Science & Technology

Freeman Dyson on Global Warming and the New Secular Religion


As the Copenhagen Consensus Center 2008 conference ponders how to prioritize and address planet-wide issues, including global warming, there's this piece in The New York Review of Books by Freeman Dyson to consider:

Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion. And the ethics of environmentalism are fundamentally sound. Scientists and economists can agree with Buddhist monks and Christian activists that ruthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The worldwide community of environmentalists—most of whom are not scientists—holds the moral high ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future. Environmentalism, as a religion of hope and respect for nature, is here to stay. This is a religion that we can all share, whether or not we believe that global warming is harmful.

Unfortunately, some members of the environmental movement have also adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet. That is one reason why the arguments about global warming have become bitter and passionate. Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment. The skeptics now have the difficult task of convincing the public that the opposite is true. Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice. Whether they turn out to be right or wrong, their arguments on these issues deserve to be heard.

Dyson reviews two books, one by economist William Nordhaus and a collection of approaches to global warming edited by former Mexican President Ernest Zedillo. The whole piece is worth reading and is online here.

I'm more than a little unsettled by Dyson's casual equation of socialism and environmentalism, and the relatively uncomplicated assertion that greens hold the moral high ground (just as, one supposes, the socialists did?). However, I think Dyson is surely correct in a purely descriptive sense and there's this odd twist that might just make policy discussions more wide-ranging and meaningful. When an ideology becomes the background assumption, it's often easier to start discussing the limits of that system, or at least to start talking about meaningful differences again. Which helps explain the boomlet of skeptical environmentalist books that Dyson is commenting on (for another example, go here).

Hat tip: Blogger and movie critic extraordinaire Alan Vanneman (whose new essay in Bright Lights on Renoir's The Rules of the Game is compulsively worth reading. Or perhaps worth reading compulsively?).