Killing goats to appease the climate gods: Negative framing of climate science as religious faith - International ...

Killing goats to appease the climate gods: Negative
framing of climate science as religious faith
Myra Gurney
Western Sydney University –

In an increasingly toxic and fractious Australian political debate, many self-labeled political and media
‘climate sceptics’ repeatedly resort to religious metaphors to rhetorically frame their attacks on climate
science and on advocates of carbon reduction policies. While the ideological wellsprings of climate
change denialism have been well researched (Campbell & Kay, 2014; Carvalho, 2007; Fielding, Head,
Laffan, Western, & Hoegh-Guldberg, 2012; Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Smith, 2010), the
common discursive conflation of climate science ‘scepticism’ and the rhetorical pejorative of religious
‘faith’ remains a curious and paradoxical anomaly. This paper examines speeches by key Australian
public figures to explore the manner in which politicians and conservative media commentators use
language borrowed from religion, theology and morality as a rhetorical vehicle through which to
construct doubt about the veracity of scientific evidence and to cast aspersions on the authority of
scientists. It then reflects on the broader historical connections between environmental advocacy and
the tenets of religious faith and the extent to which current politically-centred sceptical discourse
accurately reflects this relationship.

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Since July 2007 when soon-to-be prime minister Kevin Rudd flagged climate change as ‘the great
moral challenge of our generation’ (Rudd, 2007), climate change policy has been central to the political
disruption and ideological discord in Australia which has resulted in the historically unprecedented
removal of four sitting prime ministers, including Rudd himself. Rudd’s rhetorical call-to-arms in his
speech to the 2007 National Climate Change Summit tapped into the prevailing zeitgeist by invoking
the importance of the moral and ethical dimensions of pursuing substantive and unilateral government
action to address climate change. That speech, as noted elsewhere (Gurney, 2013), was largely
couched in an evangelical style of language that frequently adopted religious metaphors and biblical
tropes to remind Australians of their responsibilities as stewards of God’s creation and of their moral
obligation for intergenerational equity.

Since then, successive Australian government attempts at delivering environmental reforms have been
frustrated by a noisy, largely ideologically-driven and politically conservative rearguard action, much of
which has pivoted around proponents’ self-labelled ‘scepticism’ of the efficacy of climate science,
perceived threats to the economic status quo of moving to low emissions electricity generation, and
threats to the freedom of speech of those who contest the implications of what has been labelled the
‘scientific orthodoxy’. Many within this group regularly refer to acceptance of the implications of climate
science as a ‘faith’ and accuse environmental advocates of conducting a ‘crusade’, of acting like
‘doomsayers’, ‘zealots’, ‘cultists’ and ‘eco-fundamentalists’ and of treating those who challenge the so-
called ‘orthodoxy’ of science as ‘heretics’1. Climate change activists have been accused of fomenting
an ‘apocalyptic’ narrative for a range of political and ideological purposes that would undermine
economic prosperity, impugn personal freedoms and cast humankind back to the Stone Age
(Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac, 2012; Moo, 2015). In a study of the use of religious metaphors to
denigrate climate science in UK newspapers between 2003-2008, Woods et al. (2012) concluded that
while religious metaphors were common in newspaper coverage of climate change, they were
significantly more likely to be used to undermine the scientific status of climate science and its
implications. While the ideological wellsprings of climate change denialism have been well researched
(Campbell & Kay, 2014; Carvalho, 2007; Fielding, Head, Laffan, Western, & Hoegh-Guldberg, 2012;
Hornsey, Harris, & Fielding, 2018; Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Smith, 2010), a curious and
paradoxical anomaly is the oft-repeated discursive conflation of advocacy of the consensus of climate
science and support for scientifically-backed policy and the rhetorical pejorative of religious ‘faith’ where
this is negatively framed as akin to religious zealotry. With respect to the US experience, Dr Katharine
Hayhoe, the director of Texas Tech University’s Climate Science Centre and an author of the most
recent US National Climate Assessment, noted that ‘very cleverly, this issue of climate change has
been framed as one of false prophets versus true believers’ (Bruinius & Paulson, 2017).

