Hadley Arkes: “Climate change” gives the Left a “moral” code, a kind of pseudo religion, without the reasoning that animates true religion.
The state of our public discourse may not be at one of its heights, but it should be a telling sign that we haven’t heard anyone say that we have a remarkable “consensus” on the Pythagorean theorem. There is no citation to credentialed people to assure us that it’s “accepted” among those who should know that the square of the hypotenuse in the right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the two adjacent sides.
When we are dealing with an axiomatic, or necessary truth, it would be a vulgar move to suggest that this is a matter that may hinge on the “opinions” or the consensus among eminent people. And yet we persistently hear from the Left in our politics that there is an “overwhelming consensus” among scientists that we are facing a grave crisis over “climate change,” a crisis that will require stringent controls on the way we light and heat our houses, power our cars, and live our ordinary lives.
The passion that animates the partisans in this cause has approached a level of unblinking certitude that runs beyond the conviction of the religious. For the religious, anchored in the world, seeing as it as, may find good reasons for doubt, and rely on the confirmation of their faith.
The partisans in this cause have often rejected, with contempt, the possibility of knowing “moral truths.” My own sense is that they cling to the orthodoxy of climate change precisely to take the place of those anchoring moral truths that firmed up conviction, and offered consolation, to an earlier generation.
The people sounding the alarm over climate change invoke “science” as their new religion, and yet they have been compelled to speak only of a “consensus” among the credentialed people who come together under this banner. And yet, for people ostensibly tutored in the hard sciences and mathematics, they don’t seem to realize what they give away in their claims when they are forced to appeal, at most, to a “consensus” of “opinion” among people with academic degrees.
The appeal to “consensus” is a veiled admission that the “truths” they appeal to have fallen notably short of the truths that the Laws of nature can reveal to us. The people who have denied them their “consensus,” and forced them to use that word, are people like the estimable Will Happer and the distinguished colleagues who have joined him in their dubieties about the theories and ideology of “climate change.”
Will Happer was born in India just before what people of my years call “the War.” His father was a Scotch physician in the Indian army, his mother a medical missionary from North Carolina. With that absorption in science and faith, he was drawn back to his mother’s country, where he did a Ph.D. in Physics at Princeton and returned there to teach. He rose to become Cyrus Fogg Brackett Chair of Physics and the chair of the University Research Board, a committee to provide guidance and oversight in the grants sought in the sciences.
Along the way, he did stints in the Administrations of two Bushes and one Trump. Under the first President Bush, he became the Director of Energy Research in the Department of Energy. There he oversaw a budget in the billions covering research in high energy, nuclear physics, and environmental science. He would go on to co-found a company dealing with “magnetic imaging technologies” – and secure a few patents of his own.
His criticism of the cause for “climate change” did not spring then from the musings of one merely “passionate about the environment.” He would be joined by a small army of physicists and meteorologists who would add their own searing critiques. And one of the striking points in the argument has been that, instead of being a danger, carbon dioxide actually helps plants to flourish.
The response of course of the partisans over climate change has mainly been to ignore the evidence and reasoning brought forth by these other, accomplished men of science. It is far easier to preserve a new orthodoxy if one simply pretends that it draws no serious critique.
But I leave the science here to the scientists. Let us assume that the heralds of climate change and doom are correct. What would be the source of the moral conviction that there is an urgent problem here, that it would be morally wrong for anyone to deny the problem and resist the remedies?
I take it that the moral force comes from a concern for the human lives that may be destroyed as the oceans rise, and catastrophes unfold. But then the obvious question arises in response: How could one justify massive controls out of a speculative concern for the human lives that might be begotten and destroyed in the future – while attaching no concern at all for the 800,000+ killings performed every year in abortion of nascent babies, not at all speculative, but palpably with us and known to us?
Of course, there is nothing novel here, even with intellectuals in advanced societies, simply drawing a veil over a class of human beings who will not “count,” whose injuries will simply not matter. They could be slaves in America, Jews in Nazi Germany, or Catholics – at various times – in all places.
The Left came to its position on abortion in the momentum of sexual liberation. They would reject all moral truths as they would reject any ground of moral judgment on the way that people practice their sexual lives. But the moral functions of commending and condemning are simply built into our nature.
The Left may reject moral truth, but they want something to feel righteous about, and they do want to ring condemnation for their adversaries. “Climate change” has given them a “moral” world nicely detached from those vexing moral truths, and a kind of pseudo-religion, bereft of the weave of reasoning that runs through the religion we have come to know.
Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.
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