The Guardian's environmental section is either a treasure trove of outlandish claims or a terrifying vision of the future, depending on your belief.
From the harmless fluff of newspaper astrology to battles in the skies via the visitations of alien beings, men have sought (or claimed) to read the future from the skies. Most such beliefs have long ago been consigned to the Oddments of History drawer - picked over by the curious for entertainment or to lend credence to more modern beliefs, reinterpreted through modern eyes as predecessors to fads of the time.
But perhaps we ourselves are labouring under such a collective delusion with as much (maybe even more) presence and influence in our lives: catastrophic climate change.
At one time, atmospheric phenomena such as storms and tornadoes lacked a theoretical framework in which to exist. Thus, they were seen as terrifying visitations of God's wrath, or as portents of some future doom or glory. So it was that contemporary chroniclers related their appearance in those terms. To give a famous example - the violent storm that destroyed half of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was reported as a sign of the divine righteousness of England's cause against her Spanish foe. Medals at the time were minted with the phrase "Flavit Jehovah et Dissipati Sunt" - literally: "Jehovah blew with His winds, and they were scattered." The defeat of the Spanish Armada was not merely a case of martial achievement but an instance of God directly intervening in human affairs and handing victory to the English. How seriously this belief was taken is uncertain, but even from a cultural standpoint that anyone could advance such a thought and not be laughed out of existence indicates the gulf between the modern world and the society of the time.
Prior to the industrial revolution, urbanisation and the mechanisation of agriculture, our relationship with the heavens was also direct and very real. A poor summer could cause a bad harvest and resultant famine and the deaths of countless thousands (such as the 'Great Famine' of 1315-17 which cost the lives of an millions of Europeans). The Simonie (commonly known as the "The Poem on the Evil Times of Edward II" - authorship unknown, and dated around 1322) is a further explicit statement of the belief that God could and did intervene in humanity's affairs. Referring specifically to the Great Famine, the author tells us:
"When God saw that the world was so over proud,
He sent a dearth on earth, and made it full hard.
A bushel of wheat was at four shillings or more,
Of which men might have had a quarter before....
And then they turned pale who had laughed so loud,
And they became all docile who before were so proud.
A man's heart might bleed for to hear the cry
Of poor men who called out, 'Alas! For hunger I die"
The Great Famine arose when the fertile period of the Medieval Warm Period ended with a run of poor summers. During the preceding period of warm weather, the population had boomed and the sudden collapse in grain and cereal production meant that food shortages quickly overcame the population.
Not for nothing, then, did monarchs employ official astrologers to help them divine the meaning of atmospheric events.
As science's understanding of cloud formations and weather systems grew, such tropes began to appear with less frequency, lingering on in our culture primarily as a dramatic device in fiction (see Shelley's Frankenstein or the Sherlock Holmes stories for concrete examples).
But over the last 25 years or so, our relationship with the heavens has once more shifted into one coloured with portents, suspicions and couched in a quasi-religious belief system every bit as prevalent as that of the churches of old.
In some cases, the link between climate change and religion is explicit. It is notable, for instance, that the current holder of the Archbishopry of Canterbury and his predecessor, Rowan Williams, have made strident use of rhetoric of climate change as a metaphor for the need to change humanity's habits. In his remarkable Ebor Lecture delivered at York Minster in 2009, Williams differed only in the modernity of his language to the sentiments expressed in the Symonie.
"Our unintelligent and ungodly relation with the environment... is impatient: it seeks returns on labour that are prompt and low-cost, without consideration of long-term effects. It avoids or denies the basic truth that the environment as a material system is finite and cannot indefinitely regenerate itself in ways that will simply fulfil human needs or wants.
In the doomsday scenarios we are so often invited to contemplate, the ultimate tragedy is that a material world capable of being a manifestation in human hands of divine love is left to itself, as humanity is gradually choked, drowned or starved by its own stupidity. The disappearance of humanity from a globe no longer able to support it would be a terrible negation of God's purpose for a world in which created intelligence draws out the most transformative and rich possibilities in its material home"
The full speech is worth reading for the way in which Williams was prepared to foretell doom for humanity - using science as a "factual" backdrop for an essentially religious argument. In 2014, Williams returned to the debate to fulminate against the "Rich West" for bringing almost unavoidable doom to the world.
"We have heard for years the predictions that the uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels and the consequent pouring of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will lead to an accelerated warming of the Earth. What is now happening strongly indicates that these predictions are coming true; our actions have indeed had consequences, consequences that are deeply threatening for many of the poorest communities in the world."
This curious interface between Christian faith and scientific millenarianism is echoed in many places. In a 2007 report, Christian Aid spoke of:
"A theological model based on relationships, set out above all in the New Testament, as a basis for taking action to try and limit the environmental catastrophe that threatens us"
In keeping with earlier tropes of the skies as portents of humanity's impending doom, weather is once more being examined for signs of its relationship with human behaviour. As the author of the Symonie saw the Great Famine as a direct result of man's greed and sloth, so contemporary climatic events are routinely cast against a background of alleged irresponsibility on the part of modern society.
