Apocalyptic visions and the muscular language of religious fervor are invading the climate arena, replacing issues of fact with those of faith and bringing high emotion into science — an area where it should have no place — politicians and religious leaders complain.
People who say human-induced climate change is a fact that demands urgent action are described as “believers” or “climate evangelists,” while those who reject the concept are “deniers,” “skeptics” or “atheists.” Those in the middle who say they are unconvinced either way are “agnostics.”
“The use of this language has become increasingly an issue,” said Colin Challen, chairman of the United Kingdom’s All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group, a committee of U.K. lawmakers studying the global climate phenomenon.
“Some people would like that to happen, because in some eyes proving that climate change is man-made becomes as difficult as proving the existence of God,” he told E&E.
The contagious, semi-religious linguistic brew is further fueled by climate alarmists, from environmentalists to politicians, warning of looming apocalyptic disasters or seeing themselves pitted in an Armageddon-like struggle between the forces of good and evil.
Both ends of the spectrum are described as zealots, but confusingly, each accuses the other of being “flat Earthers.” While the debate is at its most vitriolic in the blogosphere, where opinions and insults are often more frequent than facts and where exchanges rapidly descend into personal abuse, senior politicians are by no means exempt from using the religious metaphor.
“The climate world is divided into three: the climate atheists, the climate agnostics, and the climate evangelicals. I’m a climate agnostic,” Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh explained in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Linguistic contagion seen spreading from the U.S.
For Tom Burke of the London-based climate change think tank E3G, the introduction of such religious labels is symptomatic of a far more sinister agenda at work than the simple but emotive issue of lifestyle and sustainability. He claims it is spreading from the United States, where the climate debate is far more politicized and polarized than in many other parts of the world.
“The use of this kind of language has become very prevalent. The parallels with creationism are undeniable. Creationists and climate deniers are the same people. They are from the political and religious right,” he said.
“Climate change becomes a question of reason against unreason, and the use of the religious labels — propagated by lazy journalism — is all about controlling the agenda through language. It is a classic right-wing ploy,” he added. “The deniers who call themselves agnostics are obfuscating. It is a lie and should be exposed as such.”
Environmentalists have long used apocalyptic language to promote their causes, which include saving iconic creatures, plants or the planet from the worst human depredations. But they don’t talk about financial sacrifices necessary to achieve their ends. Few people even approach the question of whether the current rate of consumption of physical goods and energy in the rich, developed world is in any way sustainable.
But for theologian and environmentalist Martin Palmer, the constant references to potential oblivion have gone much too far and have become self-defeating.
‘You can’t keep telling people they are guilty’
“They are playing games with very emotive language,” said Palmer, the co-founder of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. “Negative images just don’t work. You can’t keep telling people they are guilty. They stop listening, and that means nothing gets done.”
“In the 1970s and ’80s, the environmental movement was utopian: ‘Do what we say and everything will be all right.’ That was rejected. So they turned inwards and became exclusives, saying, ‘We are the only ones with the truth. Unless you follow us, you will be eternally damned.'”
“That doesn’t work, either. The church should know. We have been there. We have been utopian and then apocalyptic. We know that the way forward is calm and gentle argument and persuasion. I think you will see within the next two to three years that this violent environmental language will fade away and be replaced by something much more measured and moderate,” he said.