As a rhetorical trope, the two positions seem anomalous – but are they? Extending the discussion of
the findings of an Australian case study in media-based climate scepticism (Gurney, 2017), this paper
examines speeches made to the UK-based, climate sceptic think tank ‘The Global Warming Policy

  I have not referenced individual examples, but most were found in my exploration of the blogs and columns of prominent
conservative News Limited columnist, and self-labelled ‘sceptic’, Andrew Bolt (Gurney, 2017) whose fixation with climate
change was described by one commentator as a form of ‘religious fanaticism’ (Mayne, 2015). Examples are also widely cited
in the study by Woods et al. (2012).

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Foundation’ (GWPF, 2018)2 by two prominent Australian public figures: Cardinal George Pell, former
Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne (1996-2001) and Sydney (2001-2014), and former senior
representative to the Vatican, and former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott (2013-2015). Both have
played a significant role in climate change politics in Australia. My particular interest is how the
speakers rhetorically employ the concept of ‘faith’ and other language normally found in religious
discourse, to cast aspersions on climate science and climate scientists and to demonise environmental
advocates by casting scientific evidence as tainted and advocacy of the implications of unrestrained
global warming as ideologically and politically motivated. In the second part of the paper, I will reflect on
the broader connections between science, environmental advocacy and the tenets of religious faith and
the extent to which current ideologically and politically-centred sceptical discourse accurately reflects
this relationship.

The role of linguistic frames and metaphors in politically motivated climate ‘scepticism’
I have argued previously that within the climate change ‘debate’ in Australia, the mantle of ‘scepticism’
has been rhetorically appropriated by many who, for ideological rather than genuine epistemological
reasons, have sought to create political roadblocks to the introduction of greenhouse gas mitigation
policies. In a case study which analysed a large corpus of the newspaper columns of Australian tabloid
columnist and well-known climate sceptic Andrew Bolt (Gurney, 2017), ‘faith’ is a recurring and
dominant linguistic motif. Close examination of the discursive construction of Bolt’s writing
demonstrated the manner in which he adopts particular rhetorical strategies to negatively frame climate
science, scientists, politicians and those advocating environmental action. In particular, the analysis
identifies the close negative conflation of concepts of ‘faith’ and ‘science’ and the manner in which Bolt
repeatedly uses religious metaphors pejoratively as part of his rhetorical arsenal.

The role of linguistic frames is important here. Frames work to focus ways of thinking about a subject
as well as to hide or deflect other perspectives by guiding the cognition of the reader or listener
(Entman, 2003; Fillmore, 1976; Nisbet, 2009). All communication is framed in one way or another,
either consciously or unconsciously, and audiences use frames as ‘interpretative shortcuts’ that they

    … with preexisting interpretations forged through personal experience partisanship, ideology, social
    identity or conversations with others (Nisbet, 2009, p. 17).

George Lakoff (2010) contends that the constant repetition of particular frames, acts to neurally embed
them within the brain’s linguistic circuitry to the point that they become the ‘normalised’ way of thinking
and speaking about an issue. When activated, these filter our understanding of an issue and evoke
emotions and cognitions that make competing arguments or paradigms hard to move beyond. The
impact, he asserts, is that the evidence of climate science and the perils of global warming will often go
unheeded or dismissed. For example, the dominant neoliberal ‘let the market decide’ ideology which

  According to their webpage, the GWPF is ‘in no sense “anti-environmental”’ but their ‘concern is solely with the possible
effects of any future global warming and the policy responses that they may evoke’ (GWPF, 2018, ‘About us’). However, the
foundation is headed by former UK chancellor, and well-known climate sceptic, Lord Nigel Lawson and many of its prominent
members are known for promoting climate change denial (DeSmog Blog, 2018). According to director Dr Benny Peiser, the
Foundation seeks to proffer the argument that ‘Britain’s unilateral climate policy is indefensible, both socially and economically
…’ (Welcome address, Pell, 2011, p. 3).

