Global Warming and Pagan Emptiness
Cardinal George Pell on the latest hysterical substitute for religion.
Interview by Michael Gilchrist | January 2008
In the debate over the theory of global warming, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney is a decided skeptic. His forthright reservations about the claim of catastrophic man-made climate change have made him a target for criticism in Australia. CWR talked to him about the controversy.
Your recent remarks questioning the claims about man-made climate change have drawn fierce criticism here in Australia. How do you account for that?
Cardinal Pell: Despite the fact that Australians like to see themselves as a ruggedly independent, rational, and democratic people, in some respects a herd-like mentality still prevails. Right now, the mass media, politicians, many church figures, and the public generally seem to have embraced even the wilder claims about man-made climate change as if they constituted a new religion.
These days, for any public figure to question the basis of what amounts to a green fundamentalist faith is tantamount to heresy. The angry editorials and letters to newspapers certainly suggest this.
You are one of very few public figures in this country to express open skepticism about man-made climate change and its alleged long-term effects. What is your reading of the scientific evidence for climate change? What is the basis of your skepticism?
Cardinal Pell: I am certainly skeptical about extravagant claims of impending man-made climatic catastrophes. Scientific debate is not decided by any changing consensus, even if it is endorsed by political parties and public opinion. Climate change both up and down has been occurring, probably since earth first had a climate.
Science is a process of experimentation, debate, and respect for evidence. Often it is dealing with uncertainties rather than certainties, and so its forecasts and predictions can be spectacularly wrong. We must not ignore evidence that doesn't suit our cause. Long-term weather forecasting is a notoriously imprecise exercise.
In the 1970s some scientists were predicting a new ice age because of global cooling. Today other scientists are predicting an apocalypse because of global warming. It is no disrespect to science or scientists to take these latest claims with a grain of salt. Commitment to the scientific method actually requires it.
Uncertainties on climate change abound. Temperatures in Greenland were higher in the 1940s than they are today, and the Kangerlussuaq glacier there is not shrinking but growing in size. While the ice may be melting in the Arctic, apparently it is increasing in extent in the Antarctic. Overall world temperatures have not increased since 1998 according to the statistics—whatever the case might be in particular locations.
Do you accept that human activities may have contributed to at least some of the global warming?
Cardinal Pell: Significant evidence suggests that average temperatures rose by 0.6 degrees centigrade during the last century, and there is no doubt that large-scale industrial activities can have an adverse impact in particular locations, as in the larger Chinese cities. But when averaged out across the globe, it is difficult to see this being the main culprit for any overall global warming, let alone bringing us to the verge of catastrophe. Again, we are dealing with a very imprecise science here, whatever the computer models might suggest. There are so many other variables.
The journal American Scientist recently published a study on the melting glacier on Mount Kilimanjaro. The study confirms that air temperature around the glacier continues to be below freezing, so it is not melting because of global warming. Instead, the melt pattern of the glacier is consistent with the effect of direct radiant heat from the sun. Human activity can't be blamed for that.
I gather that increasing temperatures have been detected on Mars where human activity can hardly be blamed. Man-made carbon emissions—however large or undesirable—need to be set in context next to the immense power of the sun, the influence of the oceans, clouds and other forces of nature that have been impacting the earth for millions of years.
Of course, if the locally adverse effects of human excesses, such as various forms of pollution, lead to greater care for the environment, that's all to the good. Humans act out of self-interest in these situations, although in addition Christians have particular responsibilities as custodians of God's creation for today and tomorrow.
What do you make of the popularity of Al Gore and his message of doom?
Cardinal Pell: There's no doubt many people are ready to believe the worst-case scenarios. Perhaps all those Hollywood disaster movies have blurred the distinction between fact and fiction. Few of us have the scientific knowledge to question the wild claims Gore has made—other than some grains of common sense.
However, the day before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the English high court ruled that DVDs of Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth could not be shown in schools without teachers providing additional materials to correct nine "significant errors" in the film.
Among them were claims that Pacific atolls are being evacuated because of rising sea levels and that polar bears are drowning because they have to swim up to 60 miles to find ice. The court found there is "no evidence" to support either claim. Polar bears have drowned in recent times, but because of storms, not melting ice.
Would you see the whole global warming mania as having overtones of a new religious movement filling the vacuum in a post-Christian culture?
Cardinal Pell: It is true that some of the more hysterical and extreme claims about global warming appear symptomatic of a pagan emptiness, of a Western fear when confronted by the immense and basically uncontrollable forces of nature.
Years ago I was struck by the fears that middle-class kids without religion had about nuclear war. It was almost an obsession with a few of them. It's almost as though people without religion, who don't belong to any of the great religious traditions, have got to be frightened of something.
Perhaps they're looking for a cause that is almost a substitute for religion. I often point out that some of those who are now warning us against global warming were warning us back in the 1970s about an imminent new ice age, because according to some criteria an ice age is a bit overdue. Remember the fuss about the millennium bug and our computer systems in the lead-up to the year 2000.
Belief in a benign God who is master of the universe has a steadying psychological effect, although it is no guarantee of Utopia, no guarantee that the continuing climate and geographic changes will be benign. In the past pagans sacrificed animals and even humans in vain attempts to placate capricious and cruel gods. Today they demand a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.
What role do you see for yourself as a religious leader on this issue?
Cardinal Pell: There are many measures that are good for the environment that we should pursue. We need to be able talk freely about this and about the uncertainties around climate change. Invoking the authority of some scientific experts to shut down debate is not good for science, for the environment, for people here and in the developing world or for the people of tomorrow.
My task as a Christian leader is to engage with reality, to contribute to debate on important issues, to open people's minds, and to point out when the emperor is wearing few or no clothes. I strive to argue rationally towards God the Creator, and reject substitutes, be they pantheist or atheist.
Radical environmentalists are more than up to the task of moralizing their own agenda and imposing it on people through fear. They don't need church leaders to help them with this, although it is a very effective way of further muting Christian witness. Church leaders in particular should be allergic to nonsense.
The Christian God is not an insurance broker, nor did his Son Jesus Christ say anything on global warming, although he said much on the struggle between good and evil, meaning and fear, love and hate.
Jesus calls us to address the challenges in our own hearts, families, and communities before we moralize about distant worlds, where we are usually powerless.
*Michael Gilchrist is editor of the Australian religious monthly AD2000 and author of the recently published study of Australian Catholicism, Lost! Australia's Catholics Today.