Apocalyptic mass movements come in waves, and it’s impossible to predict what will happen after the current wave of increasingly unhinged climate change activism breaks.
Global warming has been characterized by its critics (and occasionally by followers like Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono) as a religious movement. While this is correct, it is a religious movement of a special kind, that is, an apocalyptic movement. And although it is widely known that apocalyptic movements foretell an end of days, demand huge sacrifices by followers, and demonize dissent, what is less known is that these movements follow predictable patterns. The general “laws” that an apocalyptic movement follows over time explain both its short-term strength and, fortunately, its longer-term vulnerability.
In Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (2011), Richard Landes chronicles recurring apocalyptic eruptions over the last 3,000 years. Typically there is belief in an imminent cataclysmic destruction that can only be averted by a total transformation of society. Precisely because the stakes are so high, a successful apocalyptic movement has extraordinary initial power. Believers are committed, zealous, and passionate, the urgent need for prompt action putting them at a high pitch of emotional intensity.
Landes describes the four-part life cycle of such movements. First comes the waxing wave, as those whom Landes calls the “roosters” (they crow the exciting new message) gain adherents and spread their stirring news. Second is the breaking wave, when the message reaches its peak of power, provokes the greatest turmoil, and roosters briefly dominate public life. Third is the churning wave, when roosters have lost a major element of their credibility, must confront the failure of their expectations, and mutate to survive. Last is the receding wave, as the “owls” — those who have all along warned against the roosters’ prophecies — regain ascendancy.
While Landes does not apply his apocalyptic model to global warming, the fit is obvious. In the 1980s and ’90s, a series of UN conferences on climate launched the waxing wave. This was followed at the beginning of this century by the breaking wave. In 2006, Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth (which later became a classroom staple) persuaded a broad public that man-made global warming threatened doomsday. That same year Sir Nicholas Stern, appointed by Prime Minister Tony Blair to lead a team of economists to study climate change, prophesied it would bring “extended world war” and the need to move “hundreds of millions, probably billions of people.” In 2009, then–UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon told the Global Economic Forum, “We have just four months. Four months to secure the future of our planet.”
Remarkably, in November of that same year, 2009, at the height of its urgency, the global warming apocalypse suddenly fell into the churning wave phase. Someone hacked into the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in England and downloaded emails exchanged among the top scientific climate roosters. The messages bemoan recalcitrant data that fail to support the claim of “unprecedented warming,” describe the tricks (their term) used to coax the data to buttress the theory, report efforts to keep the views of scientific dissenters out of reputable journals and UN reports, and boast of deletion of data to make it unavailable to other researchers. Given that public belief in the global warming apocalypse depended upon its supposed rock-solid scientific foundation, the scandal, dubbed “Climategate,” was devastating. Beleaguered owls, especially at the Heartland Institute, ground zero of what the mainstream media dismissed as “science deniers,” had high expectations that the credibility of the apocalypse had suffered a fatal blow.
It didn’t. One can only speculate as to the reasons. One major factor may be that political elites had become too committed to go back. Landes writes that elites are typically a hard sell, especially in the case of prophecies demanding a society self-mutilate. In this case they were won over with astonishing ease. Only a month after Climategate, in December 2009, England passed the Climate Change Act, in the works for several years, that mandated an 80-percent cut in six greenhouse gases by 2050 (relative to 1990 emissions). Journalist James Delingpole, a long-time owl, has called it “the most stupid, pointless and wasteful piece of legislation ever passed in British parliamentary history,” with the costs likely to exceed a trillion pounds. It is a mark of the inroads the apocalypse had made in the political class that there were only five dissenting votes out of the nearly 650 cast. Not to be outdone, Germany’s politicians in 2010 passed the Energiewende, a program that looked forward to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 95 percent by 2050.
Whatever the reasons, the churning wave turned out to be a mini-wave. For a few years polls showed greater public skepticism, with the issue ranking low compared to others. But this July, a BBC program called ‘Climategate’: 10 years on, what’s changed? found Climategate (the charges of scientific misbehavior come off in the program as “a smear”) might as well not have happened. Since then, the BBC reports, the public has reengaged, former skeptics have changed their minds, politicians are increasingly concerned, and children are speaking out “authentically.”
Rather than completing the normal cycle by going into a receding wave, the climate apocalypse has come roaring back as a breaking wave, this time with children in the forefront. (The classroom indoctrination of the previous decade paid off.) Led by a 15-year-old (now 16) in pigtails, Greta Thunberg, beginning in March millions of children in over 120 countries skipped school to embark on a series of “climate strikes.” At the March UN climate summit, Thunberg announced, “We are at the beginning of a mass extinction.” Berating the respectful audience of world leaders for having “stolen my dreams and my childhood,” she produced her electrifying (to her followers), “How dare you?”
“Time has almost entirely run out,” say the activists of Extinction Rebellion, a civil disobedience movement launched in England in October 2018 (it expanded to the U.S. this January). Its red-robed adherents have shut down traffic from London to Australia to Washington, D.C. ER, as it is called, demands that governments declare “a disaster and ecological emergency” and reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025. As a think tank sympathetic to the group has pointed out, this requires an end to air travel and taking 38 million cars off the road.
Nonetheless, this second breaking wave is also doomed to give way to churning and eventually receding waves. What eventually dooms apocalyptic prophecies is their failure to materialize. In the case of global warming, true believers are in a bind. The public is likely to accept a major reduction in its standard of living only if it believes “mass extinction” is the alternative. Yet the closer and more threatening the scenarios, the more they are subject to disproof. Believers may postpone the apocalyptic date, but eventually cognitive dissonance becomes too great.
What will trigger a successful “churning wave” and when it will occur is impossible to predict. But some of the factors likely to bring it closer are obvious. EU countries, with their legally binding commitments, have taken on the chief economic burden of “saving the planet.”