While Canada burns, Cornwall and Heartland say nothing to worry about. Meantime, in just one week…

by Paul Braterman

Wildfire south of Lillooet, British Columbia. Reuters handout via Al Jazeera, July 17

Within a single week, the raging Canadian wildfires have provoked opposite reactions from different wings of US evangelism, both claiming that their position is based on Genesis, with The Atlantic reporting on the churches’ deep political divisions. Statistical analysis confirms (is anyone surprised?) that July’s unusual heatwave across the northern hemisphere is almost certainly linked to human-caused climate change, which has also caused serious water shortfalls and aridification in the Colorado River basin, and is destabilising the North Atlantic system of currents on which the UK and northern Europe indirectly rely to keep Arctic weather at bay. Meanwhile, the fallout from the unexpected result of a by-election in a London suburb has exposed the dangerous vulnerability of climate policy to political disruption.

The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Nature, channelling the Heartland Institute, tells us (July 19, 2023) that we are mistaken in associating Canada’s wildfires with global warming, assuring us that “[t]he truth is hard data, as opposed to climate model-generated speculation, belies [sic] the link between climate change wildfires and the recent heatwave.” If news outlets say otherwise, that is either the result of ignorance, or, worse, because they are “in the bag of climate alarmism”. Wildfires happen every year anyway, smoke darkening the skies over the US Atlantic seacoast is not unprecedented (the article quotes a total of nine precedents in the last 300 years), and New Yorkers are only seeing the smoke because of the way the wind happens to be blowing. The actual causes of the fires include inadequate management, as well as “short-term weather conditions such as a drought in some regions, less winter snowfall and warmer temperatures,” as if these had nothing to do with global warming. And ruling out “model-generated speculation,” reasonable though it may sound, would make scientific explanation impossible in any area, since explanation always involves comparison of observations with a model.

Heartland, in a July 21 video presentation hosted by Anthony Watts on its Stopping Socialism TV channel, tells us that “If you turned the news on this last week, you’d probably think parts of the Earth are literally on fire. The corporate media continues pushing the narrative that temperatures are the highest ever, but it’s simply not true.” For good measure, the presentation goes on to tell us that health concerns about particulates from the smoke are greatly exaggerated.

Anyone interested in the climate disinformation industry will be familiar with the name of Watts, whose Watts Up With That? is among the world’s most popular websites. Watts is an equal opportunity climate change denialist, having at various times rejected claims that the climate is warming, that human activity has anything to do with it, or that it is in any way harmful. I even recall seeing him giving prominence to a claim that atmospheric CO2 hasn’t really increased since the 1800s, citing obviously inaccurate Victorian data.

As my regular readers will know, the Cornwall Alliance bases its positions on the Bible, and in particular on the verses in Genesis that give Adam dominion over nature. The inference is that natural resources are there for us to use, so that leaving fossil fuels in the ground would be a refusal to take full advantage of God’s bounty. Cornwall has strong links with Answers in Genesis, as well as with the Heartland Institute, as this example shows, and through Heartland with the Heritage Foundation, one of the most influential of established US conservative think tanks, with an annual revenue in 2018 of more than $86 million. So we are not looking at the lunatic fringe here, but at major players whose influence goes to the heart of American politics.

Heartland’s belittling of the health dangers of particulates may have been triggered by a strongly contrasting piece (July 17) from the Evangelical Environmental Network, with the title Why is It So Hazy Out? Climate Change, Wildfires, and How You Can Respond. This 800-word article, rich in links to the underlying health research, describes the dangers of particulate inhalation, which “contributes to shorter lifespans, dementia, autism, and ADHD. Pregnant women and their babies are also at heightened risks of low birth weight, preterm birth, and infant mortality due to this pollution.”

The connection to global warming is spelt out, with practical advice about how individuals can reduce their own carbon footprints, and a plea, also invoking Genesis, to take care of what has been entrusted to us.

We see here a deep schism within US Evangelical Christianity. The Cornwall Alliance only acquired its present name in 2006, but its roots can be traced back to 2000. It was launched in specific opposition to the National Association of Evangelicals’ Climate Initiative. The Association is deeply concerned about climate change, and especially its impact on the poor.

In recent years, this schism has widened. Within the churches, the emergence of the cult of Trump has led to a breakdown of civility. Now even theologically conservative leading figures find themselves accused of wokeness, being social justice warriors, and promoting critical race theory, to the point where some no longer feel themselves at home in their own church. Here the churches are reflecting, and contributing to, deeper conflicts within American society. It is worth remembering that Franklin Graham was among the first to endorse Donald Trump in his 2016 presidential nomination bid.