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frames the market as both natural and moral, inhibits the ability of many to think beyond its premises,
approaches and environmental consequences (2010, p. 74).

As noted, many self-labelled ‘climate sceptics’ regularly use religious metaphors as part of their
rhetorical arsenal. As defined by Lakoff and Johnson (1980, p. 5), ‘the essence of a metaphor is
understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another’. It is a way of simplifying a
complex concept by relating it to one with which the audience is more familiar. A metaphor operates
linguistically to subtly shift or activate within the audience existing or deeply embedded neural
connections or frames and their attendant emotions or cognitions (Lakoff, 2009). Different metaphors
will accentuate or diminish different features and their repetition within a particular discourse will act to
reinforce and normalise particular ways of thinking. Edelman (1971) notes that:

    Each metaphor can be a subtle way of highlighting what one wants to believe and avoiding what one
    does not want to face (cited by Mio, 1997, p. 114).

In the case of climate change mitigation, a strategic choice of linguistic frame can work rhetorically to
position it as a political and ideological belief, rather than as a scientific issue by creating a false binary
of ‘believers’ versus ‘non-believers’ usually positioned along well-worn partisan lines of ‘left’ and ‘right’
with all the accompanying political and ideological baggage. Framing scientists as political agents has
been shown to be a consistent tactic of climate change denialism (Farmer & Cook, 2013; Painter, 2011)
and this has acted to cast doubt on the efficacy of the science and the authority of scientific expertise
without the need to engage in the substance of the evidence. Appropriating religious metaphors and
biblical allusions as part of this strategic arsenal is an extension of this tactic as the following case
studies will explore.

Case 1: Cardinal George Pell – ‘One Christian Perspective on Climate Change’ (2011)
George Pell’s speech to the GWPF in October 2011 is interesting from a number of perspectives. Until
recently3, Pell was regularly touted in the media as ‘Australia’s most senior Catholic’, but with respect to
the authority of his views on climate science or the attendant politics, he is neither a scientist, nor a
politician. Pell’s Wikipedia (2019) page says that ‘since becoming Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, he
has maintained a high public profile on a range of issues, while retaining a strict adherence to Catholic
orthodoxy’. In an essay which examines the clergyman’s role in the scandal surrounding the cover-up
of paedophile priests in Victoria, David Marr (2013) notes Pell’s early attraction to the teachings of B.A.
Santamaria, the conservative Catholic, rabid anti-communist political activist whose followers were
central to the great Australian Labor Party (ALP) split of 1954 at the height of the Cold War. Santamaria
saw the ancient traditions of the Catholic Church as a bulwark against a tide of liberalism which he
believed would ultimately undermine Western civilisation. Marr comments:

    Later, when that curse [communism] was defeated, it transpired that something just as sinister lay
    behind its mask: secular liberalism, which had been allowed to take root not only in the world, but in
    the church. … Santamaria instilled in his followers a habit of discovering everywhere in the world
    around them a contest between the forces of good and evil (2013, p. 10).

 In December 2018, Pell was found guilty of historical child sex abuse and sentenced to six years in prison. He is currently
appealing the conviction. Prior to that, his views on a range of social matters were regularly sought.

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According to Marr, Pell’s doctoral studies at Oxford:

   … marked him for life not as a theologian, but a historian of the church. He knows theology of course,
   but he bought to the controversies of his career the conviction that the beliefs and practices of the
   church were right because they were old (2013, p. 13-14).