Often, the messages are contradictory, but there are consistent themes. Most commonly, it is said that we are at or near a 'tipping point', beyond which climate change will be irreversible and catastrophic. A secondary theme places the onset of disaster a decade or two into the future. Hence the 2000 claim by Dr. David Viner of the University of East Anglia's Department of Climate Studies that snow would be "a thing of the past".
As such, portents are routinely seen in actually unremarkable events such as a cool summer, a flash flood or a late snowfall. While our grasp of history has grown with the free availability of information, our constant exposure to news from around the world creates a false impression of constant churn and "unprecedented" events - even though the actual data refutes such an impression.
Despite their claim to scientific authority, the proponents of catastrophic climate change often admit to being wrong about their data - but only in that things are worse then previously thought. A search on Google for "worse than previously thought" and "climate change" as exact phrases returns almost 7 million results.
Typical of such claims are the recent comments by the Government's chief scientist Professor Sir John Beddington. In march 2013 he issued an apocalyptic warning about the future he believes we share:
"...we are going to have more droughts, we are going to have more floods, we are going to have more sea surges and we are going to have more storms."
On the face of it, there is little reason to disbelieve him. As a scientist, he is supposed to investigate and present reality, helping our understanding of the universe around us by accurately describing his findings through careful experimentation. And yet, he is issuing certainties about a future that is by definition unknowable and untestable. Science has a history as long and as disreputable as religion in making claims about the future.
In the 1970s, for example, a body was set up for the US Government in response to fears of a rapidly cooling climate and the potential for a "new ice age." Official advice (recently obtained under FOI requests by Paul Homewood) and research was unanimous in its conclusions that weather events at the time pointed clearly at a cooling trend. Their report to Government stated that:
"It is clear that climate fluctuations are resulting in major economic, political and social consequences.Our vulnerability has increased: as the world's population and the affluent part of it has grown, grain reserves have shrunk to the point where they cannot offset the more serious shortfalls that can be expected due to the ordinary vagaries of climate.... These concerns are compounded by mounting evidence that man's industrial and agricultural activities may cause changes in climate inadvertently."
Just as today's alarmists point to contemporary meteorological events as evidence of 'unprecedented' behaviour in the weather, so the report notes the collapse of the Peruvian anchovy population in 1972-73 and a "killing winter freeze" in Russia in 1972 as evidence that cooling is on the way. Today, doubtless, those same occurrences would be trumpeted as evidence of warming.
The Climate Change mythos fits into a long traditional of millenial beliefs and contains strong folkloric elements. It has authority - derived not from the clerisy but from "science" (although freely co-opted by the clerisy). It has a high priesthood who zealously guard secret knowledge - in the form of the IPCC (whose meetings are arguably akin to the Great Synods of the Middle Ages). It asks for sacrifices from the common man in the form of energy taxes. It enriches those with influence and power who commit to the cause - with huge subsidies for those with sufficient land to install wind farms.
To say that the belief cleaves to the millenial model might seem a little outrageous, were it not for the zealotry of its adherents. In recent years a video was produced for an awareness campaign that literally showed children who doubted the reality of climate change being detonated by their teacher.
While that is merely a propaganda video in spectacularly misjudged bad taste, it reflects the almost fundamentalist beliefs of some of those in the environmental movement. NASA scientist James Hansen is among those to have called for people who 'deny' that climate change is real to be prosecuted as criminals. Where once scientists themselves lived under threat of prosecution for quietly questioning the tenets of religion, now scientists can be found calling for the prosecution of those who question 'the science', saying in 2008 that:
"In my opinion, they [the CEOs of energy companies] should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature."
Once, the landless serfs were expected to pay a tithe (one tenth) of their crops and incomes to the lord under whose fiefdom they fell.
Today, those who spend a tithe of their income on energy are said to be in 'fuel poverty'. They are, in effect, in thrall to the energy companies and the goverments who regulate them. Both utility companies and governments are united in their public belief in climate change and the necessary measures to combat it. Thus, energy companies receive subsidies on otherwise inefficient sources of energy production such as wind power, boosting their profits. In return, Government gets to pose as a protector of the environment and landowners and energy companies can soak up the public's money.
The parallels with earlier forms of the established church and the landed aristocracy are hard to avoid.
Of particular note to those who find themselves able to enjoy the near-farcical levels of Doomsday Prophesying are the page of the Guardian, wherein one can enjoy the prognostications of any number of latter day Jeremiads. In October 2013, it seems that any sense of self-parody or caution has entirely fled the coop - with one commentator breathlessly telling the paper's readership that:
"The worst that could happen? Your grandchildren will inherit inexorably rising temperatures that render much of the Earth uninhabitable."
Notes from the 1974 report highlighting then-current weather events that were blamed on global cooling.
The cover of the 1974 report by the US Senate Subcommittee on Climate Change
Much of the reporting on climate change is a one-way avalanche in which scientists admit to being wrong about climate change - but only ever in that things are even worse than their previous prophecies. It is doubtful whether this constant inflation of claims is helping to persuade the public about their case.
Further reading and recommended books
The rich West is ruining our planet The industrialised economies have created climate change, but the poorest are paying the price for it. We must do more to help [Daily Telegraph]
Climate change: a survivors' guide The worst that could happen? Your grandchildren will inherit inexorably rising temperatures that render much of the Earth uninhabitable. Their problem? Yes, but yours, too. [Gaurdian]