Skeptical Uses of ‘Religion’ in Debate on Climate Change (The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media)

Michael Svoboda   August 27, 2012

Religion’ and religion-inspired terms — savior, prophet, priests, heretic, dogma, crusade — are regularly used in efforts to influence public attitudes about climate change. But how does this language work, and on whom?

Over the past several months The Yale Forum has published a series of articles describing how major religious groups across America address climate change. Within the broader societal debate on this issue, however, the voices heard in these pieces may be outnumbered by those of a group with a very different take on the connections between religion and the environment: climate skeptics.

Since 2005, in op-eds published in newspapers (The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Examiner, The Washington Post, and The Washington Times), in magazines (Forbes, National Review, The Weekly Standard), and online (Fox News and Townhall and also climate-specific websites like Watts Up with That), conservative commentators have repeatedly described global warming as a religion.

So how does this use of religious language affect the public understanding of climate change? To answer this question, the Forum analyzed more than 250 op-eds, blog posts, and books published between 2005 and the present. The results suggest that this religious language may be most effective in fortifying the opinions of those using it: Calling global warming a “religion” effectively neutralizes appeals to “the scientific consensus.”

Taking the Measure of the Meme

To take your own quick measure of the global-warming-as-religion (hereafter GWAR) meme, try two related searches at Google: first search for “climate change” and “religion,” then for “global warming” and “religion.” The top ten items from the Forum‘s two most recent searches (20 items in all) broke down as follows:

  • 10% were by religious groups calling for action on climate change,
  • 25% were about religious groups calling for action on climate change,
  • 10% were against religious groups opposed to action on climate,
  • 50% described concern for global warming as a religion, and
  • 5% rebutted those who described concern for global warming as a religion.

Based on this sample, one is more likely to encounter an article or op-ed about global warming as a religion than an article or op-ed explaining how or whether a particular religious group addresses climate change.

The dominance of the GWAR meme is even greater when one looks specifically at conservative venues. Over the past year, approximately 100 op-ed pieces that touched on global warming were published in nationally recognized conservative newspapers and/or by nationally syndicated columnists whose work is aggregated by Townhall. Ten of these pieces equated accepting the science on global warming with religious belief; none offered a religious argument for action on climate change.

During the peak years of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006–2008), the ratio was far higher. Roughly 40% of the more than 150 conservative op-eds penned in response to the documentary, to its Academy Award, or to Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize included language (prophet, priests, savior, crusade, faith, dogma, heresy, faith, etc.) that framed concern for climate change as a religious belief. Some drew that analogy explicitly. (See, for example, Richard Lindzen’s March 8, 2007, op-ed piece forThe Wall Street Journal and The Daily Mail (UK) — “Global Warming: The Bogus Religion of Our Age.”)

And since then several climate skeptics — Christopher Horner (2007), Iain Murray (2008), Roy Spencer (2008), Christopher Booker (2009), Ian Wishart (2009), Steve Goreham (2010), Larry Bell (2011), Brian Sussman (2012), and Robert Zubrin (2012) — have included the GWAR meme in their books.

A Brief History of the Global-Warming-as-Religion Meme

The global-warming-as-religion meme is an offshoot of the environmentalism-as-religion meme, which, according to New American Foundation fellow and Arizona State University Law Professor Joel Garreau, can be traced back to religious critiques of Lynn White’s 1967 essay in Science, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” By pinning the ecological blame on the Judaeo-Christian tradition’s instrumental view of nature, these authors argued, White seemed to call for the revival of nature worship.

Elements of these early critiques were reworked in what is perhaps the most well-known instance of the environmentalism-as-religion argument, Michael Crichton’s speech to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco in 2003.

The first* example of the more specific global-warming-as-religion claim appears to be the aside in Republican Senator James Inhofe’s January 4, 2005, “update” to his “greatest hoax” speech: “Put simply, man-induced global warming is an article of religious faith.” Using slightly different language, Inhofe repeated this charge a few months later in his “Four Pillars of Climate Alarmism” speech.**

In between these two speeches, in a February 16, 2005, editorial for Capitalism Magazine by American Policy Center President Tom DeWeese, the GWAR meme gained titular status: “The New Religion Is Global Warming.”

But the most fully developed version of the global-warming-as-religion analogy is the nearly 5,000-word essay published on the Web in 2007 by retired British mathematician John Brignell — who cites Crichton’s 2003 speech in his opening paragraph.