Pell’s views on the science of global warming from a theological perspective could therefore be read as
an extension of his broader philosophical views about the need to reassert the place of conservative
traditions in religion, politics and society generally. These are useful perspectives from which to
consider his use of language and choice of examples in this speech, in particular, his musings on public
policy and the science of climate change.

Although Pell has no formal scientific qualifications, it is initially notable that the speech goes to
considerable length to address various aspects of the scientific debate around climate change including
the validity of climate models, the culpability of sunspots and volcanic emissions and the benign impact
of CO2 concentrations. As with many others who have addressed this forum, Pell approvingly
references the views of a range of well-known climate denialists including scientists Bob Carter and Ian
Plimer as well as journalist and conservative UK politician, Christopher Monckton. He also cites a range
of conspiracy theories and misinformation in support of his arguments. When the speech was first
delivered, a number of leading climate researchers published a scathing response, describing it ‘as
“dreadful”, “utter rubbish” and “flawed”’ (Readfearn, 2011).

In the welcome address, foundation chairman Dr Benny Peiser, argued that Pell’s views as a prominent
Catholic represent an important, alternative perspective because for too long, ‘[t]he Churches have
tended to follow climate alarmism with uncritical enthusiasm …’ (p. 4). It should be noted Pell’s views
rejecting the science of global warming are do not accord with those espoused by the Catholic Church
nor mainstream Christian social teaching and are at odds with both the Pontifical Academy of Sciences
(Ajai et al., 2011) as well as Pope Francis’ (2015) Encyclical Laudato si, both of which emphasise the
ethical importance of human stewardship over the environment, a point that will be explored later.

Pell says that his interest in the topic was first piqued ‘in the 1990s when studying the anti-human
claims of the “deep Greens”’ (p. 10, my italics). His views are proffered in the interests of ‘an appeal to
reason and evidence’ based on a legitimate challenge to those who subvert freedom of speech by
appealing to dubious scientific authority. He argues:

   Mine is not an appeal to the authority of any religious truth in the face of contrary evidence. Neither is
   it even remotely tinged by a post-modernist hostility to rationality. … My appeal is to reason and
   evidence and in my view the evidence is insufficient to achieve practical certainty on many of these
   scientific issues. Much less is there validation to justify huge public expenditure on these phantoms (p.

While the bulk of the speech echoes standard contrarian arguments (e.g. see Cook & Lewandowsky,
2012; Farmer & Cook, 2013), Pell opens by citing the Genesis story of the tower of Babel, built by men
in the wake of the Flood as a way to circumvent any further harsh Divine judgement. God punishes
their impertinence by removing their common language, halting the building of the tower and scattering
men to the four corners of the earth because they can no longer communicate in a common tongue.
Pell argues that like the Ark, the tower of Babel has become a metaphor for a misguided attempt to
project human imperium over nature, an ‘alternative [symbol] of our attempts to survive or perhaps
escape from our natural predicaments’ (p. 6). Similarly, in agitating for emissions reductions, the

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scientists of the IPCC are seeking to transcend God’s divine purpose and to circumvent the ordained
natural order:

   We should ask whether our attempts at global climate control are within human capacity, (that is, the
   projected human imperium); or on the other hand, are likely to be as misdirected and ineffective as the
   construction of the famous tower in the temple of Marduk, Babylon’s chief god’ (p. 7).

The actions of those seeking to motivate action to restrain global temperatures, rising sea levels and
melting ice caps are framed as heretical attempts to subvert God’s will, an endeavour as futile as that of
King Canute. What this argument conveniently ignores, however, is that the unrestrained burning of
fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution is a manmade rather than natural occurrence. The
Anthropocene has seen humans become agents of our own geological destiny to the extent that we
have entered what Donner (2007) labelled ‘the domain of the gods’– an infinite and transcendent
system beyond human control, distinct and separate from humans and their earthly activities. Similarly,
McKibben (2006, p. 66) noted that by virtue of the impact of our actions, humans ‘exhibit a kind of
power thought in the past to be divine’. Accepting human culpability for climate change, it has been
argued, necessitates a reframing of this power relationship, requiring a difficult psychological, and for
some, philosophical and theological, mind shift (Chakrabarty, 2009; Donner, 2007).

