by RAEL JEAN ISAAC
Global warming has been characterized by its critics (and occasionally by followers like Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono) as a religious movement. While this is correct, it is a religious movement of a special kind, that is, an apocalyptic movement. And although it is widely known that apocalyptic movements foretell an end of days, demand huge sacrifices by followers, and demonize dissent, what is less known is that these movements follow predictable patterns. The general “laws” that an apocalyptic movement follows over time explain both its short-term strength and, fortunately, its longer-term vulnerability.
In Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (2011), Richard Landes chronicles recurring apocalyptic eruptions over the last 3,000 years. Typically there is belief in an imminent cataclysmic destruction that can only be averted by a total transformation of society. Precisely because the stakes are so high, a successful apocalyptic movement has extraordinary initial power. Believers are committed, zealous, and passionate, the urgent need for prompt action putting them at a high pitch of emotional intensity.
Landes describes the four-part life cycle of such movements. First comes the waxing wave, as those whom Landes calls the “roosters” (they crow the exciting new message) gain adherents and spread their stirring news. Second is the breaking wave, when the message reaches its peak of power, provokes the greatest turmoil, and roosters briefly dominate public life. Third is the churning wave, when roosters have lost a major element of their credibility, must confront the failure of their expectations, and mutate to survive. Last is the receding wave, as the “owls” — those who have all along warned against the roosters’ prophecies — regain ascendancy.
While Landes does not apply his apocalyptic model to global warming, the fit is obvious. In the 1980s and ’90s, a series of UN conferences on climate launched the waxing wave. This was followed at the beginning of this century by the breaking wave. In 2006, Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth (which later became a classroom staple) persuaded a broad public that man-made global warming threatened doomsday. That same year Sir Nicholas Stern, appointed by Prime Minister Tony Blair to lead a team of economists to study climate change, prophesied it would bring “extended world war” and the need to move “hundreds of millions, probably billions of people.” In 2009, then–UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon told the Global Economic Forum, “We have just four months. Four months to secure the future of our planet.”
Remarkably, in November of that same year, 2009, at the height of its urgency, the global warming apocalypse suddenly fell into the churning wave phase. Someone hacked into the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in England and downloaded emails exchanged among the top scientific climate roosters. The messages bemoan recalcitrant data that fail to support the claim of “unprecedented warming,” describe the tricks (their term) used to coax the data to buttress the theory, report efforts to keep the views of scientific dissenters out of reputable journals and UN reports, and boast of deletion of data to make it unavailable to other researchers. Given that public belief in the global warming apocalypse depended upon its supposed rock-solid scientific foundation, the scandal, dubbed “Climategate,” was devastating. Beleaguered owls, especially at the Heartland Institute, ground zero of what the mainstream media dismissed as “science deniers,” had high expectations that the credibility of the apocalypse had suffered a fatal blow.