Climate Change Fears and Polarization

By November 29, 2019

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,359, November 29, 2019

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The surging interest in climate change intermingles science, ideology, politics, and religion and is likely to lead to increased polarization in Western societies. By analyzing the key characteristics of environmentalism and trying to assess societal developments, we can monitor the impact of climate change awareness and the inciting of fear.

The ever-growing global interest in climate change is likely to lead to increased polarization in Western societies, and the resulting consequences are difficult to assess.  A target of zero net emissions of greenhouse gases, if such a goal can even be realized, will invariably lead to many tensions.

Scientific predictions about climate change in the coming decades seem reliable. Yet a major issue, and one that has never been clear, is how much of the problem is natural and how much manmade. This ambiguity strengthens those opposed to the huge societal changes demanded by environmentalists.

Contrary to previous promoters of extreme secular ideologies, such as national socialism or communism, advocates of today’s desired Utopia do not view it as a much better world than the one we live in. They aim solely at the prevention of the end of human life on Earth, which they fear may be imminent.

This concept is not new. Every ten years there is an Earth Summit at which world leaders meet to discuss environmental improvement. In 1992, this gathering took place in Rio de Janeiro. I attended the industrialists’ preconference there. At the time, the media were full of warnings that the upcoming Earth Summit was the last chance to save the world.

The world was definitely not saved in Rio.

To understand the environmentalist movement, it is helpful to look at its pseudo-religious elements. Religion has filled a human need for millennia. In today’s more secular world, those needs are partly filled by ideological movements. The religious notion of “sin”, for example, parallels “waste” in environmental thinking. If one has sinned, one should confess. If one has produced waste, one should recycle it. It is considered immoral to continue to sin – i.e., to produce waste – without remedy.

The definition of “waste” has changed over the decades. For many years the focus 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. (Even after decades, the benefits of some recycling activities are still less than their costs.) But governments are under pressure to act immediately, and major new policy mistakes will likely be made as a product of haste. The first signs of this have already begun to appear.

The Dutch government, for example, has presented a climate plan that includes a sustainability program through 2030. The country’s regional health authorities reacted negatively to the plan. The Netherlands wants to invest heavily in energy from windmills, solar panels, and biomass. The health authorities claim that people who live next to windmill farms suffer from noise pollution, and 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 plants. The government plans to establish 628 such plants in the coming years and will subsidize them with an investment of 11.4 billion euros. The health authorities claim that it is not at all clear how these plants will affect air quality. Hardly any experience has yet been gained with huge-scale biomass plants (like those that burn wood, for example). There is little information available about what their emissions will be or how they will affect the climate. Some claim biomass plants will produce even higher emissions than coal plants.

There was recently a small yet powerful example of mistaken pro-environmental action. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenaged icon of the anti-global warming movement, refused to fly to the US in order not to “be responsible” for the greenhouse gases the plane emits. She traveled by yacht instead. But as reported by the German daily Die Welt, the yacht’s owner returned by air after depositing Thunberg in the US. Five people had to fly to the US to bring the yacht back. The combined environmental impact of those trips did not receive anywhere near the publicity of Thunberg’s refusal to travel to and from the US by plane.

The important role of the younger generation in the environmentalist movement makes sense. Their life expectancy is longest, so they will suffer most if the negative predictions are true. But the reception Thunberg received in official fora like the UN and the US Congress suggests a degree of perplexity among political bodies. Wouldn’t it have been more logical to invite scientific experts rather than a teenager to convey the dangers of global warming? One senior politician who has come out against Thunberg is French president Emanuel Macron, who said her stance is very radical and likely to “antagonize societies.”

Much current environmental planning focuses on alternative energies. Bill Gates has pointed out that electricity and energy represent only 25% of all carbon dioxide emissions. The other major emitters include manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, and building. This means that if one aims for zero emissions, a radical reduction of, for example, cattle farming will be necessary. That 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 that are likely to continue.

Many further clashes could develop. Industrialists might see their activities threatened, and workers, such as miners and carmaker employees, could find their jobs at risk. Childless adults might object to being forced to make radical changes, as their consumption of scarce natural resources will end with their death while others will continue to consume resources via their progeny.

It is worth noting that the European country with the strongest Green Party 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: the Tierschützgesetz (the 1933 law for the protection of animals) and the Reichsjachtgesetz (the Game Law of 1934, which restricts hunting).

The anti-global warming movement could have another effect. There will be many who oppose the impact its radical measures will have on their lives. Those people might feel they have no alternative but to vote for populist right-wing parties. For those parties, the danger posed by the movement could become a valuable propaganda tool with which to attract new voters.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ is a Senior Research Associate at the BESA Center and a former chairman of the Steering Committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He specializes in IsraeliWestern European relations, antisemitism, and anti-Zionism, and is the author of The War of a Million Cuts.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld (Ph.D. Amsterdam University) is former Chairman of the Steering Committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He specializes in Israeli-Western Europe relations, anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionism. Email: [email protected]