The more generic environmentalism-as-religion meme now seems confined to Earth Day, which Emory University economics professor Paul Rubin described in an April 22, 2010, WSJ op-ed piece as environmentalism’s “holy day.” Two recent examples, from this past April, were provided by former business consultant W.A. Beatty and by Dale Hurd, a “news veteran” for the Christian Broadcasting Network.

The GWAR meme appears as opportunities — cool summers; early, late, or heavy snowstorms; or scandals — arise. And its meaning can vary accordingly.

Nature/Climate as Sacred

Some of the first American “environmentalists” — David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir — often used religious language. Nature was where they most vividly experienced the presence of God. But when contemporary environmentalists use quasi-religious language without explicitly avowing a particular faith, their opponents may suspect that nature itself has become the object of their worship. When James Lovelock named his homeostatic model of the planet and its atmosphere after the ancient Greek earth goddess, Gaia, he provided a new ground for this suspicion.

For conservatives, there are strong and weak versions of this charge.

The strong charge is “paganism,” that environmentalists or climate activists/scientists worship nature in ways akin to the practices of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, and Roman empires in which the ancient Jews and early Christians lived. This strong charge is typically leveled by evangelicals who publicly profess their own faith. Physicist James Wanliss and his colleagues — whose book and dvd,Resisting the Green Dragon, offer “A Biblical Response to One of the Greatest Deceptions of the Day” — provide perhaps the most vivid example.

The weak version reduces the charge of paganism to misplaced values. Very arch religious language may still be used, but the meaning is now metaphorical. In these more frequent instances of the GWAR meme, conservatives accuse climate activists/scientists of essentializing climate, of being too willing to slow or even disable our economic engine because they believe Earth has an “optimal climate.”

Climate Science as Cult

“Cult” implies that a given set of beliefs or practices is arcane, outside the mainstream, and insular. Someone embedded in a cult will not acknowledge conflicting evidence. So whenever new facts or dramatic events challenge the validity of climate science, at least in the minds of conservative skeptics, “cult of global warming” op-eds appear. Major snowstorms, cold snaps, and years that fail to surpass 1998′s average annual temperature provide these new “facts.”

Odd religious news can also prompt “cult of global warming” op-eds. The third no-show of Harold Camping’s apocalypse provided the prompt, last fall, for op-eds by Michael Barone and Derek Hunter. (The “cult” in the title of Michael Barone’s piece, however, may be the work of the Post’s editor; thesame piece appeared under a different title in The Washington Examiner.)

Climate Science as Corrupt Orthodoxy

But it’s hard to depict a thoroughly institutionalized effort like climate science as a cult. The international undertaking that is science is more plausibly compared with the Roman Catholic Church. And for climate skeptics, the best of the many possible instances of that church is the Roman Catholic Church of the late Renaissance, the church that condemned both Luther and Galileo.

The very Nobel public profiles of Al Gore and the IPCC, from 2006 to 2008, prompted many comparisons with priests and popes, cardinals and curia. Add in carbon offsets and the Reformation riffs practically wrote themselves. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer’s March 16, 2007,column in Time exemplifies this subgenre:

In other words, the rich reduce their carbon output by not one ounce. But drawing on the hundreds of millions of net worth in the Kodak theatre [for the “carbon-neutral” 2007 Academy Awards], they pull out lunch money to buy ecological indulgences. The last time the selling of pardons was prevalent — in a predecessor religion to environmentalism called Christianity — Martin Luther lost his temper and launched the Reformation.

(It should be noted, however, that climate activists and environmental journalists have themselves sometimes written about their ecological “sins.”)

While green hypocrisy was the primary target of Krauthammer’s 2007 column, orthodoxy and dogma are always at least secondary targets in this use of the GWAR meme. And shots were taken at them in a February 9, 2007, National Review column by Rich Lowry; a May 30, 2008, Washington Post column by Charles Krauthammer; a March 9, 2009, Townhall piece by Robert Knight; a January 13, 2010, Townhallcolumn by Walter E. Williams; a November 29, 2011, Wall Street Journal column by Bret Stephens; and, most recently, an April 26, 2012, post by David Solway. This is the most common use of the GWAR meme.

Dissenting Religions and the Scientific Consensus

But one might argue that by depicting climate scientists and activists as members of an aloof and self-serving (and possibly self-deluding) priesthood, conservatives are themselves engaged in religious posturing, for self-righteous dissent is part of the DNA of the western religious tradition.

Ancient Israel was a small country surrounded by much more powerful empires. Some heroes of the Bible — e.g., Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — worked as trusted bureaucrats within state-ecclesiastical systems based on cosmologies they did not believe in. When ordered to consent to the beliefs of their rulers, they refused.

