of the way through Johnson’s book, around the time he describes Hitler gearing up for World War II:

Race-poisoning was a comparatively common obsession in the time of Hitler’s youth, rather as ecological poisoning became an obsession of many in the 1970s and 1980s. The notion of ubiquitous poisoning appealed strongly to the same type of person who accepted conspiracy theories as the machinery of public events. As with the later ecologists, they thought the race-poison was spreading fast, that total disaster was imminent, and that it would take a long time to reverse even if the right policies were adopted promptly.

Substitute religions often end up embracing a form of doomsday eschatology, which can be a useful way of both increasing their self-importance and speeding up their goals, which also dovetails well with one of my favorite passages from “Progressives Against Progress” by Fred Siegel in City Journal:

If one were to pick a point at which liberalism’s extraordinary reversal began, it might be the celebration of the first Earth Day, in April 1970. Some 20 million Americans at 2,000 college campuses and 10,000 elementary and secondary schools took part in what was the largest nationwide demonstration ever held in the United States. The event brought together disparate conservationist, antinuclear, and back-to-the-land groups into what became the church of environmentalism, complete with warnings of hellfire and damnation. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, the founder of Earth Day, invoked “responsible scientists” to warn that “accelerating rates of air pollution could become so serious by the 1980s that many people may be forced on the worst days to wear breathing helmets to survive outdoors. It has also been predicted that in 20 years man will live in domed cities.”

Thanks in part to Earth Day’s minions, progress, as liberals had once understood the term, started to be reviled as reactionary. In its place, Nature was totemized as the basis of the authenticity that technology and affluence had bleached out of existence. It was only by rolling in the mud of primitive practices that modern man could remove the stain of sinful science and materialism. In the words of Joni Mitchell’s celebrated song “Woodstock”: “We are stardust / We are golden / And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

* * * * *

Crankery, in short, became respectable. In 1972, Sir John Maddox, editor of the British journal Nature, noted that though it had once been usual to see maniacs wearing sandwich boards that proclaimed the imminent end of the Earth, they had been replaced by a growing number of frenzied activists and politicized scientists making precisely the same claim. In the years since then, liberalism has seen recurring waves of such end-of-days hysteria. These waves have shared not only a common pattern but often the same cast of characters. Strangely, the promised despoliations are most likely to be presented as imminent when Republicans are in the White House. In each case, liberals have argued that the threat of catastrophe can be averted only through drastic actions in which the ordinary political mechanisms of democracy are suspended and power is turned over to a body of experts and supermen.

Back in the early 1970s, it was overpopulation that was about to destroy the Earth. In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich, who has been involved in all three waves, warned that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over” on our crowded planet. He predicted mass starvation and called for compulsory sterilization to curb population growth, even comparing unplanned births with cancer: “A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells; the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people.” An advocate of abortion on demand, Ehrlich wanted to ban photos of large, happy families from newspapers and magazines, and he called for new, heavy taxes on baby carriages and the like. He proposed a federal Department of Population and Environment that would regulate both procreation and the economy. But the population bomb, fear of which peaked during Richard Nixon’s presidency, never detonated. Population in much of the world actually declined in the 1970s, and the green revolution, based on biologically modified foods, produced a sharp increase in crop productivity.

PJM’s Zombie noted in 2009 that Ehrlich’s ideas were embraced by men such as John Holdren, now President Obama’s “Science Czar,” who’s also now very much on the apocalyptic warming bandwagon — or rocket, in Holdren’s case. And apocalyptic warming brings us back to Bret Stephens for his conclusion:

Great religions are wise enough to avoid marking down the exact date when the world comes to an end. Not so for the foolish religions. Expect Mayan cosmology to take a hit to its reputation when the world doesn’t end on Dec. 21, 2012. Expect likewise when global warming turns out to be neither catastrophic nor irreversible come 2017.

Actually more than a few doomsday countdowns will have expired by then — such as this one. Since the early 1970s, whenever environmentalists are in the spotlight, they feel compelled to say “We only have [fill in the blank] years to save the Earth.” Or to put it another way: Earth survives; ManBearPig hardest hit.

Related: Smitty at the Other McCain on “Heidegger’s six poison pills.” and here at PJM, Barry Rubin explores “Radical Chic Catastrophes: When Romanticism Trumps Reason.” Also, in the mail today, the galleys for Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism by Robert Zubrin, which sounds very much related to the above themes.

Update: More religious environmentalism in an update to this post, where “the Answer is: None. None More Black.”

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