The wellspring of Pell’s views extends beyond theology and appears to be couched in both politics and
ideology. While he acknowledges that ‘climate change is not a religious question or problem’, like many
Biblical sinners, ‘we will pay for our excesses’ (p. 8). Just as the heretics of Babel lost their language as
a consequence of their impertinence, modern environmental ‘heretics’ will equally suffer the ‘moral’
consequences of trying to subvert God’s will by invoking economic harms for little benefit. He asks,
‘where does scientific striving become uneconomic, immoral or ineffectual and so lapse into hubris?’ (p.
7). The ‘moral’ consequences to which he refers are the argued economic costs that will ‘trickle down to
the end users’ (p. 32) for no discernible environmental impact. The use of the phrase ‘trickle down’ is
instructive as is the conflation of environmental advocacy over economic rationalism as ‘heretical’.
Those exhorting radical climate action are accused of being struck by ‘the religious gene’, regressing
into ‘pseudo-religion or rudimentary semi-religious enthusiasms’ (p. 31) notable for their ‘totalitarian
approach to opposing views’ (p. 19) and their adoption of the language of ‘primitive religious
controversy’ (p. 20) replete with a ‘dash of the apocalyptic’ (p. 21).

   The immense financial costs true-believers would impose on economies can be compared with the
   sacrifices offered traditionally in religion, and the sale of carbon credits with the pre-Reformation
   practice of selling indulgences. Some of those campaigning to save the planet are not merely zealous
   but zealots. To the religionless and spiritually rootless, mythology – whether comforting or
   discomforting – can be magnetically, even pathologically, attractive (p. 21). [my italics]

The argument being made is essentially an ideological couched within a particular view of the
relationship between humans and nature, especially a belief in human exceptionalism as divinely
ordained: from this perspective, climate change is a religious and moral question, one that is
constrained within a specific definition of morality and within a specific economic and ideological

The framing of environmentalists as ‘anti-human’ is interesting. It exemplifies what Lacey (2011) notes
is a difference between an ‘organic’ and ‘mechanistic’ view of the natural world, God’s purpose and
man’s relationship and responsibilities with respect to His creation. In the mechanistic view, the earth is
a resource created for humans to exploit for their own ends and meaning and value are primarily

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derived and measured via this metric. Within worldview, unrestrained economic growth are a measure
of both exemplary Christian values and moral piety (a point noted in Lakoff’s (2010) discussion of the
difference between ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ moral frames). The alternate ‘organic’ view has a long
theological tradition where nature is valued not merely for its economic utility but for its intrinsic value.
All species, plants and ecosystems are viewed as part of God’s creation which Man has a moral duty to
protect as His steward. Their ‘value’ transcends measurement by economic indices.

In Pell’s account, environmentalists are framed as ‘spiritually rootless’ heretics pursuing a cause in the
manner of pagans whose beliefs and rituals are irrational and at odds with modernity and scientific
reason. The argument here is that ‘saving the planet’ is somehow the act of those seeking spiritual
affirmation via alternative, non-Christian, beliefs and actions. By expressing a scientific and political
opinion and a ‘mechanistic’ view of nature wrapped in the guise of a theological position, the Cardinal
seeks to give his views authority and to deride alternate views as morally suspect and spiritually vacant.
Additionally, as with other climate change contrarians, non-scientific challenges to the implications of
climate science are framed as a perversion of the freedom of speech by those ‘members of the global
warming cult’ Andrew Bolt (2013) has labelled as ‘closet totalitarians and salvation seekers’. In other
accounts, our carbon footprints have become ‘the original sin of our age’ (Bruckner, 2013, p. 2), and
pollution reducing behaviours have been described as akin to atonements, indulgences, self-flagellation
and hair shirts (Woods et al., 2012, p. 10).

