More than three months ago there were warnings of an unusually strong Indian Ocean Dipole, with warm water off Africa contributing to rain there and cold water off Western Australia leading to severe drought there. Strong winds and updrafts created conditions for hundreds of lightning strikes. Together with the build-up of fuel – five years ago, bushfire expert David Packham warned that forest fuel levels had climbed to their most dangerous in thousands of years – this led to Australia experiencing its worst fires in 100 years. The hellish conditions saw a fire tornado flip a fire truck, killing a volunteer firefighter.
Before Australia, California, with climate and vegetation similar to much of Australia, was ravaged by wildfires for three years. Those, too, were blamed on climate change. Yet experts at last week’s National Council for Science and the Environment conference downplayed the role of climate change. According to Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley, 20 to 25 percent of the wildfire damage resulted from climate change while “75 percent is the way we manage lands and develop our landscape.”
So far, this year’s strong Indian Ocean Dipole has not been blamed on climate change and carbon dioxide emissions. In the nature of things, that might well change. Great kudos will redound to any climate scientist who can hypothesize a causal connection between the two. But whether the principal factor behind the severity of wildfires is manmade climate change or the natural variations of ocean currents, those most vocal in their concern about climate change believe climate change is to blame.
The 2008 Garnaut Report on Climate Change, commissioned by the Australian states and the opposition Labor party, cited a 2007 study suggesting that fire seasons would start earlier, end slightly later and generally be more intense. “This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020,” economist Ross Garnaut wrote.
If environmentalism, the dominant ideology of our age, were based on rationality, it would involve the development and deployment of a rational calculus for decisionmakers to maximize human welfare and environmental benefits. It would help answer the question of what action could reduce the severity of fires before they break out, to protect people and ecosystems. California fires have killed more than 100 people and destroyed thousands of homes. Like California, fires are part of Australia’s ecosystem and its fauna have developed adaptive strategies. According to Sam Banks, a conservation biologist at Charles Darwin University in Australia, as climate change lengthens fire seasons and brings more frequent, intense fires, it could become increasingly difficult for ecosystems to bounce back. These changes, he says, “are potentially quite a major risk to our biodiversity.”
Far from campaigning for aggressive land-management policies to minimize the buildup of fuel through controlled burns, or to insist on firebreaks and other measures to contain fire’s spread, some environmental organizations campaign against them. Writing about the California fires, Myron Ebell and Patrick Michaels of the Competitive Enterprise Institute criticized the culture of vegetation worship that “militates against purposefully burning things down. In California, these ‘prescribed’ fires are now largely prohibited (because burning releases dreaded carbon dioxide), ensuring that disaster is always just around the corner.” So Greens would prefer that carbon remain on the ground as fuel for larger, deadlier conflagrations that release bigger plumes of carbon dioxide?
In Australia, Packham notes that forest fuel levels have worsened over 30 years because of “misguided green ideology” and condemned the left-leaning state of Victoria for its “failed fire management policy,” which, he says, represents an increasing threat to human life, water supplies, property and the forest environment.
It’s clear, then, that there is no rational basis to the ideology of environmentalism. It predicts catastrophes, then campaigns against practical, effective measures that would reduce their destructiveness. Why? As Josef Joffe says in a Commentary article on the religion of climatism, environmentalism is more fruitfully analyzed as a religious phenomenon. “Like any religion worthy of its name,” Joffe writes, “it comes with its own catechism (what to believe) and eschatology (how the world will end).” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which, purportedly, is concerned only with hard, objective science, turns out to be a conduit of climatism, Joffe says, and the Summary for Policy Makers of its 1.5 Degree Special Report “is preceded by a motto taken from … author Antoine de St. Exupéry that gives the game away: The report is about salvation but written in the language of science. The quote reads: ‘As for the future, the task is not to foresee, but to enable it.’”
The non-rational, religious nature of environmentalism was made explicit by Maurice Strong. Dubbed the United Nations’ ultimate mandarin, and implicated in the Iraqi oil-for-food bribery scandal, Strong was the master strategist behind the success of the U.N. climate process in co-opting the world’s political and business leaders. His 2000 autobiography “Where on Earth are We Going?” begins with a report to planet Earth’s shareholders dated January 2031. After the most devastating decade in human experience – Strong is describing the 2020s – a mystic figure named Tadi emerges to synthesize all the main world religions into one. “In this Time of Troubles God must call all to a new and transcendent unity,” Tadi urges. Tadi teaches that human and environmental cataclysms need never have happened but are nature’s revenge, the direct results of uncaring arrogance, self-indulgence, greed and neglect. “What we have suffered is our own fault,” Strong writes of Tadi’s teachings. Yet there is a glimmer of hope: Certain negative trends have been reversed “as a result not of good sense but of cataclysm.”
What’s on display here is the religious triptych of Sin/Punishment/Redemption so central to most religions. It’s also a feature of Thomas Malthus’s population principle, brilliantly summarized by 19th century French economist Frédéric Bastiat: “If you multiply inconsiderately, you cannot avoid the chastisement which awaits you in some form or other, and always in a hideous form – famine, war, pestilence etc.”
Cataclysm thus forms an essential part of the climate catechism. And proactive forest management to reduce the spread and severity of wildfires violates the climate catechism: Sin is left unpunished and the need for atonement, in the form of carbon fasting and purging, is deferred, if not obviated altogether. This explains why many “Greens” are, in principle, hostile to technology as a solution to climate change, whether it be nuclear power or geoengineering to cool the atmosphere.
California and Australia are paying a high price for this irrational, nihilistic schemata in the form of lives lost, property burned and ecosystems damaged. The paradox of climate religion is that green ideology is the enemy of rationality in taking steps to protect against the consequences of climate change, whether natural or manmade. The sooner it suffers its own climate extinction, the better and safer the planet will be.
Rupert Darwall is a senior fellow at the RealClear Foundation, a nonprofit affiliate of RealClear Media Group that reports and analyzes public policy and other issues of civic concern. He is the author of “Green Tyranny: Exposing the Totalitarian Roots of the Climate Industrial Complex” (2017) and “The Age of Global Warming: A History” (2013). A strategy consultant and policy analyst, he was a special adviser to the United Kingdom’s chancellor of the exchequer.