If you’ve seen Al Gore’s global-warming scare movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” you may have come away as I did, wondering about the highly partisan nature of the climate-change debate. Why is it partisan at all? If carbon-dioxide emissions are perilously raising global temperatures, surely that’s a problem which can be left to scientists and other non-ideological experts.
That’s a big “if.” As a new report by the House Energy and Commerce Committee makes clear, statisticians doubt the work of those climate researchers who seek to show that the climate for the past 1,000 years was stable until recent times when it suddenly rose sharply. On the contrary, the climate has always varied, up and down over centuries and millennia.
So what exactly are we fighting about when we fight about climate change? Maybe a resolution of the mystery can be found in the Bible’s famous story of environmental catastrophe: that of the flood and its sequel, the tower of Babel.
God sent the deluge to erase life and get a fresh start with Noah and his family. Later, a group of the children of these flood survivors settled in the land of Shinar, saying to one another, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).
This plan greatly displeased God. “And the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city” (11:8).
What was so wrong with constructing the ancient Near Eastern equivalent of a skyscraper? The Talmud, in tractate “Sanhedrin,” has an illuminating answer. When the notion of building a tower was decided upon, it was thanks to the collaboration of three groups of citizens.
The first group said, “Let us ascend [to the top of the tower] and live there.” They thought they could “live,” survive the next flood by propping up the heavens to prevent them from spilling forth their contents to drown humanity once again. The second said, “Let us ascend and worship idols.”
The third said, “Let us ascend and wage war.” On whom? Well, who else resides in the heavens? They wished to wage war on God Himself.
When the call went out to construct the tower, few citizens had an inkling of what the most subversive in the society had in mind, which was to free humanity of God’s rule. The sincere environmentalists were fooled into panicking about a non-existent threat. For everyone should have been aware of the promise God made to their ancestor Noah, that “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (9:11).
Perhaps there is an implicit recognition on the part of today’s enviro-skeptics that the present fight isn’t merely about the environment. That’s what the novelist Michael Crichton argued in a 2003 speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco: “Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western world is environmentalism. Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice of urban atheists. Why do I say that? Well, just look at the beliefs. If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st-century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.”
It’s clear that climate-change activists have a moral message. But it’s a completely different one from any you’ll find in the Bible. Basically, it has to do with shedding the encumbering complexities associated with modern industry and technology.
Environmental religion has an ancient pedigree. When the book of Deuteronomy warned, “You shall not plant for yourselves an idolatrous tree, any tree, near the Altar of the Lord your God” (16:21), it had this in mind. In “The Golden Bough,” James Frazer devoted a chapter to the cult of nature: “In the religious history of the Aryan race in Europe the worship of trees has played an important part. Nothing could be more natural. For at the dawn of history Europe was covered with immense primeval forests, in which the scattered clearings must have appeared like islets in an ocean of green.”
Global-warming partisans are not self-aware like the tree-worshipping druids of old. Which might lead us to ask if perhaps, like the first party of builders, the second party are being used and manipulated without their being conscious of it.
As for the party who would make war on God, consider the implications of spiritualizing the environment, of equating God with nature, a favorite green theme. Writing in the journal First Things in 1997, Father Richard John Neuhaus put it well: “When all is God, there is no need for God.” Which explains the affinity of secularism for environmental causes.
What we argue about when we argue about global warming probably in fact has little to do with the weather. It is not surprising that traditionally religious people would turn away from an environmental issue like global warming, especially when the science behind the theory remains ambiguous at best, and distrust a political party committed to panicking unreservedly about it.
As I’ve written here before, between America’s two major political philosophies the major dividing issue isn’t really political at all. It is religious. It’s about God.
David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author, most recently, of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History.