But to what extent are these analogies consistent or even logical? The irony is that on one hand Pell
demands that the veracity of scientific views should be measured in terms of the strength of their
‘evidence’, while arguing that all views should carry equal weight by virtue of the speaker’s freedom of
speech regardless of their basis in fact or the qualification of the speaker to assess the veracity of the
evidence. This is compounded by the appropriation of Biblical tropes such as the Flood, King Canute
and the tower of Babel, all of which exemplify man’s ultimate powerlessness in the face of Divine

Case 2: Tony Abbott – Appeasing the volcano gods (2017)
Of all Australia’s prominent political figures, Tony Abbott’s role in the difficult evolution of Australia’s
climate policy has been the most profound. As a self-confessed ‘weathervane’ (Rodgers, 2009), Abbott
has held a range of positions on the issue of climate change (Hudson, 2017). While he was reportedly
instrumental in convincing John Howard to support an ETS prior to the 2007 federal election, Abbott
most famously later declared his belief that ‘climate change is absolute crap’ (Rintoul, 2009) and that
‘coal is good for humanity’ (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2014). After leading a party room
revolt against Malcolm Turnbull in September 2009 as Turnbull negotiated with the Rudd Labor
government to introduce an ETS, Abbott’s attack on the ‘great big new tax on everything’ was
phenomenally successful in 2013 in defeating Julia Gillard, Rudd’s successor as prime minister
(Gurney, 2014). Since being ousted himself as prime minister by Turnbull in September 2015, Abbott’s
insurgency from the backbench against the government’s revised energy policy, the National Energy
Guarantee (NEG), was cited as instrumental in Turnbull’s demise as prime minister in September 2018
(Murphy, 2018) – the sixth in six years. Post-coup, the NEG has been dropped as government policy.

Within this context, Abbott’s speech to the GWPF in October 2017 is instructive. He is a devout
Catholic and one-time seminarian (his political nickname is ‘the mad monk’). Like Pell, Abbott was also
a disciple of B.A. Santamaria and according to David Marr (2012):

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    He’s never lost the protégé’s sense of being on a mission, an essentially religious mission in a secular
    world. Western civilisation is in flux. … Extraordinary forces are in play. … From Santamaria he took
    values rather than policies, values and attitudes beyond the ordinary reach of conservatism in this
    country. He would emerge from the Santamaria years as a politician interrogating the drift of the world
    (p. 12).

Abbott’s positions on climate change, like those of Pell and his mentor, former prime minister John
Howard 4 , fit very much within this this particular nostalgic, conservative, ideological frame, and this is
borne out in the opening paragraphs of his speech.

    It would be wrong to underestimate the strengths of the contemporary West. By objective standards,
    people have never had better lives. Yet our phenomenal wealth and our scientific and technological
    achievements rest on values and principles that have rarely been more widely challenged.

    To a greater or lesser extent, in most Western countries, we can’t keep our borders secure; we can’t
    keep our industries intact; and we can’t preserve a moral order once taken for granted. Eventually,
    something will crystalise out of this age of disruption but in the meantime, we could be entering a
    period of national and even civilisational decline (p. 3).

Here, Abbott’s views of climate change policy and politics are articulated through this prism of a fear of
increasing secularism and declining reliance on longstanding conservative values and power structures
that have traditionally been informed by Christian scripture, including the myth of the Creation. He

    Climate change is by no means the sole or even the most significant symptom of the changing
    interests and values of the West. Still, only societies with high levels of cultural amnesia – that have
    forgotten the scriptures about man created ‘in the image and likeness of God’ and charged with
    ‘subduing the earth and all its creatures’ – could have made such a religion out of it (p. 4).