During the Protestant Reformation religious dissent often became political dissent. Today’s evangelicals are dissenters from mainstream denominations that dissented first from the Church of England and then from King George. Now they dissent from Washington.

But in the U.S., Roman Catholics too can view themselves as a dissenting minority, as, for example, when the Catholic Bishops objected to parts of the new healthcare law.

In fact, Americans are so primed for dissensus that both sides in the climate debate find it plausible to claim the mantle of Galileo.

In the run-up to the December 2009 conference in Copenhagen, cartoonists Michael Ramirez and David Horsey published cartoons that drew exactly opposite conclusions from the history of science, including Galileo’s conflict with the Roman Catholic Church regarding Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the solar system.

Within this charged religious history, a steadfast minority (of Jews, early Christians, Protestants, or Puritans) has been correct more often than the majority, than the broader cultural consensus (of Egyptians/Assyrians/Babylonians/Persians, Greeks/Romans, Roman Catholics, or Anglicans). Thus the GWAR meme not only legitimizes dissent (because everyone is entitled to his or her own religious views), it also provides emotional reinforcement for it (because the “official” religion is almost always “false”). The Protestant vs. Catholic variant of the meme also reinforces climate skeptics’ narratives about greedy and scheming scientists and/or self-serving elites. For those who use it, the GWAR meme effectively inoculates them against “the scientific consensus.”

Managing the Meme

Much has been said and published by religious leaders trying to promote action on climate change. But these messages must compete against the global-warming-as-religion meme reinforced regularly in op-eds sent out by The Wall Street Journal to its two million plus subscribers and, more frequently, in columns posted by Townhall for its two million unique monthly visitors.

Are there counter-measures for this meme?

In his summer 2010 article in The New Atlantis, Joel Garreau, New American Foundation fellow and Lincoln Professor of Law, Culture and Values (Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University), traced the emergence of environmentalism as a secular religion. In that piece, Gerreau speculated that “the two faces of religious environmentalism — the greening of mainstream religion and the rise of carbon Calvinism — may each transform the political and policy debate over climate change.” In response to an e-mailed query from The Yale Forum, after stressing that he did not “conflate faith-based environmentalism with the scientific study of climate,” Garreau explained his “pragmat[ic]” outlook:  ”I just lay out the facts (as startling as they may be to some), observe that faith-based systems are ubiquitous in history, and then ask, in public policy terms, how you deal with this situation.”

Garreau said he is not surprised that “climate change deniers [might] wish to point out the ironies of faith-based environmentalism rising up in parallel with scientific environmentalism.” But he said he does not think that would have much effect. He suggested no countermeasures but did anticipate a possible line of attack: “It would hardly be surprising if there were a few under-examined pieties in their own world view.”

From the title of University of Maryland School of Public Policy professor Robert H. Nelson’s 2010 book,The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, one might infer that the playing field for climate policy might be leveled by calling attention to the equally religious faith in economics, in economic growth in particular. But what would be gained from a “religious” standoff between economics and environmentalism? In response to an e-mail question, Nelson listed three benefits:

First, … it helps us to understand … the … intensity of the disagreements about climate policy. Second, it offers a note of caution to all participants, given [that past] religious disagreements have too often escalated beyond all reason …. Third, … [s]eeing economics and environmentalism as religions, and discussing them as such, [would bring their] core value assumptions to the surface.

In other words, pushing back with the same religious language might be an effective countermeasure, at least initially. Then, Nelson added,  ”a secular religious ‘ecumenical movement’” could perhaps resolve the tensions between economics and environmentalism.

One clearly should proceed with caution in pursuing any “religious” countermeasures. The cultural and historical associations evoked by religious language do not necessarily favor “consensus,” especially a consensus presented in authoritative terms. In American history, religious groups have splintered far more often than they have united.

Bottom line: Climate communicators should expect and prepare for religious language. But they should weigh the subtle cultural messages religious language carries before deciding whether or how to use or respond to it.

*If readers know of an earlier example, please send the reference and/or the link to the author.
**Brian McCammack’s September 2007 
American Quarterly article, “Hot Damned America: Evangelicalism and the Climate Policy Debate,” pointed the way to these two speeches by Senator Inhofe.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda (PhD, Hermeneutics) is an Asst. Prof. of Writing at The George Washington University. Previously the owner of an academic bookstore, he now tracks and analyzes efforts to communicate climate change, including the stream of research and policy published by NGOs. E-mail: