Peter Wood's article originally appeared in Public Discourse on June 23, 2017.
“Humans in the near future,” predicted Michael Moore, the documentarian filmmaker, in a recent tweet, “will mark today, March 28, 2017, as the day the extinction of human life on earth began, thanks 2 Donald Trump.” Trump had just issued an executive order rescinding Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Where does a prophet of dystopia go after predicting something like that? When Trump, in his June 1 Rose Garden Speech, withdrew from the Paris Accord, saying “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Moore was left with small change, calling it “a crime against humanity” and warning that “this admitted predator has now expanded his predatory acts to the entire planet.”
Some commentators have made sport of the most unhinged prognostications of doom. I understand the impulse. To anyone who is not caught up in climate hysteria, the breathless anticipation of catastrophe and the efforts to connect every groan of groaning humanity to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere are evidence of—let’s be polite—a will to believe.
I am among those, however, who presume that life on earth will survive the Trumpocalypse. If the world really does drown in the outfall of melting ice caps, or sizzle like a hapless earthworm on a city sidewalk, our doomsayers will bask in posthumous vindication. But I suspect their collective fate will be more like that of William Miller, the upstate New York preacher who in the early 1840s convinced many thousands of Americans that the world would end on October 22, 1844.
In the meantime, climate catastrophism presents a puzzle. Just compare the fervor of belief and the stridency against opposition, on the one hand, to the quality of the claims, on the other. Catastrophism isn’t grounded in personal experience, and the “science” it lays claim to is, at best, wobbly. The “models” don’t match the facts, and the mismatches are enormous. Rival hypotheses for how the earth’s climate changes are simply ignored. Efforts to test the theory are met with indignation. Discrepant data are over and over again “recalibrated,” erased, or explained away as unreliable.
So much effort has gone into maintaining a theory that is really little more than an ill-supported conjecture that we are confronted less with a scientific problem than a sociological one. How can so many people subscribe to an idea—and so vehemently—that rests on so little?
Two parts of the answer are immediately evident. The manmade global warming movement incessantly appeals to authority, and it offers under the shelter of that authority the psychological satisfactions of fervent belief. The authority is supposedly “science,” as in “97 percent of climate scientists” believe this. That figure has been debunked over and over, but it is immutable in the minds of the clima-catastrophists.
The fervor is something else. This is by no means the first time we have seen this convergence between misplaced appeals to authority and the emotional thirst for certainty. I mentioned the Millerites, but long before the Reverend William Miller set out to calculate, via the Book of Daniel, the exact date of his apocalypse, we had other authorities such as the Puritan father Cotton Mather, who provided the intellectual justification for the Salem witchcraft trials. Princeton physicist Will Happer has drawn the larger lesson: the ardent belief in manmade global warming upheld by our educated elite resembles the view of witchcraft upheld by the educated elite in colonial New England.
Fervent belief is never to be relied on as evidence that a belief is well-founded. Such fervor may in fact be evidence of the opposite: a desperate attempt to wall off doubt. No one is fervent in believing that water is wet or that the sun is hot. Fervor requires a certain implausibility to sustain itself: a not-so-obvious truth claim that only people who have superior perception and understanding can see as valid. Fervent believers derive some satisfaction from being among those who grasp something that eludes less insightful people.
The Malthusian Moment
In 2015, my NAS colleague Rachelle Peterson and I released a report, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, which explored the strange enthusiasm of hundreds of college presidents, students, and faculty members for the idea that the earth was running out of natural resources. This was, of course, not a new idea. It has been in circulation in one form or another ever since Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. Human ingenuity in finding new resources, superseding old wants, and making better use of what’s on hand has always raced ten steps ahead of Malthusian doomsayers, but that’s a lesson that every subsequent generation has had to learn for itself.
The Malthusians of our time grounded themselves in two initially separate doctrines. One was the idea of “sustainability” put forward by the United Nations’ report, Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report) in 1987. The other was the idea of CO2-driven global warming that was initially formulated in 1978 by the National Academy of Sciences’ Ad Hoc Study Group on Carbon Dioxide and Climate in what became known as the Charney Report. Through most of the 1980s, the global warming conjecture was a minor thread among those who worried about environmental catastrophes. It is mentioned in the Brundtland Report as one of many possibilities, and not given any special emphasis. That changed within a year. In June 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen testified to the Senate Natural Resources Committee that “the greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now.” His testimony galvanized public attention. Four days later, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, meeting in Toronto as part of the G-7, endorsed the idea that “global climate change” required “priority attention.”
It would no doubt surprise most of today’s climate activists to learn that their movement is deeply rooted in the statecraft of Thatcher and Reagan, but so it was. The creation of the International Panel on Climate Change came about as a direct consequence.