Religious devotion, or more likely Christian observance, therefore, is only useful in the service of man’s
continuing preeminence and in the interests of a constant search for ‘longer, safer, more comfortable
and more prosperous lives’, a quest that is threatened by ‘green activists whose ideal is an Amish
existence, only without reference to God’ (p. 5). Here, ‘green activists’ are characterised as anti-
modern, anti-tradition and most importantly anti-economy.

Like Pell, Abbott argues that scientists, or ‘the high priests of climate change’ (p. 6) who cite ‘the
science is settled’, are invoking ‘the spirit of the Inquisition, the thought-police down the ages’ (p. 5)
seeking to:

    … close down investigation by equating questioning with superstition. It’s an aspect of the wider
    weakening of the Western mind which poses such dangers to the world’s future (p. 5).

Presumably, the strength of the ‘Western mind’ is best shaped and measured by strong adherence to
selective conservative, Christian principles. Abbott continues with his own take on the scientific data

 Howard’s own speech to the GWPF was significantly titled ‘One religion is enough’ (Howard, 2013). He has repeatedly
described himself as being ‘agnostic’ on the subject of climate science.

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including a range of arguments that carbon dioxide, ‘far from being pollution, is actually essential for life
to exist’ (p. 5), that warming might be good for us as more people die in cold snaps than in heatwaves,
and that his own observations of the sea levels at his local Manly Beach in Sydney bear witness to the
paucity of the evidence.

While the substance of these arguments has been both critiqued (Readfearn, 2017) and pilloried
(McFadyen, 2017), the ideological roots of Abbott’s position are evident towards the end of his speech,
and once again are couched within a religious frame. With respect to his own role in the politics of
climate change, ‘in the longer term, we need less theology and more common sense about emissions
reduction. It matters, but not more than anything else’ (p. 9). Curiously, he adds that while:

   … [t]here’s a veneer of rational calculation to emissions reduction but underneath it’s about ‘doing the
   right thing’. Environmentalism has managed to combine a post-socialist instinct for big government
   with a post-Christian nostalgia for making sacrifices in a good cause. Primitive people once killed
   goats to appease the volcano gods. We’re more sophisticated now but are still sacrificing our
   industries and our living standards to the climate gods to little more effect (p. 10).

By this logic, ‘doing the right thing’ for the environment is ironically framed as somehow antithetical to
Christianity because it requires ‘post-socialist’-like government intervention. The moral and ethical
‘imperative’ which many argue should be central to decision making (Brown, 2013; Gardiner, 2011;
Hamilton, 2014), is narrowly framed in neo-liberal terms as concern for short-term living standards
nurtured by a belief in the primacy of the individual and the market. Sacrifices in living standards now in
the interests of the long-term survival of the human species are akin to the ‘irrational’ acts epitomised
by pagan rituals offering animal sacrifices to placate a retributive deity. In the end, these efforts are
futile and merely serve to salve the consciences of the spiritually rootless. The infusion of theology and
conservative economic worldview leads to a curious form of logic which justifies ignoring the potential
destruction of God’s creation.

What’s God got to do with it?: Christianity and climate change beliefs
While religious metaphors provide colour and vigor to political arguments, how effective are they as
rhetorical devices, and to what extent do they accurately reflect the position of mainstream religions
with respect to the imperative of dealing with climate change? As already noted, metaphors and their
attendant linguistic frames are cognitive markers that help construct and direct particular rhetorical
narratives. They are often strategically employed to distract readers’ attention without having to engage
with the specifics or details of an argument (Woods et al., 2012). They work linguistically by subtly
conceptualising one domain (science) in terms of another (religious faith), thus appropriating all the
attendant consciously and unconsciously held preconceptions, emotions and attached biases while
drawing on the traditional post-Enlightenment opposition between the two. In the examples discussed,
the speakers deliberately adopt religious metaphors to both overtly and covertly undermine the status
and authority of climate science by framing it as akin to irrational pagan beliefs and its proponents as
fundamentalists who uncritically accept the science without being genuinely open to conflicting
evidence. In both speeches, the two notions have been inverted in the specific rhetorical service of the
speakers’ political and ideological worldviews yet argued through the authority of their respective
religious positions.

