(It’s a bit long but well worth the read in this cancel culture)
Do you remember the cartoons that showed a Christian with a placard standing on a street corner warning ‘The end is nigh’?
It was normal to make fun of Christian evangelists doing street preaching and making eschatological warnings. However mocked they were, they were always right of course. The end is nigh.
In Christian terms, none of our deaths are a very long way off; we have all been bereaved of good and wonderful friends and contemporaries earlier than we expected. And Jesus warned us to live each day in a state of preparation for the end, in whatever form it came – sudden death, delayed death or eschatological interruption.
But the cartoons have disappeared. It’s almost as if they have been replaced by other eschatologists, only not the religious ones but climate ones. In terms of the fate of the earth, we are being warned form every side – media, politics, the Academy, that the end of the world is nigh.
Looking a little more carefully behind the rhetoric, it becomes obvious that the earth is in fact quite stable. It’s our way of life that is precarious, not the planet. The planet, whatever we do, will be sucked into our dying sun, millions of years hence. What the climate-anxious are anxious about is runaway global warming making our way of life more precarious over the next few generations.
But for people my age, we have been bombarded with hysteria about the poor planet for the whole of our adult lives. If some of us are cautious about what we are being told the science tells us, it’s partly because we have been endlessly warned about a variety of imminent crises which turned out to be mistaken.
In 1966, it was that ‘the oil will be used up by 1976’; ‘we will be overrun by killer bees’; ‘there will be a new ice age by 2000’.
In 1972, we were told ‘the oil will all be used up by 1992’.
In 1974 it was that ‘the Ozone layer is almost irreparably damaged’; ‘acid rain will decimate life in lakes’.
In 1988 ‘the Maldives islands will be submerged by 2018’.
In 1989, they predicted, ‘New York’s west highway will be permanently underwater by 2019’.
In 2000, they said ‘children will never see snow again’.
In 2002, there were warnings of ‘worldwide famine by 2012 if we don’t all give up fish, meat and dairy’.
In 2004, it was that the ‘the British climate would become as cold as Siberia by 2024’.
And in 2008, the Arctic was supposedly going to be ‘ice free by 2018’.
There was a sudden change in the late 1980s as panic about the coming ice age was replaced by panic about the coming global warming.
However, none of this is intended to mock the very serious ecological issues that our careless and short-termist, irresponsible behaviour has caused. To choose just two vital issues, there is a real and critical crisis over the damage that pesticides have done to bees, and the poisoning of the whole planet with plastic is unforgiveable and requires immediate action.
But the global warming panic that has suddenly erupted has been of a different dimension to the irritations and minor paranoid predictions of the last fifty years.
The element that is really frightening in the present eco-alarmism is the sudden and complete silencing of the dissident scientific voices. Just as in the Covid crisis, reputable scientific experts who took a different view from the political establishment were ridiculed, demonised and then silenced, the same process has taken place within the scientific community over ecological issues.
The abuse and demonisation follows the same patterns. Those who questioned the establishment line became ‘Covid-sceptics.’ Those who question the ecological line become ‘climate deniers’. But science depends on people testing theories to destruction in order to falsify or – by failing to falsify – to confirm them.
It was Karl Popper who insisted that falsifiability is the test of scientific integrity. To test a hypothesis you have to be able to ask questions. When they stop allowing us to ask questions, we are entitled to wonder if there is a hidden agenda being smuggled in.
What is the evidence that we are not being presented with all the climate facts?
Listening to a podcast on climate change, I recently came across a voice I instinctively trusted. Prof Steve Koonin, a leading climate scientist, was being interviewed by John Anderson, formerly deputy PM in Australia.
He had good credentials, having been appointed as Under Secretary for Science under the Obama administration. I ordered his book ‘Unsettled’ and found a narrative that the media had excluded.
Koonin does not accept the present consensus, and points to scientific facts supported by hard data and the peer-reviewed literature that stands against the dominant climate change narrative: humans have had no detectable impact on hurricanes over the past century; Greenland’s ice sheet isn’t shrinking any more rapidly today than it was eighty years ago; tornado frequency and severity are not trending up; the number and severity of droughts is not rising over time either; the extent of global fires has been trending significantly downward; the rate of sea-level rise has not accelerated; global crop yields are rising, not falling; the net economic impact of human-induced climate change will be minimal through at least the end of this century even if global average temperatures rise by 3C, which is double the Paris Agreement goal.
Any reader has to ask how these facts can be so profoundly at odds with the present establishment. Is Koonin, God-forbid, a ‘denier’?
Koonin also asks the question as to how only one side of the scientific analysis has made it into the pubic space.
His book provides a detailed account of how the climate change message gets distorted as it goes through successive filters: research literature gets converted into assessment reports and report summaries that are then subject to alarmist and apocalyptic media coverage and politicians’ soundbites. Of the media, Koonin observes that “if it bleeds, it leads.”
He claims distorted science serves the interests of diverse agencies, ranging from environmental NGOs, media, politicians, scientists and scientific organizations. The ideological corruption of the hard sciences has been highlighted and protested by a number of critics but Koonin exposes it with telling examples arising from his own experiences over the years.
Climate science, he asserts, has been an effort “to persuade rather than inform”, leaving out what does not fit the overarching narrative. Contrary to popular belief, even the official assessment reports such as those by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicate that “significant human-induced climate change would have negligible net economic impact on either the world or the US economies by the end of this century”, but are then hidden in the text.
Leaving aside the blatant hypocrisy we saw at the COP26 summit where the ultra-rich travelled in private jets to lecture and manipulate the common populace, what should alarm us all is when one side of the argument won’t allow us to ask questions, and when we do, uses the most drastic, abusive language to shut enquiry up. The latest example of this was provided by the Archbishop of Canterbury who likened the climate threat to the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis, a comparison he apologised for.
If we accept Koonin’s analysis we get some idea of why the science has come at us one-sided. But an equally interesting question is why so many people have reacted with such public hysteria. Public panic may be as much of a threat as the posited global warming theories.
What explains the panic?
Norman Cohn’s brilliant study, ‘The Pursuit of the Millennium’, looks at previous explosions of apocalypticism. There were very odd explosions of erratic behaviour, and Cohn finds the cause in anxiety derived from social upheaval and poverty. No doubt that is partially true.
But humans are both political and religious in makeup. The fact that we live facing our own mini-apocalypse of death, let alone planetary or cosmic ones, raises the question of whether or not we are hard-wired to be religious. And if that is the case, then spiritual reflexes like the fear of the end of our own world brought about by dying, can morph into a wider apocalyptic fear. These fears then turn into movements fuelled by anxiety that the world may be about to end.
How should Christians balance matter and soul, politics and prayer?
The invitations of people to repent of un-ecological behaviour look very like a sociological transference of the Christian invitation to repent to cleanse the soul. Totalitarian political movements often morph into requirement of public shame and public repentance. This presents us with the hypothesis that we have natural religious instincts, which if not handled in a mature and time-honoured sane, balanced fashion, can find different un-moderated political, psychological or, in this case, ecological expression.
The end is indeed nigh. Precious as the planet is, and responsible as we ought to be, the Gospels will always invite us to save our best energies for prioritising the pollution of soul and our investment in the world to come over whatever ecological responsibilities we adopt as a matter of conscience.
Political eco-panic and saving the planet should not be permitted to overshadow the task of saving the soul. But we should try to find out why we our political and media masters are anxious about our refusal to accept only one scientific narrative and investing so much in making us panic.
Dr Gavin Ashenden is a former chaplain to the Queen.