Radicalism, religion and climate change

Although Christianity is now in rapid decline, secularized versions of Biblical ethics and eschatology still flourish and continue to exert a profound influence on moral and political thinking, especially in left-wing and radical circles. But a case can be made that adopting, in the absence of religious belief, the absolute judgments and sharp moral imperatives which are characteristic of the prophetic and apocalyptic literature and the New Testament doesn’t really make sense; that it is a recipe for cognitive dissonance and worse.

Self-protective moral contortions and distortions, compartmentalized thinking, cynicism and hypocrisy are not restricted to the atheistic left but such cognitive and moral aberrations are certainly in evidence in contemporary progressive circles. Making matters worse, in the absence of actual religion, social and political causes have a tendency to become cults, or at least vehicles for cultish behavior.

In this connection, the behavior of climate change activists and their followers has often been remarked upon. Committed environmentalists often seem curiously uninterested in understanding the actual impact of various kinds of activities and processes. If it’s “renewable”, or involves recycling, it’s good. The virtue signalling side of this is all too obvious.

Amongst activists the focus is very much on polemics and political action rather than open discussion and persuasion. The problem is that this sort of approach is not conducive to forming the sort of broad coalition which is usually necessary to achieve effective and lasting policy change.

Due to a family connection, I ventured out of my comfort zone recently to attend a climate change meeting. I was expecting a discussion or debate, but there was little discussion of the facts, no science, just consciousness-raising and a bit about strategies for influencing legislation.

Most of the participants (who were obviously very sincere and intelligent people) had a moral focus and talked about modifying their own lifestyles, but the main speaker was too partisan-political for my taste. She had recently become an advisor to a former trade union leader who had moved into politics.

It was noted at one point that only two or three percent of scientists questioned certain apocalyptic predictions. “Let’s hope they’re right,” I commented. Dead silence. Disapproval. This was not what one was supposed to say (though I assume the thought, the hope, was kosher). I had revealed myself not to be one of them.

“So, Mark, you are a climate change skeptic!” interjected my cousin (who was hosting the event). In a very weak sense, perhaps I am. As I explained to the group, it’s not something I know a lot about. I think the climate is changing, and it seems very likely that human activity is playing a significant role, but beyond that there’s nothing useful I can say.

What struck me above all was the initial response to my off-the-cuff comment, that awkward silence. There was something amiss here. It was as if even the possibility of a relatively optimistic climatic future was not to be countenanced or publicly acknowledged.

Certainly, the reaction was political and revealed a strong in-group/out-group dynamic. It was also consistent with something which many have suggested before me, namely that the main driving force behind (at least some of) the activism in this area may not be the well-being of the biosphere at all, but broader political goals which a climate crisis makes more attainable.

As I see it, the excessive politicization of environmental concerns is counterproductive to the activists’ own stated goals. It leads to suspicion and resistance on the part of conservatives, for example, who might under different circumstances be sympathetic to cooperative action on the environment. If climate change does require urgent action, openly talking about the science and the inevitable uncertainties involved will not block the way.

And the more serious the projected problems are seen to be, the more imperative it is to move questions of climate change and potential preventative or mitigatory action as far as humanly possible away from the realm of partisan politics; to unbundle the issue, in other words, from the set of irredeemably contentious social and political causes with which it is all too often perceived to be associated.