Environmentalism is not a religion

(This is a response to this video)

Imagine every Nobel winning scientist went on record to say a giant asteroid was headed for planet Earth, and in 30 years, it would impact, killing all life on the planet. How many people would go on television and say more data needed to be collected before we took action? How many would claim asteroid impacts are a natural part of the Earth’s history and not an issue for concern. None obviously. Humanity would more than likely unite to avoid this catastrophe, pouring money, time, and effort into the endeavor. I doubt any governments would be concerned over the loss of jobs or the economy when faced with the prospect of instant annihilation.

Global warming isn’t as dramatic as this example. It’s also highly unlikely it will wipe out all life on this planet. But there is reason for great concern. The fact that the changes are gradual and slow undermine the long term ¬†devastating¬†impact.

I’ve heard the accusation from climate change deniers for years now that environmentalism is akin to religious dogmatism. It’s true for some, there is a sort of primitive Shinto like mysticism that creeps into the discussion on global warming. But to characterize the entire movement as little more than religious indoctrination is doing a giant disservice to all of the science done on the subject for over 30 years.

Nature worship is nothing new. Even without the modern environmental movement, there have always been individuals who place great emphasis on the importance of the natural world in the continued prosperity of mankind. There’s an almost surreal power and elegance to it, and it’s not unheard of for scientists to wax poetic over its beauty. But it would be unfair to accuse this of resembling religion, simply because the information we have concerning global warming is the result of solid scientific data and not romanticism.

Climate change deniers like to point out that the earth’s average temperature is always in a state of flux. We’ve had countless periods of warming and cooling in the long history of the planet, and their argument is that we are simply experiencing a natural warming of the environment due to these cycles. It sounds logical, but this is assuming the natural world resembles what it has in the past. You need only look out your window to know human beings have had a considerable impact on changing the face of the Earth, and it hasn’t been without consequence.

How much of an impact is still a matter of debate, but there is a consensus among scientists that global warming is a direct result of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere as a result of human activity. It’s only difficult for some to believe because of the seemingly massive size of the planet. How, they ask, could we have any impact if the Earth is just so big?

How important are greenhouse gases?

Carl Sagan said if the earth was the size of a basketball, the atmosphere would be no thicker than a coat of varnish. This thin layer is all that stands between us and the cold regions of space. To know how significant such a thin atmosphere is, one need only look at our two neighboring planets to understand just how important that ‘coat of varnish’ really is.

Consider Mars. Although it’s less than a third of the mass of the Earth, at one point in time Mars looked somewhat similar to our own planet. We know for a fact it had water canals and an atmosphere similar to ours. The gravity of the planet, and the lack of a magnetosphere, however, was not enough to keep the atmosphere of Mars from gradually fading off into space, and the result is the cold dead planet we see today. Although an atmosphere does still exist, there is too little to keep any much warmth, and the result is wild fluctuations in temperature. It can go from lows of minus -150 to 20 degrees Celsius.

Venus, on the other hand, is more closely resembles the earth in both density and size, but is a far more alien world than Mars, due mostly to its unique atmosphere which is 92 times more dense than ours. The pressure on the surface is massive; the same as if we were 1 kilometer deep in water. It’s made mostly of carbon dioxide, which is a major greenhouse gas. It’s this gas that allows the planet to reach temperatures of over 460 degree Celsius, more than double the heat a modern stove can produce. The surface of Venus is hot enough that there is no water, and it’s rocky surface is always semi-molten.

These two planet’s temperatures are extreme compared to ours, but their relative distance from the sun is less important than the combination of the density of their atmospheres, and the amount of greenhouse gases they possess.

Although it’s true carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere are in constant flux, we do know it has never been higher than in any other time in Earth’s history (we know this because of ice samples in the arctic dating back millions of years). The conclusion that this is the result of human activity can be made simply due to the level of carbon being burned and released in the atmosphere every day.

It’s not enough to convince Ian Plimer, however. Apparently, all scientific data concerning climate change is simply the result of dogmatism, and not serious analysis and observation. This professor is convinced the warming of the earth actually represents a boon to us, citing a warmer climate typically means a greater abundance of life. What he fails to realize is previous climate changes have occurred gradually, and it is the sudden change that is so concerning. Many animal species are dying because the changes are happening faster than they can adapt.

It would be naive to assume, even if these changes did not lead to a global catastrophe, that humans would remain unaffected. Although I don’t deny there has been a great deal of fear mongering on the part of some environmentalists, it’s important to note the major scientists who have been discussing it are relying on the strength of their data, and not on a quasi religious paradigm. There are fanatics who would use concern over the environment to promote their own agenda, but it does not mean the data itself is fabricated. It simply means the consequences are massive enough to warrant action.

I personally find it insulting that someone would compare belief in climate change to religion. Climate researchers are not clergymen trying to promote a specific agenda. This belies the work of serious scientists who search for answers in nature, and it undermines the serious skepticism and probing still occurring. It’s true we are having a difficult time predicting what the effects of Global Warming will be. It could be catastrophic or benign. But it’s now reached a point where we are aware not only is it happening, but we are the cause. It would seem foolish to think the impact will be only benign, and the call to action of these scientists is specifically to avoid complacency in the face of the potential for disaster.

It seems to me reasonable to assume that any major changes to the temperature of the Earth may have dire consequences. If this means that we must reduce our use of fossil fuels, we have to consider the ramifications of our inaction.

I do want to say one last thing concerning environmentalism that Ian Pilmer touched on. There are some who have created a kind of nature cult. You can see these people living in mud huts and using their own feces to grow crops. These are members of society who want a complete and immediate change in the way we live our lives. They revere nature and find anything man-made deplorable. I don’t suggest we live as they do. I firmly believe we have the ability to find technological solutions to this problem, and I believe in the power of innovation. But these cultists are right about one thing: we need to change the way we live, otherwise, there is the chance the change will be made for us.

Comments (3)

  • avatar

    Caro

    great article Jake!

  • avatar

    Melissa

    Jake, great article. Your writing has come a long way and I am really proud of you. You clearly write with a passionate view and it is wonderful to see. By the way, have you read the book Think!. It is by Michael Legault. I think you would like it. Although in his view the environmental movement is akin to religion. The rest of what he says you would enjoy, I am sure.

    Good job!!!

  • avatar

    Jessica

    Love your essays, Jake. Keep ‘em coming!

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