The murderous group of fanatical thugs which is ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has done the world a favour, albeit inadvertently. It has killed stony cold dead the nonsensical claim that climate change is the “world’s greatest moral challenge”.
We haven’t heard much about the ethics of bad weather lately. But only a few years ago, our responsibility for the planet dominated ethical discourse. In 2007 former US vice-president Al Gore received a Nobel Peace Prize – basically for a PowerPoint presentation on global warming. He was jetting around the globe, preaching at revival meetings that governments must act to reduce carbon emissions. Here’s his message to all of us sinners in the hands of an angry God in his Nobel acceptance speech.
“We, the human species, are confronting a planetary emergency – a threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential even as we gather here. But there is hopeful news as well: we have the ability to solve this crisis and avoid the worst – though not all – of its consequences, if we act boldly, decisively and quickly.”
If we could beat climate change, Gore contended, the world’s other great problems would be solved as well.
“By facing and removing the danger of the climate crisis, we have the opportunity to gain the moral authority and vision to vastly increase our own capacity to solve other crises that have been too long ignored. We must understand the connections between the climate crisis and the afflictions of poverty, hunger, HIV-Aids and other pandemics. As these problems are linked, so too must be their solutions. We must begin by making the common rescue of the global environment the central organizing principle of the world community.”
Only a few years have passed and this already has a musty feel to it. The latest Pew Research Center poll shows that 71 percent of Americans view Islamic extremist groups as a major threat to US well-being; only 48 percent believe that climate change is.
To the best of my knowledge, the Islamic State has not released the details of its climate change policy yet, but it is unlikely to regard it as “the central organizing principle of the world community”. This bit of Pollyanna fantasising, which was patently absurd in 2007, looks positively looney now.
If global warming were reversed tomorrow, would ISIS be any less lethal? Its plans to establish a caliphate and to slaughter non-believing photographers with blunt knives would remain unchanged. It might even make its self-appointed task of converting the kafir a bit easier.
Why is climate change no longer the “greatest moral challenge of our generation” as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, an admirer of Gore, used to say?
When Gore launched his great awakening, after his defeat in the 2000 US presidential election, it was still possible to believe in “the end of history”, in the famous words of political scientist Francis Fukuyama. Liberal democracy and capitalism had overcome the challenge of Communism and were clearly the best ways of organising society. Politically, it was “mission accomplished”; all that remained was to water the green shoots of freedom and democracy in the Middle East and a few other obscure places. Ideology was dead. From now on politics would be boring.
But that is not what happened. Instead, 9/11 happened. Al-Qaeda happened. ISIS happened. What this savage group represents is the revival of a very different political vision: totalitarian Islam. It is resolutely opposed to poisonous concepts like democracy and political and religious liberty which are the foundation of Western culture.
And other Balrogs with scourges of fire are stirring in the depths. Russia has begun to reassert its imperial destiny to control the countries on its border. The quick war in Georgia and the current conflict in Ukraine show that history is far from over. If Ukraine once again becomes a Russian fiefdom, what comes next? With his hand on the stopcock to Europe’s natural gas supplies, Vladimir Putin threatens the stability of all the liberties achieved since the end of the Cold War.
North Korea is as deranged as ever and could somehow spark a confrontation between China and the US. Iran is surly and unpredictable. A prickly, nationalist, nuclear-armed India faces a chaotic, paranoid, nuclear-armed Pakistan.
So politics has once again resumed its urgency. And Al Gore’s Sturm und Drang about the moral importance of climate change has been exposed for what it is: navel-gazing by Western elites who wanted to evade the really intractable issues.
Global warming may be real and governments and economies may have to adjust to climate change. But it is essentially a technological problem with a technical solution which doesn't call for much moral insight. Political conflict over radically different views of the just society creates infinitely more complex problems. Melting glaciers and drowning polar bears are piddling issues compared to the political threats the world faces at the moment. Sorry, Al, the world has moved on.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet, from where this article is adapted.