It would probably also surprise most of today’s climate activists to learn that their movement had hardly any support on college campuses. The path that led from the Charney Report, the Brundtland Report, and the 1988 Toronto G-7 meeting to hyperventilating students occupying the offices of their college presidents to demand divestment of fossil fuels is long and twisted, but well worth reading. Of course, I recommend Rachelle’s and my study of it and Rachelle’s sequel, Inside Divestment, but Rupert Darwall’s The Age of Global Warming: A History is a commendably thorough account too.
Global warming theory is the Malthusianism of our time. It is, as a few observers have noted, a religion, or a lot like a religion, and not just in being a belief system. It has prescriptions for moral conduct; formulas for penance; demands to proselytize; absolution for sins (e.g., carbon offsets); its own apocalypse; paths to redemption; and an elaborate set of prescriptions and taboos based on the idea of purity. What it lacks, perhaps, is an idea of transcendence, but many of its adherents supply that too, by worshiping “Mother Earth”—literally.
The Cloak of Invisibility
How does such a thing take shape without people noticing that a massively popular counter-religion has established itself in American life—and in the life of most of the other developed nations? Of course, many people have noticed, but the sustainability movement still somehow escapes the kind of critical attention that is poured out with abundance on other movements that have gained only a small fraction of the popularity of sustainability. Think of Black Lives Matter or the Alt-Right.
The answer, I think, is that the sustainability movement identified itself from early on with elite opinion. In commerce, sustainability comes from boardroom edicts, not the factory floor; from advertising agencies, not line producers. In the United States, sustainability initiatives are bankrolled by billionaires such as Tom Steyer, not by Main Street.
It is a religion, not of the masses, but of the elites, the upper middle class, professors, Hollywood, journalists, “knowledge workers,” school teachers, corporate CEOs, Wall Street, the Democratic Party, and a good portion of the establishment side of the Republican Party. As such, it is almost completely invisible to the people who fall into these categories. For them, “sustainability” is simply shorthand for the right way to lead your life and conduct public policy. It is unavailable as something that poses—or ought to pose—troubling questions, along the lines of “How do we know this is true?” “What if it isn’t?” “Why does it seem so convincing?”
All of this goes a fair way toward explaining the baffled outrage of media figures when confronted by Trump’s declaration that “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”
The invisibility of sustainability as a substitute religion is enhanced by the readiness of other faiths—Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, and various New Age religions—to accommodate its commands to their own. Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical, Laudato Si, elevated the synthesis of Catholic teaching and radical sustainability doctrines to a new level. This doesn’t make it any easier for people to reckon with the degree to which the movement cuts against traditional religious precepts, as well as secular scientific inquiry. Notably, Islam appears to be immune to the appeal to alter itself in favor of the edicts of sustainability.
The elite character of the sustainability movement is especially evident in the top-down way in which it has entered our institutions. John Kerry and Teresa Heinz founded an organization called Second Nature in 1993, specifically to bring global warming ideology to campus. They chose not to appeal directly to students or faculty members, but instead to college presidents. Today more than 600 college presidents have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which puts reducing greenhouse gases and propagandizing about global warming at the heart of higher education.
It’s Miller Time
As of June 5, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 180 college and university presidents had signed a pledge “to remain committed to the goals laid out in the [Paris] agreement, which was signed in 2015 by representatives of nearly 200 nations.” The pledge, titled “We Are Still In,” includes mayors, governors, and business leaders as well.
It is, to say the least, an odd document. All of the signatories have some power over their own organizations to take “climate action” aimed at fighting “climate change.” Such action might be futile, merely symbolic, or extravagantly wasteful, but whatever it is, it cannot meaningfully substitute for a repudiated national policy. I suppose “We Are Still In” has to be understood as a creedal document: signing is a way of expressing belief in an idea, a way of declining to consider the possibility that the idea itself may be mistaken.
President Trump’s repudiation of the Paris Climate Accord, practically speaking, is not very significant, for the Accord was little more than a rhetorical gesture made by President Obama. It was not a treaty and was never approved by the Senate. Its provisions were “voluntary” for the nations that signed it, although we can be sure that a different administration in the United States would have worked hard to enshrine them in regulation.
With its tissue-thin standing as a policy document, was the Paris Climate Accord worth President Trump’s dramatic exit? The responses from Moore and many others show that Trump performed an exemplary public service. By tearing up the Accord, he forced the fanatics of the eco-apocalypse to present themselves more openly on the public stage than ever before. Can their theory survive in the Rose Garden of a world that remains happily free of climate catastrophe? How long will Americans continue to credit the wisdom of people who explain every shift in the wind, warm day, or dry summer as the result of exhaust? Believing it has become a habit, but believing the unbelievable gets tiresome after a while. Ask the Reverend William Miller.
Peter Wood is the president of the National Association of Scholars.