How the Cold War Became the Climate Warming War

THE PROPOSITION THAT human activities are drawing the Earth to its climate-derived apocalypse was already an old idea when I first encountered it thirty years ago. Long before the topic of global warming was cornered by Al Gore, two acquaintances of mine – Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton – in 1984 published a book entitled The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View. Their Toronto-based publisher, IVP, describes this now three-decades-old book as follows:

Science, technology and economic growth motivate our society. Each is carried on with little regard for Christian concerns. Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton yearn for change. They long to see Christianity penetrate the structures of society, reforming and remolding our culture. From scholarship in the universities to politics, business and family life, the Christian vision can transform our world. To stimulate such change the authors analyze our troubled age, show us how it got that way and suggest a solution. Their clear presentation of a Christian world view forms the basis of their hope.

This description, heavily inflected as it is with mention of Christianity, would lead most to expect a Fox News approach to the subject. The lecture I attended around that time however was precisely in the Al Gore mold – or is it not more fair to say Gore is in the Middleton/Walsh mold? It was, as I already have stated, apocalyptic. Indeed, even terrifying. And by 1984 there were already those who were saying it was probably too late to steer the new course, and that preparing for the worst was the best one could do.

In Christian circles one may become almost comfortable with the prospect of apocalypse, weather derived or otherwise. It is an uncontroversial tenet of most religions that the world will end, and in a very nasty and dramatic manner. There is also nothing especially challenging, for Christians, in the idea that human beings will be at fault for the mess, and that their greed and arrogance and shortsightedness – in short, their “fallen” nature – will lead the way into it. We arrived at the climate change conversation with the following simple assertions:

  • for the past 150 years, the Earth’s climate has been undergoing dramatic change, as median average annual temperatures rise decade upon decade
  • this climate change correlates with observable, measurable and rising CO2 (greenhouse gas) levels in the planet’s atmosphere
  • unchecked, the present course will lead to catastrophe, as ecosystems become increasingly volatile and the delicate balance of life is disrupted
  • swift and decisive action is required to avoid global disaster: the doctrines of limitless and unceasing economic growth and of boundless resource exploitation are dangerous and immoral, and must be exchanged for sustainable alternatives immediately.

Something very much like this, as I recall, was the message in 1984, and it remains the message in 2014. Notice that points one and two are properly scientific, and that it is possible to have a data-driven conversation about them, whereas the points three and four are conjectures and therefore matters of personal judgement. Until recently it was possible to question the changing of our climate, and even when this approach became less credible one could claim that the climate is always changing and that it would be doing so even if no human beings were living on the planet. From this it would follow that human beings are probably not at fault, or not mostly at fault, and that business may happily carry on as usual.

It is not difficult to carve the global climate pie into its constituents. The conclusion that global capitalism is a wicked and exploitative tool of mustachioed robber barons appeals to the left. On the right, and especially the Christian elements of conservatism, the points I have summarized above pose a deep contradiction. For on the one hand, Conservative Christians are happy to believe that men are wicked, and that their sinfulness is polluting the world; while on the other the suggestion that private enterprise and wealth creation is at fault will simply not do. The pie would slice in an entirely different manner, for instance, if it were suggested that behind global climate change was the breakdown of the family, or homosexuality, or indeed anything attributable to private morality. In such a case, one could easily imagine the daily dispatches of conservative news reporters and commentators to the warmest of the warm locations, from where they would decry the legalization of gay marriage and the President’s inaction on putting the brakes to climate catastrophe.

The prospect of climate change has become so politically polarizing because it has accommodated and even extended the ideological precepts of the previous century, such as the evils of capitalism or the moral necessity of subduing the Earth under the rubric of American-led private enterprise. While it is objectively the case that the global average temperature in a year will have risen or fallen such-and-such over a certain geographical area, no one has yet been able to assert in the same manner that specific human activities are behind a specific number of degrees, and that to this certain outcomes may be connected. Perhaps this is not even a fair test of, or standard for, climate science. And yet in the absence of something resembling this degree of objectivity, it will be possible and even necessary for some to say that “climate change driven by human activity” is a socialist way of accomplishing what the cold war could not.

One furthermore can never entirely dismiss the possibility that human-driven climate change, and the collapse of the world which is said to follow, is only the latest example of end-of-the-world thinking to which our species is regrettably susceptible. Every now and again an idea of this type takes hold and attracts millions of adherents, for reasons that have to do not only with our psychology but with our calendars also. It remains possible that the climate is changing only in the manner that it always has, in other words with no regard and no reference to human beings. In this case, any talk of capitalism or consumerism or the wickedness of plastic bags would be a non-sequitur having more to do with personal peevery than with the objective facts of the case. The point I derive from this is that the contest between global capitalism and global socialism (and its various allies and fellow travellers) is a living contest, even if it happens also that human driven climate change is the disaster-in-progress that many say it is. It is this, and as well it is the unresolved business of the Twentieth Century, conducted under other headings and slogans and by other means.

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