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12.19.09

Blame the Smug Climate Warriors

As climate-change activists mourn the hollow deal in Copenhagen, maybe they should look in the mirror. Thaddeus Russell on how their self-righteous, morally superior tone poisons the debate.

Those of us who believe the globe has warmed and that it was caused at least in part by human beings have reason to fear the growing movement that dismisses global warming as a hoax. But we should also fear many of those who have convinced us that the problem is real.

The "deniers" are dangerously absolute in their rejection of global-warming claims. Yet an uncritical attitude toward the leading climate-change activists may be even more perilous. While much of their science may be sound, their rhetoric and apparent motivations are alarmingly similar to those of the self-styled "progressives" of the early 20th century who were hostile to democratic choice, promoted their politics in religious terms, attempted to "correct" what they saw as the psychological and moral failures of the people who opposed them, and welcomed war as an opportunity to discipline and re-engineer society. Talking about climate change in this fashion may not have been the main reason so little was accomplished in Copenhagen. But it didn’t help, either—especially when the United States is trying to convince so many poorer nations of the righteous nature of its cause.

One of the more stunning but under-reported conclusions reached by many in the climate-change movement is that the instruments of the psychological profession must be employed to solve the crisis.

Many climate-change deniers and even some who accept global warming as a fact, like the authors of Superfreakonomics, have attacked what they call the "religion of climate change." Al Gore is often singled out for raising the discourse on the issue to a supernatural level, thus taking it out of the realm of human questioning. Though Gore's books, speeches, and Oscar-winning film on the issue are chock full of secular scientific information, they are also laced with biblical references. And Gore himself has said that climate change is "ultimately a moral and spiritual issue." Gore recently told Newsweek that since the publication of An Inconvenient Truth, he has trained Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu clergy to spread his message. He admitted that he uses a version of the "Inconvenient Truth" slide show that is "filled with scriptural references." Moreover, "It's probably my favorite version, but I don't use it very often because it can come off as proselytizing."

Leslie H. Gelb: Copenhagen Shows the New NormalLike Gore, many self-styled "progressives" in the early 20th century claimed that their mission to regulate business, eliminate political corruption, and manage society "efficiently" and "scientifically" was divinely sanctioned. At the Progressive Party's founding convention in 1912, delegates sang "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and their presidential candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, declared that "Our cause is based on the eternal principles of righteousness.... We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord." Conservationist Gifford Pinchot, who drafted the party's platform demand for protection of the nation's resources, called progressivism a "war for righteousness."

Both early progressives and contemporary climate-change activists have demonstrated a disdain for the democratic process. In their 2007 book The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith argue that an "authoritarian" government of scientific experts is necessary to combat global warming. This year, two of the movement's leading figures made similar calls to replace democracy with rule by scientists. James Hansen, the "grandfather of climate change," told The Guardian in March that the "democratic process isn't working." And on the eve of the Copenhagen conference, the economist Jeffrey Sachs published an op-ed declaring it the "time to let the experts lead." According to Sachs, "the global debate" about climate change and "negotiation" by political actors should be replaced with "brainstorming" by scientists.

This turn against democracy has recently taken on Orwellian characteristics. One of the more stunning but under-reported conclusions reached by many in the climate-change movement is that the instruments of the psychological profession must be employed to solve the crisis. To this end, the major psychological associations in both the United States and United Kingdom have enlisted to change the way we think. Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association published a report "urging psychologists to give policymakers their behavioral tools to head off a climate-change catastrophe" and outlining "ways psychology can help people adopt more environmentally friendly behaviors as well as ways policymakers can publicize such practices and, whenever appropriate, weave behavioral research into environmental laws and regulations to make them more effective." In October, the British Psychological Society announced that "psychology has a key role to play in the formulation of mitigation and adaptation strategies which take account of the human responses" to climate change. Failure to shape those human responses "will mean that climate policies are less effective than anticipated or at worse might fail entirely."

Similarly, early progressives feared the power of an improperly informed public. Two of the central initiatives of the progressive movement, settlement houses for immigrants and public education for the poor, were intended to teach the lower classes "proper" cultural attitudes so they would not contaminate the streets or the political system with "unruly," "irrational," and un-American behaviors. Progressives also launched a movement to replace elected officials with "city managers," usually professionally trained administrators or engineers, who would use "scientific principles" and "data produced by social scientists" to govern.

Perhaps the most ominous rhetoric among climate-change activists is the appeal to create a wartime culture. In 2007, at the height of his popularity, Gore declared that "we must quickly mobilize our civilization with the urgency and resolve that has previously been seen only when nations mobilize for war." And in July of this year, he told a British audience that “Winston Churchill aroused this nation in heroic fashion to save civilization in World War Two. We have everything we need except political will, but political will is a renewable resource.” Even more stridently, Britain’s environment agency chief executive, Lady Young, called the fight against climate change “World War Three."

Some have suspected that "global warmers" are interested in far more than merely solving the problem they claim to address. Such skeptics should be respected, given not only the language employed by warmers but the response by similar-minded progressives to the first World War. Many American progressives publicly described the conflict in Europe as an opportunity rather than as an emergency. The philosopher John Dewey spoke for many in the progressive movement when he argued that the war presented a means through which America could rationalize itself and the world. As Dewey hopefully—and correctly—predicted, American intervention would create a culture in which individual freedoms would be sacrificed for the needs of military mobilization and the "public machinery devised for that purpose.” Progressives like Dewey succeeded in their effort to persuade the United States to enter the war and for the war to enter American culture, with disastrous consequences.

Recently, the war has entered climate change. In his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama revealed that "military leaders in my own country" believe that "our common security hangs in the balance" so long as climate change is not swiftly and forcefully addressed. And last week, Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, stated that "climate change will have a significant impact on our overall security environment both in the south and the north."

If the battle over climate change does become World War Three, as it now threatens to, maybe some progressives will bear a share of the blame.

Thaddeus Russell has taught history, philosophy, and American Studies at Columbia University, Barnard College, Eugene Lang College, and the New School for Social Research. He is the author of Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class (Knopf, 2001) and the forthcoming A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010).