Page last updated at 16:14 GMT, Monday, 25 January 2010

Using religious language to fight global warming

By Helen Grady
Analysis, BBC Radio 4

Sandwich board stating The End is at Hand
Is apocalyptic language an effective campaigning tool?

If the case for tackling climate change is backed by science, why do so many green campaigners rely on the language of religion?

I am looking at a clock that is counting down the months, days, hours and minutes until planet Earth reaches "the point of no return".

As I type, we have 83 months to go. The end of the world, if not exactly nigh, certainly seems to be on its way.

But this doomsday countdown has not been devised by a religious cult or millenarian seer. It is on the website of the New Economics Foundation (Nef), designed to raise awareness about climate change.

Nef's policy director Andrew Simms says the web clock was based on a "real and rather conservative bit of number-crunching".

"We wanted to show that there is a real timeframe involved," he said. "You can't negotiate with the weather in the same way you can negotiate with a government department."

The website's designers are not the only ones who are keen to warn us of impending climate Armageddon.

Ahead of last month's Copenhagen climate summit, politicians and campaigners were queuing up to tell us it was our "last chance" to tackle global warming.

Gordon Brown even warned that "the dire consequences of failure" at Copenhagen could include a "catastrophic" future of killer heat-waves, floods and droughts.

Heaven and hell

But while such claims are supported by science, some campaigners think it is time to stop relying on apocalyptic messages to convert people to the climate change cause.

"Selling people a vision of climate hell simply doesn't work," says Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of the firm Futerra, a firm that specialises in green public relations.

Analysis BBC Radio 4, Monday 25 January at 2030 and repeated Sunday 31 January at 2130 GMT
Or listen via the BBC iPlayer
Or subscribe to the podcast

"A lot of environmentalists think they need to convince people that the way they live their lives is wrong," she adds. "They want us to stop sinning so they try to scare us into conversion with predictions of high-carbon hell. But it's not an effective message.

"We need to start selling people a vision of low-carbon heaven," Ms Townsend argues. "If we did everything necessary to prevent climate change, what would the world look like? When you start talking about that, most people decide it would be a nicer place to live. So we need to concentrate on getting people excited about creating that low-carbon heaven."

Sin, fear and guilt

The theologian and environmentalist Martin Palmer is also troubled by the green movement's reliance on visions of hell as a way of converting people to their cause.

He says: "In the 70s and 80s, environmentalists thought that if they presented people with the scientific facts, they would realise how desperate the crisis was and change.

An image of Jesus on the cross
Is religious language used to scare people, instead of offering them hope?

"That optimism started to fade in the 90s. They realised that no one is converted by a pie chart, so they started trying to motivate us through fear.

"Now they are playing with some of the most powerful emotional triggers in Western culture. They've adopted the language and imagery of a millenarian cult."

For Palmer, who is a United Nations adviser on climate change and religion, the green movement's appropriation of religious language and imagery has backfired.

"Environmentalists have stolen fear, guilt and sin from religion, but they have left behind celebration, hope and redemption," he says.

"They read science in the way that fundamentalists read religious texts: they cherry-pick the bits that support their argument and use them to scare people," he adds. "Then they offer no solutions other than letting greens take over the running of the world."

Passion for social change

For some, this appropriation of religious language and themes reveals the extent to which climate change is, for a section of the green movement, part of a much wider agenda for radical social change.

"Scratch the surface of a lot of greens and you find quite a lot of anger about the way people are," says Solitaire Townsend. "There's a lot of passion to do more than just reduce carbon levels.

Both [sides] say the science demands that we act. But it misses the point - what is the action?
Professor Mike Hulme, University of East Anglia

"There's always been a part of the environmental movement that has wanted to change who people are, and change society," she argues. "Some greens want to change our relationship with nature and get us interested in consciousness rather than consumption. These are very philosophical messages."

But the missionary zeal of such campaigners is often disguised by their use of science to support their agenda.

And for one leading green thinker, it will be a step forward for the environmental movement when the philosophical ideas that underpin much environmental thinking are made more openly in the debate about climate change.

Professor Mike Hulme, who founded the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, believes it is not enough for environmentalists to warn of climate hell and say the science demands action, because deciding how to tackle climate change is a deeply political issue.

"At Copenhagen, you could find the strongest advocate of market-based solutions to climate change sitting alongside the most radical member of Greenpeace," says Hulme. "They would both say the science demands that we act. But it misses the point - what is the action?

"Science cannot resolve the differences in ethics, values and ideologies that underpin the different solutions to tackling climate change," he points out. "Only open, honest, explicit political argumentation can do that.

"That's why all organisations and all interest groups should be upfront and explicit about the underpinning ethical and ideological drivers of their preferred solution."

Analysis will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 25 January at 2030 and Sunday 31 January at 2130 GMT. Or listen again via the BBC iPlayer. You can also subscribe to the podcast.

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