It is climate sceptics' most cunning ploy, but environmentalists must fight attempts to equate religion with green progress
Of all the blithering nonsense climate deniers throw at the environmental movement, there is perhaps one criticism that does real damage – that "green is the new religion".
We can handle the scientifically illiterate and ethically questionable attempts to undermine evidence of climatic change using cherry picked data and discredited theories, just as we can counter the increasingly futile attempts to question the importance of the green economy and the efficacy of clean technologies. The scientific evidence linking greenhouse gas emissions and potentially dangerous levels of climate change is now so well proven, and the physical demonstration of effective clean technologies so prevalent, that the guileless smears attempted by self-styled "climate sceptics" lack their former sting.
They are fighting a losing battle with science and evidence, hence the increasingly vocal suggestion that green is the new religion.
This line of attack is hugely effective and highly damaging for three main reasons.
Firstly, and most importantly, if you can convince people to see environmentalism as a religion, then you move green issues from the field of science and data into the field of theology and belief.
Religion can mean a "pursuit or interest followed with great devotion" – a definition which could just about allow environmentalism to be classified as a "religion" – but it is more commonly defined as "the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods", or "a particular system of faith and worship". Equate "greens" with this type of religion, with faith and deities, adherence and heresy, and it becomes all but impossible to prove or disprove the central tenets of environmentalism.
"Climate change is a matter of faith," say the climate sceptics, "green actions are acts of religion – they have no place in the real world of politics and business." Frustratingly, you can argue against this accusation all you like, but any response is tainted in the eyes of your critics by the fact it is made with a "religious conviction" that will brook no argument (I am fully aware that in some kind of post-modern death spiral of circuitous argument, the main criticism levelled against this blog post by climate sceptics will be that in arguing that environmentalism is not a religion I am proving that I am a follower of that self-same religion)
Secondly, this trope is doubly clever because like all good smears it draws on the weaknesses of its target. Some environmentalists are occasionally guilty of the worst excesses of religion. There is a tendency to drown out legitimate criticism in the most forceful terms, an inclination towards proselytization that can alienate many people, and an occasional willingness to cling to sacred cows even when the scientific evidence suggests we should at least discuss their being slayed (I'm thinking nuclear power and GM as prime examples). The image of environmental campaigners filled with passionate, but not religious, conviction makes the suggestion that environmentalism has become a religion look convincing.
Thirdly, if you can convince people that green is a religion then you allow anyone who disagrees with environmental policies or business models to wrap themselves in the comforting blanket of heresy. You create a powerful narrative of brave resistance which appeals to iconoclasts, rationalists, and sceptics (in the true sense of the world) everywhere.
All of which brings me, somewhat circuitously to this Saturday's Guardian and Simon Hoggart's second assertion in as many weeks that wind turbines are like church spires, in that "they achieve nothing but have a purely religious significance" – an argument that was expounded by drawing on James Lovelock's recent claims that environmentalism has become a religion.
"He's right," Hoggart wrote of Lovelock's latest comments. "[Environmentalists] accuse their opponents not just of being mistaken, but of heresy. They put too much importance on symbolic acts; just as your marrow at the harvest festival doesn't end world hunger, so you won't save the planet by cycling to work. Wind turbines, like spires, reach for the skies to no apparent effect. Facts that contradict dogma have to be concealed, as in the East Anglia data hush-up. Allies who change their minds can be denounced as apostates."
Now Simon Hoggart is one of the best and most respected journalists working in Britain today, but, like his stable-mate at the Guardian Simon Jenkins, he has decided wind turbines are loathsome and that anything to do with climate change and environmentalism should face the same cynicism that serves his peerless political sketch-writing so well.
As such, greens have been captured by "religious fervour", wind turbines serve no purpose beyond the symbolic, the only take away from the University of East Anglia affair was the ludicrous assertion that data was "hushed-up", and one of the UK's most intelligent journalists is happy to declare that "I have no idea who is right about climate change".
Without wishing to accuse Hoggart or many of the other commentators who have made similar points in recent years of heresy, this is all utterly nonsensical.
Environmentalism is not a religion in any real sense of the word. Yes, some of its supporters display levels of conviction that can look religious, but the central tenets of environmentalism, not to mention green policies and campaigns, are based on evidence and the application of scientific reason.
We might sometimes disagree on the evidence and the conclusions (again, I'm thinking of nuclear and GM), but no one is using faith as an argument to advance their case. Those who do are quickly discredited and are increasingly confined to the more "out there" extremes of the environmental movement. In fact, if you were to draw a spectrum of belief systems with religion at one end and Enlightenment values of rationality and scientific inquiry at the other, most greens would be at the far Enlightenment end of the scale on virtually every issue. There is of course nothing wrong with being at the other end of this spectrum, religious faith delivers immense benefits and happiness to billions of people – it is just that support for environmental causes is neither equatable with, nor exclusive to, support for a religious belief or doctrine.
I'm sure Hoggart is being truthful when he says he does not know who is right about climate change, but if he wanted to apply the same standards of knowledge to other areas he would have to admit he is not sure who is right about the link between smoking and cancer – the medical establishment, or the discredited hacks who spent years providing dodgy research to the tobacco companies. He can argue that wind turbines look ugly, but to argue that they have "no apparent effect" is to dismiss reams of independent evidence to the contrary, not least the energy meters attached to any wind turbine recording the power being fed into the grid.
People who suggest climate change might not be happening are not heretics, but they are guilty of a quite staggering lack of intellectual rigour. Just as those who suggest green is a religion, including the estimable James Lovelock, are guilty of a remarkable category error.
You can call environmentalism an ideology, a political movement, even a lifestyle; but it sure as hell isn't a religion.