Skeptics’ Positioning of Climate Change as a Religion Neutralizes Science Influence

The Yale Forum on Climate Change and The Media analyzed over 250 recently published books, opinion editorials and blog posts to understand how the use of religious language affects the public understanding of climate change. Although we’ve recently covered religious groups that see the importance of addressing climate change as being part of their commitment as stewards of Earth and its creatures, this study discovered climate skeptics are connecting climate change and religion in a very different way: they position climate change as a religion. The Yale Forum found that referring to climate change as a religion neutralizes appeals to “the scientific consensus” and climate skeptics that utilize this religious frame are more effective in fortifying their pessimistic opinions on climate.

Skeptical Uses of ‘Religion’ in Debate on Climate Change

Cross-post from The Yale Forum on Climate Change and The Media
by Michael Svoboda


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 for The 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.”

Read the full article here.

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