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20.3.12

The false religion of climate change denial

I find it ironic that Rick Santorum has tried to accuse Barack Obama of following a false religion on the basis of Obama's environmentalist efforts. While I have my criticisms of Obama's environmental policies, Santorum's own views on environmental issues reflect some of the worst traits of religion.

In explaining his disbelief in climate change, Santorum recently said "The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is." This is a revealing statement on several levels. First off, it's transparently wrong. Nobody who has even a passing acquaintance with the climate change issue, regardless of their view of the science, could confuse plants' use of CO2 in photosynthesis with CO2's effects on the heat retention properties of the atmosphere. It's possible that Santorum just really is that ignorant -- after all, another one of his big campaign trail claims has been to trash higher education as mere liberal indoctrination. But I wonder if this might not also be a sort of test of faith. Religions and religion-like ideologies frequently ask their adherents to profess sincere belief in obviously ludicrous propositions -- Satanic conspiracies, transubstantiation, Lysenkoism, Kim Jong-Il's golf prowess. Doing so is a way of demonstrating your loyalty, showing that you will back the cause even when it is flatly at odds with reality. Not all skepticism about the reality of anthropogenic climate change is of this nature, but it seems like a reasonable explanation for patently ridiculous arguments like "tell that to a plant."

The specific content of Santorum's ludicrous claim is interesting as well. It's based on a black-and-white model of the world. Either CO2 is a dangerous thing or it's a benign thing. If plants need CO2, then more CO2 is always a good thing -- "the dose makes the poison" is not a factor. This too represents a common issue in religion, specifically the dichotomy of purity and profanity. Foods, places, and activities are deemed clean or unclean. People are saved or sinners. And so likewise atmospheric gases are good or bad.

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