In 15th-century Peru, we learnt, children were sacrificed to propitiate the Chimu gods in an attempt to end natural disasters caused by the climatic phenomenon we now call, appropriately enough, El Niño.
In our time the roles have been reversed. Now children warning of an impending climate catastrophe are the ones that have to be propitiated. Now it is they who demand sacrifices.
The arrival of Greta Thunberg in New York was one of many recent events that illustrate how rapidly modern environmentalism is degenerating into a millenarian cult.
Greta, 16, is in New York at the invitation of the United Nations, having already established herself as a public figure in Europe by leading mass truancies to protest against climate change (“Fridays for Future”). Rather than flying, she sailed across the Atlantic in an “emissions-free yacht” to spare the Earth’s atmosphere the exhaust from a plane that was flying to New York anyway, with or without her.
“Just before 3pm,” reported The New York Times, “a shout went up from those waiting in the intermittent light rain to greet her . . . most of them young activists. The boat’s black sails had come into sight just blocks from Wall Street, the heart of the global financial system whose investments in fossil fuels are one of the main targets of climate protesters.”
Amid the drizzle, the bankers cowered before the wrath of Greta. From the headquarters of the once-mighty Goldman Sachs came the feeble tweet: “We’re committed to helping win the race and proud to welcome @GretaThunberg to New York.” They’ll be sacrificing the oil company accounts on Tuesday.
“Sea levels are rising and so are we!” the young activists chanted, according to the priceless Times report. Once safely ashore in Manhattan, Greta lost no time in urging Donald Trump “just to listen to the science, [as] he obviously doesn’t do that”.
Science. Or perhaps science fiction. There is at first something unnervingly reminiscent of John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos about Greta. The pigtails. The unsmiling stare. But then you learn that she has struggled with mental health conditions, including high-functioning autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. This makes it hard to criticise her.
Yet what does it tell us about our world that Greta is about to add the UN general assembly to the list of august bodies she has addressed in the past year, after the Pope, the World Economic Forum and the European parliament? “I want you to panic,” she said at Davos in January. “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.” That is not the voice of science. It is the voice of a millenarian cult leader.
The end of the world is not nigh, however.
Now, I am not about to deny that climate change is happening or that global warming is going to have adverse effects in the foreseeable future. Not even Bjorn Lomborg, the sceptical Danish economist, says that. The point, as he argued in a recent, brilliant presentation at the Hoover Institution, is that — as in the past — we humans are capable of adapting to climate change in ways that can significantly mitigate its adverse effects.
It would be foolish to do nothing to prepare for a warmer planet. But it would be more foolish to pretend that we are doing something that will significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions when we are not.