But back to the wildfires. On 18th July, the New York Times told us that Canada’s wildfires have eclipsed previous records, even though the fire season still has a month to run. Canada has warmed twice as fast as a planet as a whole, with loss of ice and snow contributing to greater absorption of solar energy, and this fire season has been quite unusual, not only in its early start, but in how widespread it is. Extreme heat on the other side of the Atlantic has also led to wildfires on the island of Rhodes, a popular holiday destination, and we have the ironic spectacle of UK holidaymakers being airlifted home, while the cheap night flights that took them to Rhodes will have contributed to global warming (night flights are cheaper for obvious reasons, and more damaging than daytime flights because while their vapour trails are keeping heat in, there is no solar input for them to keep out. Disclosure; I have often taken such flights from Scotland to the Mediterranean myself, without a second thought.)

Even the London Daily Telegraph, a right-of-centre newspaper that at one time gave a platform to the extreme denialist James Dellingpole, now tells us that the Mediterranean heatwave responsible for the fires in Greece is “the latest clear sign of an impending climate catastrophe.” As for the argument that there have been extreme fire seasons in the past, a detailed analysis published by Imperial College London (short synopsis here and analysis by New York Times here) shows that the coincidence of such record hot weather across North America, Europe, and China would have been almost impossible without global warming.

In other climate news, Nature Communications warns (July 25) of the present weakening and potential collapse within decades of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, weakening the Gulf Stream-North Atlantic current system that protects northern Europe from freezing. The Hill, an American political newspaper whose name is a reference to Capitol Hill, reported on a study showing that the loss of water from the Colorado Basin in the past two decades adds up to the capacity of Lake Mead. This despite the fact, much quoted by climate change denialists, that warmer weather and higher CO2 concentrations cause plants  to shrink the openings in their leaves, thus slowing down respiration.

Meanwhile, the fallout from a freak parliamentary by-election result (July 20), in the suburban London constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, shows the vulnerability of climate policy measures to political opposition. The freak result was that the Conservative government narrowly held the seat, made vacant by Boris Johnson’s resignation, with a swing against them of “only” around 7%, while other by-elections on the same day showed swings of 20% and higher. The successful candidate ran on a policy of opposition to the pending expansion of ULEZ, London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone, from central London to the suburbs, proposed by the highly popular Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. ULEZ demands that vehicles meet standards laid down for emissions, and the policy is thought to have been responsible for saving around 4000 lives a year by reducing air-borne particulates.

No matter that the issue is one for local government, rather than for Parliament anyway. Nor that the ULEZ policy was first introduced, in central London, by no other than Boris Johnson, when he was Mayor. No matter either that the expansion was a bipartisan policy, urged on Khan in 2020 by Grant Shapps, then UK Transport Secretary and now Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, no matter that exemptions are available for special cases (such as some vehicles operated by charities), and no matter that virtually all petrol vehicles registered since 2006, and diesel vehicles registered since 2015, meet the required standards. Labour appears to have been blindsided by the tactic, with canvassers reporting voters with electric vehicles in their driveways concerned about how they would be affected.

One would have hoped that the leader of the Labour Party would at this point have stepped in to point out the advantages of the extension. That is not Keir Starmer’s style; instead, he asked Khan to “reflect”, because the issue could be exploited by the Conservatives in the next general election. But Sadiq Khan has stood his ground and also overcome a legal challenge from Conservative-controlled London boroughs. So the extension will presumably be coming into force at the end of August as planned. But it may now be unwise to presume anything.

On Saturday, the headline in the left-of-centre Guardian’s print edition was “Don’t abandon clean air policies, warn scientists.” But that is only one small part of what is at stake. There is a small but vocal and well-organised group of Conservative MPs, led by former minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, opposed to any serious action on the environment (Rees-Mogg, incidentally, backed Trump in the 2016 election). A senior minister, Michael Gove, had called on July 22, two days after the by-election, for a relaxation of green policies during the current economic crisis (in the UK, when is there not a current economic crisis?) As for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, he has said since the by-election that his approach to the U.K.’s 2050 zero emissions target will be a “proportionate and pragmatic” course that “doesn’t unnecessarily give people more hassle and more costs in their lives,” and the implied threat to conservation policies has already led a coalition of concerned organisations, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the World Wildlife Fund (whose environmental concerns featured in an earlier column here), the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals, and the National Trust to write to the Prime Minister expressing their concerns. On Saturday evening, the Daily Telegraph reported that Chris Stark, the chief executive of the Parliamentary climate change committee, along with more than 40 Conservative MPs and peers, want to push back the 2030 date set to phase out new petrol car sales in the UK, because of costs to motorists. It was reported on Sunday that at least for now the Prime Minister is resisting this pressure, although the Telegraph‘s front page was dedicated to his declaration that he is on the motorists’ side, and ordering a review of anti-car schemes. And today, Sunak has announced hundreds of new oil and gas licenses for the North Sea, citing the need for energy security.

We know that Net Zero by 2050 will only slow down global warming, since the warming is taking place even at present CO2 levels. We know that the commitments made towards achieving Net Zero are inadequate, and unlikely to be honoured. And we know that what is happening at present is a mere foretaste of what is now in store for our children and grandchildren.

And Margaret Thatcher was already urging action to control global warming in 1990.