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The Dangerous Rise of Carbon Fundamentalism

A recent string of harsh public statements and policy proposals addressing climate change -- including, but not limited to, the comparison of climate change deniers to Hitler -- does show just how widely accepted global warming has become. Although vehement public acceptance moves us closer to action, it may also serve to stifle productive dialogue on possible solutions or strategies on the crisis.

A professor writing in the Medical Journal of Australia calls on the Australian government to impose a carbon charge of $5,000 on every birth, annual carbon fees of $800 per child and provide a carbon credit for sterilization. Another recent article in the New Scientist suggests that the problem with obesity is the additional carbon load it imposes on the environment; others that a major social cost of divorce is the additional carbon burden resulting from splitting up families.

A recent study from the Swedish Ministry of Sustainable Development argues that males have a disproportionately larger impact on global warming ("women cause considerably fewer carbon dioxide emissions than men and thus considerably less climate change").The Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that those who suggest that climate change is not a catastrophic challenge are no different than Hitler (he now claims that his words were taken out of context, but the reporter who conducted the interview, Lars From, stands by it). E. O. Wilson calls such people parasites. Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman writes that "global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers."

There are always fringe articles and unfortunate comments in areas of active public debate. But the sheer volume of articles, the vicious language and the retranslation of so many social and cultural trends -- divorce, obesity, gender conflict and much else -- into terms of carbon footprint suggests that something more fundamental is going on.

Most obviously, the extreme language -- comparing academics who disagree about interpretation of data to Hitler or to Holocaust deniers -- is indicative of a profound if subtle reframing of climate change. One does not debate Hitler: the use of such language indicates a shift from helping the public and policymakers understand a complex issue, to demonizing disagreement, especially regarding policies favored by the scientific community.

The data driven and exploratory processes of science are choked off by inculcation of belief systems that rely on archetypal and emotive strength. Importantly, the extreme language is directed not against those who deny anthropogenic climate change completely, for there are few of those left (a credit to the traditional scientific debate process while it still existed in this area), but those who, while accepting the existence of the phenomenon, do not believe it is an existential and immediate crisis. The authority of science is relied on not for factual enlightenment but as ideological foundation for authoritarian policy prescriptions which might otherwise be difficult to implement.

This is reinforced by the number of articles, some verging on self-parody, that redefine more and more social and cultural phenomenon in terms of carbon footprint. It is not that each assertion may be wrong; indeed, since life at base is creating order, it is not surprising that changes in individual, social and institutional networks will have concomitant implications for coupled natural systems -- especially energy and material consumption and thus the carbon cycle.

Defining complex human behaviors and states, such as obesity or having children, in terms of carbon footprint, however, enables a new structure of good and evil to be imposed on society. Obesity is now morally questionable not for health reasons or Calvinist theology, but because it is evil in that you are destroying the world through your carbon footprint-generating gluttony. A complex public health problem is nicely converted into a simplistic moral mapping.

Similarly, the Swedish article uses climate change to reinvent the ecofeminist condemnation of males as evil destroyers of the environment (the New Scientist lead on the news item read "Male eco-villians"). The campaign to create a moral universe predicated on carbon footprint, which began with anti-SUV initiatives, is now extending across society as a whole. Climate change science and policy is rapidly becoming carbon fundamentalism, an over-simplistic but comprehensive structure of moral valuation that can be applied to virtually any individual or institution.

As the IPCC Nobel Peace Prize and perusal of journals reveals, many scientists are active participants in this process. But fundamentalism of any stripe is dangerous because it oversimplifies complex problems and because it facilitates "good" versus "evil" framing that cuts off dialog and thus tends to be profoundly anti-democratic, anti-intellectual, anti-rational -- and anti-scientific. Because science is for many people an important source of information, guidance and truth, in the short run it can provide substantial authority for carbon fundamentalism. Converting science into an authoritarian belief system is, however, dangerous not just to those whom it demonizes but, eventually, to the health of the institution itself.

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