When scientists wonder whether global warming was responsible for the devastation in Japan, something is wrong.
Not long in the wake of the
terrible earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, a small
number of people invoked climate change as the cause or contributor to this
terrible disaster, and renewed their calls for action.
It seems ridiculous, of course,
that global warming might be causing earthquakes or exacerbating them. But some
have argued that the melting of glaciers may in fact relieve pressure on
tectonic plates, causing
them to shift and produce earthquakes. "It's unavoidable
that glacial retreat will induce tectonic activity," one American
geoscientist said a couple of years ago.
Now who’s crazy?
Well honestly, I still think it’s
the climate change believers. They are not actually crazy, but they are operating
from a set of principles that can be classified as religious – and not in a
The hypothesis that human-induced climate
change has caused the Japanese earthquake is as reasonable and objective as the
claim that Hurricane Katrina was a punishment
on New Orleans for its sexual licentiousness, or that the Haiti earthquake was
likewise a punishment
for that country’s “pact with the devil” for its independence. They are all
entirely reasonable propositions – within the context of a pre-existing set of
beliefs. If you believe in moral evil and divine punishment, then it makes
sense that the moral evil of a city may cause or contribute to disasters
visited upon it. Likewise, if you believe that human-induced climate change is
real, and that it is influencing nature in dramatic ways, then it makes sense
that great natural catastrophes may be exacerbated by human actions.
Who knows? The important point is
that some people believe, and they believe not on the basis of evidence, but on
the basis of authority. I came to this conclusion several years ago in an
effort to get to the bottom of the climate change debate. It became apparent that
in order to verify the evidence, one would need a high degree of expertise in
the field. Both sides in the debate can bring forth experts and expert opinion,
with either side liable to dismiss their opponents’ arguments entirely. If you
are willing to be convinced, either side will do a good job! But to decide
which experts are right, we ourselves would have to become experts by default.
This is not an appeal to ignorance,
rather, it is an acknowledgement that the evidence in play requires specialist knowledge
in order to be interpreted. Unfortunately this applies not only to the evidence
in play over the reality of climate change, but also to the evidence in play
over the reliability of “experts” in the field.
An everyday example may illustrate
this point: A relative of mine is in the process of buying a second-hand car. He’s
been told by a mechanic that there’s a “knock” in the engine, but the mechanic
did not seem to think it important. However, another mechanic, a family friend
who has not seen the car, thinks that a “knock” is a very serious and important
piece of evidence, demanding further investigation. Whom should we believe when
we ourselves have no idea whether the “knock” is important or not?
Not only do we lack the mechanical
expertise to decide the issue for ourselves, we also lack the expertise to
decide which mechanic is worthy of our trust. In the end, we must either choose
to believe one mechanic over the other, or else choose a course of action that
makes allowances for worst-case scenarios.
When it comes to human-induced
climate change, the majority of people who believe in it must surely have chosen
to believe. Every single person who, lacking expertise, nevertheless professes
to know that human-induced climate change is real has no logical,
objective basis for their belief. They do not know, they merely believe.
Every reference to a “growing
number of scientists” or “the overwhelming scientific consensus” is an
admission that the facts do not speak for themselves. Arguments that appeal to
the majority opinion, or to authority-figures are neither valid nor indicative
of the truth. For most people, climate change is not an issue of finding the
truth, but of “joining the club”.
While many people have pointed to
the potentially catastrophic consequences of failure to act against
human-induced climate change, to me the more evident problem is how the climate
change issue has convinced so many people to accept an appeal to authority as
the basis of belief. Our politicians and other high-profile members of the community
have lent their social weight to the dangerous idea that it matters not why you
believe, so long as you do believe. Let’s all get on board and not
detract from this important cause!
The collective stupefying effect of
this movement should not be underestimated. Not only does it encourage flawed
thinking, it quietly shifts the climate change debate into the religious sphere
– a very dangerous place for it to dwell, especially in a culture where serious
religious adherence and thought are on the wane.
In fact, belief in human-induced
climate change already meets several requirements for a primitive religious
First, as detailed above, belief
itself is elevated beyond the requirements of evidence. Second, belief is accorded
moral significance, such that unbelief is not only considered factually wrong,
but also morally wrong, and “climate sceptics” are not just mistaken, but are
in fact nefarious agents with hidden interests. Third, humanity is considered
to be sinfully corrupt or otherwise at odds with nature, as evidenced by our
contribution to climate change, with various apocalyptic scenarios predicted. Fourth,
we are reliant on authorities with specialist knowledge and insight both to
alert us to the dangers at hand, and to guide us to safety. Fifth, the path to
safety calls for major sacrifices, both public and private. We are called to a
kind of collective repentance from the economic and industrial forces
responsible for our current plight.
These sacrifices are pursued
regardless of their actual impact on the problem of climate change. For
example, the Australian government is currently pursuing a “carbon tax” despite
the relatively miniscule contribution it will make to human-induced climate
change. Likewise, individuals make bold symbolic acts such as switching off
their lights for an hour, or paying extra for “green” electricity, none of
which will have any real impact on the problem. The underlying theme is that
personal culpability can be erased through symbolic actions and sacrifices.
The readiness to perceive a link
between climate change and the Japanese earthquake – even in ignorance of any
theoretical mechanism to explain the link – suggests a further religious
development. Given their invalid or unsound entry into climate change belief,
it will be difficult for many believers to think clearly within the confines of
their own system. A temptation to invoke simple models or rules based on flawed
presumptions may win out over the more considered opinion of climate change
experts. Hence, the link between the Japanese earthquake and human-induced
climate change will seem “obvious” to people who have already embraced the idea
that human actions are responsible for perverting or corrupting nature itself,
in the same way that other religious believers will perceive divine punishment
at work in New Orleans and Haiti, regardless of more serious theological
“Climate sceptics” have mockingly
referred to the most extreme religious phase as the “cult of Gaia”, since “Gaia“ itself is a
concept elaborated and defended by ecologists in reference to the earth
considered as one giant, self-regulating organism. In a religious context, Gaia
symbolises the irreducibly complex order of nature that human beings have
failed to respect. Gaia is responsible for the flourishing of all forms of
life, yet human life has impinged destructively on Gaia’s limits and hence we
are ultimately responsible for whatever crisis or catastrophe unfolds. The
earthquake in Japan becomes either a symptom of Gaia’s distress, or a taste of Gaia’s
If we are not careful, our tacit endorsement
of such powerful religious themes may develop into something more serious
within our culture. It may be politically convenient to draw upon the religious
aspects of human nature, lending religious faith to environmentalism. History
suggests we do so at our own peril.
Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Aus