Global warming: A new war of religion?

The battle lines in the climate change wars are not quite where I had thought they were.

[This piece is a little altered – 1 December 2009 – to take account of a later post with a more considered discussion of Mike Hulme’s work.]

It has always seemed obvious to almost everyone but me that climate change is a political issue, through and through. I really did prefer to believe it was about a profound difference of views about the science. It is more political than I thought, and to some of its fans much more besides.

The clues that I was wrong are obvious. Almost all intelligent free market people loathe anthropogenic climate change as an idea and almost all intelligent green-minded or lefty people love it. In some sense, their dispute is not likely to be about their way of looking at science, per se, since they probably agree about (say) creationism and much else. 

This sort of revelation came to me at last night’s Institute of Economic Affairs and Institute of Directors debate on climate change (which coincided with the launch of Lord Lawson’s new climate change policy think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (see separate post).

The debate was between Mike Hulme (environmental scientist and intellectual), Nigel Lawson (climate change sceptic, policy wonk and founder of GWPF), Fred Singer (near-denier of anthropogenic climate change) and Samuel Frankhauser (semi-official climate change policy optimist), and it was Hulme who startled me the most.

Hulme, as director of the Tyndall Centre and now an environmental professor at the University of East Anglia (whose climate scientists are not having a great week), said, in effect, that neither the science nor the economics of climate change would ever yield the sort of certainties which could tell a politician what was required to be done.

I had known that Professor Hulme was an important moderate voice in the “alarmist” camp. But I had not realised how mystical his position had become.

Picking up a copy of his new book (Why We Disagree About Climate Change, Cambridge, 2009) I realise that he has developed a quite extraordinary approach to climate change policy. This is to say that what matters about global warming is not so much whether we can “fix” it (we probably can’t), but that AGM will bring its own spiritual, moral and psychological effects and lessons for mankind and that these might be rather more interesting and transformative than we think.

I think Hulme is saying that our economic, political, social and private lives are out of whack with nature (our own nature, and the needs of wider nature) and that we dimly perceive this now with our awareness of climate change. We may not be able to fix climate change (we may not be clever or diligent enough), but we can heal ourselves as we live with and think about AGM.

This sort of thought is post modern in the sense that it suggests that instead of battling away at dreary facts, one should be reaching for the transformative idea (as in  George Bush’s declaring someone to be stuck with being “a reality-based politician”).

This stuff relates rather closely to some thinking that my old friend and colleague Andrew Brown is doing (We’re doomed without a green religion) as editor of the Guardian’s “belief” section in its Comment is free (Cif) website. I think he thinks that climate change is becoming a secular religion and that this may be a good thing since nothing else will elicit the required action. (We bicker a bit about whether there can be a secular religion, and about plenty else.)

I don’t know whether Andrew wants climate change to become a religion because it would make a good as opposed to a useful one. Neither do I know how much Mike Hulme would share the view that climate change is or ought to be a religion.

The big intellectual point is, I think, that if people decide they are going to get religious about climate change, that will tend to make them non-negotiable about it. They will also be hypocritical about it of course, and probably go on having huge climate footprints even whilst they turn their Prius into a household god.

The big practical point is that it will be lefties who flock to the climate change religion. Mike Hulme, for instance, declared himself to be a fan of government action because he believed in merits of government interference.

To that extent, then, whatever his dreamier transformative aspirations, he was fulfilling the expectations of last night’s mostly free-market audience.

Free market types think climate alarmism is largely a nonsense cooked up as a typical green scam by an environmental movement which is really just socialism for a post-communist age. I don’t agree with that analysis, as it happens. But I fear it is a truer description than I would like of the teams which line up for the sport between climate change alarmists and deniers.


that climate change is becoming a secular religion Hardly a secular religion at all. It's very much a full-blown religion with links to some quite ancient entities as mentioned in the post "let me introduce myself".
Marcel Kincaid
"Almost all intelligent free market people loathe anthropogenic climate change as an idea" No intelligent person loathes an empirical matter as an idea; regardless of what you think of these people or what they think of themselves, such people are actually quite stupid. "and almost all intelligent green-minded or lefty people love it" Such people are likewise stupid, but your claim is grossly dishonest and in error -- the vast majority of people who accept AGW do so with great reluctance as a result of the science directly or as stated by 97% of climate scientists and every reputable scientific organization in the world. "Mike Hulme, for instance, declared himself to be a fan of government action because he believed in merits of government interference." No intelligent person forms conclusions from a sample space of one element.

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Publication date

24 November 2009