TCS Daily

Will Global Warming Generate America's Fourth Great Awakening?

By John Baden - January 4, 2008 12:00 AM

We have just ended the season when every environmental group to whom we've contributed, the NWF, WS, Sierra Club, and others, sends appeals for more funds. If you have ever contributed to these groups, you've no doubt been approached to join the Global Warming Crusade.

Will this crusade become America's Fourth Great Awakening? The First Awakening fostered the American Revolution by providing pre-Revolutionary America with a radical and democratic social and political ideology. The Second applied Christian teaching to politics. Stressing social reform as part of God's plan, it amplified abolitionist sentiments and helped precipitate the Civil War. The Third Great Awakening of the late 1800s and early 1900s gave rise to the reforms of the "social gospel" movement and fostered Progressive Era reforms.

Climate change has generated a movement to unite secular Greens who revere Gaia with Christian followers. A decade ago, Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, suggested it: "The environmental movement for the past quarter of a century has made no more profound error than to misunderstand the mission of religion and the churches in preserving the Creation." He and other Green leaders found common cause in the recent Bali climate conference.

In Bali, governments from 187 nations agreed on the need for rich countries to cut emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and a 50 percent cut in global emissions by 2050.

The World Council of Churches hosted an ecumenical service concurrent with the Bali climate conference. They urged a "change of paradigm" in response to the challenge of climate change. "This kind of movement just does not happen on its own; it must be catalyzed by agents of change. The world Faiths could be one of those catalysts," wrote the WCC. They noted that the Christian tradition believes that humans cannot "do whatever we want" with the earth. These groups may complement each other for modern secular environmentalism has become a religion; it's Calvinistic asceticism minus God.

John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, told of his desire to go to the "high temples" to "worship with nature." Joseph Sax, author of Mountains Without Handrails, wrote that he and his enlightened consorts are "secular prophets, preaching a new message of salvation." In The Voice of the Earth, Theodore Roszak told us that environmental objectives have a "frankly religious character."

All religions have a litany and the Greens have theirs. We are sinners who sully creation. Our materialism wrecks our planet. Things are bad and getting worse for (other) people want the wrong things. Damnation awaits and darkness is nigh. Repent and renounce now else the end is near. Global warming will ruin our lives and destroy creation.

Again, Sierra Club's Pope on Dec. 11, "If you want to minimize regional catastrophes, then you have to limit overall greenhouse pollution. The 3.6 degrees goal is a way of measuring our avoiding catastrophe."

Of course we have a cultural precedence for this. Genesis tells us Noah built his ark for God would soon send a giant flood to cover the earth. This was deserved punishment for sinful ways. And Al Gore received a Nobel Prize for telling us a similar fate is coming via warmth rather than water.

This problem-based strategy worked when goals were clear, compelling, and included a political logic for attainment. Hence, during the Nixon era we had many environmental victories, ESA, Clean Air and Water Acts, NEPA, and in 1984 the Wilderness Act.

But these epic accomplishments weren't repeated. As Nordhaus and Schellenberger recently wrote, the defend-the-environment approach "has prevented us from winning major legislation on global warming at the national level."

This became obvious when the major Green groups banked on the Kyoto Protocol and lost in the Senate 95 to zip. They lacked a popular vision and a legislative proposal. Demanding mass asceticism and smaller carbon footprints didn't win political power.

They need a new model and allies. Will coalitions of Greens and religious leaders united by global warming produce our Fourth Great Awakening? This has strong possibilities but the potential for mischief is huge. Good intentions and political power are easily abused by special interests. Let's be alert to these dangers.


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