Dr.Gerstenfeld wrote this piece for BESA and was published there first, I republish this with the author’s consent.
Global Warming Fears and Increasing Polarization of Societies
The surging interest in climate change causes more intermingling of science, ideology, politics and religion. This is likely to lead to increased polarization in Western societies. The resulting consequences are difficult to assess. Aiming at zero net emissions of greenhouse gases – if at all realizable – must by nature (no pun intended) lead to many tensions.
The scientific predictions about global warming in the coming decades seem reliable. Yet a major issue, which is still rather unclear, is how much of the problem is natural and how much is manmade. The world’s population has to live with this uncertainty. The ambiguity strengthens those opposed to the huge societal changes demanded by environmentalists.
In the post-modern world, it is difficult to obtain an overview of the future impacts of the climate debate in public discourse. One can only speculate on some of the major trends. To improve our chances to do so, we first have to understand some major characteristics of the strengthening environmentalist movement. Contrary to previous promoters of extreme secular ideologies such as national-socialism or communism, this time the proclaimed Utopia is not a much better world. Its advocates promise only the prevention of the end of human life on planet earth.
This concept is not new. Every ten years there is an Earth Summit. World leaders meet to discuss environmental improvement. In 1992, this gathering took place in Rio de Janeiro. I attended the industrialists’ preconference there. At that time, one could read in many media that the upcoming Earth Summit was the last chance to save the world. If this had been true, the world was definitely not saved in Rio.
To better understand the environmentalist movement, one also has to realize its pseudo-religious elements. Religion has filled a human need for millennia. In a more secular world, similar needs are partly filled by ideological movements. One aspect of that parallel can be seen by comparing the notion of “sin” in religion with that of “waste” in environmental thinking not sinning is best. Similarly, not wasting is desirable. If one has sinned, one should confess. If one has produced waste, one should recycle it. The worst things are to keep sinning and to continue producing waste without remedy.
The focus on waste has changed over the decades. For many years it was on solid and liquid waste. The emphasis has now shifted to major greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. The aim is for the world to become “carbon neutral.” One important aspect of this is offsetting carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by planting trees, which absorb the gas.
Any significant steps in the direction of carbon neutrality will require major policy changes and huge investments. In order to prevent wasting large sums of money, substantial studies and time are required. For instance: even after decades the benefits of some recycling activities are still less than their costs. Yet, governments are under pressure to act immediately. It is likely that by hurrying major new policy mistakes will be made. The first signs of this have already become clear.
One example: The Dutch government has presented its climate plan. It includes a sustainability program until 2030. The country’s regional health authorities wrote a letter in which they reacted negatively to the plan. The Netherlands wants to invest heavily in energy from windmills, solar panels and biomass. The health authorities wrote that people who live next to windmill farms suffer from the noise.1 Past studies have shown that people often rank noise as their number one major environmental problem.
The Dutch health authorities are even more worried about biomass plant investments. The Netherlands plan to establish 628 such plants in the coming years. The government will subsidize this with 11.4 billion Euro. The health authorities claim that it is entirely unclear how these plants will affect air quality. There is hardly any experience with huge scale biomass plants; for instance those that burn wood. There is little information about what the emissions will be or how they will impact the climate. There are claims that biomass plants will even have higher emissions than coal plants.2 The letter to the government also mentioned other concerns.3
Additional concrete examples of mistaken planning will come to the light in the near future. There is also a small, yet powerful example of a mistaken pro-environmental action. Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager who is the icon of the anti-global warming movement, refused to fly to the United States for her visit in order not to “be responsible” for the greenhouse gases the plane emits. She thus traveled by boat. The owner of a yacht brought her to the US. The German daily, Die Welt, reported that the yacht’s owner returned by air. To bring the yacht back, five people had to fly to the US.4 This did not receive much publicity. Yet, the environmental impact would have been smaller if Thunberg and her father had travelled to and from the US by plane.
Much of the current environmental planning focuses on alternative energies. As for instance Bill Gates has pointed out electricity and energy only represent 25% of all carbon dioxide emissions. The other major emitters include manufacturing, agriculture, transportation and building.5 For instance: if one aims for zero emissions, a radical reduction of cattle farming will be necessary. This can only be accomplished by actions close to social engineering that undermine liberal democracy. In the Netherlands, the left liberal D66 government party, wants to halve the number of cattle in their country. This has led to huge protests by farmers, which are likely to continue.
These are an indication of many future protesters. There will be others, for instance, industrialists who see their activities threatened and workers – such as miners and carmaker employees — whose jobs may be at risk. One might also reflect that certain adults who do not have children may feel no need to make radical changes. Their consumption of scarce natural resources ends with their death. Others continue to consume resources via their progeny.
There are other perspectives to be gained from the reactions to the enhanced environmental movement. The important role of the younger generation in it makes sense as their life expectancy is longest. Thus, if the negative predictions are true they will suffer most. Yet, the reception Thunberg received in various official forums such as the UN and the US Congress indicates the perplexity of political bodies. Wouldn’t it have been more logical to invite scientific experts to argue the case of global warming? One senior politician who has come out against Thunberg is French President Emanuel Macron. He said that her stance is very radical and is likely to “antagonize societies.”6
The anti-climate change movement creates more potential for green parties. This also forces parties in power and other mainstream parties to adopt green programs. One should note that the European country where the Green Party is strongest is Germany. One wonders whether this is related to the fact that Hitler and the Nazi government introduced the first major environmental legislation in Europe. These were the Tierschützgesetz – the law for the protection of animals – of 1933 and the Reichsjachtgesetz (The Reich’s Game Law), which limits hunting, of 1934.7
This reality may also have another effect. There will be many who oppose radical measures, which impact their lives. They may have no political alternative but to vote for populist right-wing parties. For the latter this may become an additional important propaganda theme to attract new voters.
Much of the above assessments are only the first indications of what is yet to come. It may help as the beginning of a trajectory of analysis, which, as time passes can be deepened and expanded.
7 Luc Ferry, Le nouvel ordre écologique (Paris: Grasset, 1992) 54.