The relationship between religious and scientific worldviews regarding human culpability for climate
change and responsibility for its mitigation, is not clear cut, and the role of religious institutions and
theological teachings in both furthering and impeding debate substantive political action has been

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argued from a range of perspectives. If faith is unquestioning belief of something that is ultimately
unprovable – Hebrews 11.1 defines faith as ‘being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do
not see’ – science by contrast has traditionally been framed as a discipline governed by systematic
approaches to the collection, testing, evaluation and interpretation of measurable data, the antithesis of
faith. Equally, religion is not a singular or monolithic concept and, according to Haluza-DeLay (2014),
incorporates a range of highly contested perspectives and praxis that provide alternative ways of
conceptualising the environment, and human interaction with it. These differing positions can both
motivate and empower environmental consciousness in dealing with significant issues such as climate
change, as well as create barriers to action.

While detailed exploration of eco-theology is beyond this study, the following overviews some of the
arguments. Historically, an important and contentious theological perspective was an essay by Lynn
White Jr. (1967) who argued that the ideological origins of our current ecological crisis can be found in
medieval Christian readings of Genesis 1 and the doctrine of the Creation. By creating humans in His
image as the pinnacle of God’s power, White argued that humans are directed to exercise dominion
over nature in order to serve God’s ordained purpose (1967, p. 1205). He cites Genesis 1.28 which

   And God said to them ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over
   the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.

The notion of ‘dominion’, according to some, implies ‘anthropocentrism’ or human exceptionalism,
which sets humans apart from, and above nature in God’s order. It infers that:

   … human beings, and human beings only, are of intrinsic value … and that non-human nature is
   valuable only insofar as it is valuable for human purposes (that is … for its ability to serve human
   ends) (Keller, 2010, p. 4).

In his speech to the GWPF, Cardinal Pell notes that his entry into the global warming debate was
sparked by his disdain for the ‘anti-human’ tendencies of environmentalists. As with fellow sceptics, Pell
argues that emissions reductions policies should be opposed because they will create higher energy
costs, impede economic growth and subsequently unfairly impact the poorest in society. This ignores
both the economic costs of inaction (as articulated by Stern, 2007) and the increasing cost
competitiveness of renewable energy sources. From an ethical perspective, it also fails to acknowledge
the long-term economic and social impacts of climate change on poorer nations unable to adapt to
sustained drought, rising sea levels and more frequent catastrophic weather events such as cyclones
and bushfires, a point made repeatedly in successive IPCC reports. Beyond the physical lie the
geopolitical risks including disruptions caused by climate change resulting in scarce water, food and
energy resources, mass migration and the human suffering and political instabilities that necessarily
accompany these – consequences identified by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence
(2016) as posing serious future national security risks.

This reading of both the Old and New Testaments as anthropogenic, and therefore anti-environmental,
has also been contested by a range of Biblical scholars, some of whom have noted that the historical
origins of the Bible from within an ancient agrarian middle eastern worldview make literal interpretations
problematic (Simkins, 2014). Others have pointed to the questionable interpretation of the terms
‘dominion’ and ‘subdue’ from Ancient Hebrew (Barr, 1972). In his critique of White’s thesis, Harrison
(1999) concludes that the importance of the Genesis text is not so much its presumed meaning, which

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is contestable, but its impact on motivating and legitimising attitudes and sanctioning activities in
relation to the natural world.

To directly connect specific religious doctrine with either pro or anti-environmental positions is also too
simplistic. In recent years, a range of religious authorities have made formal pronouncements in
support of definitive and robust unilateral action on climate change. These include statements from the
Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish and Christian faiths, all of which have interpreted responsibilities for
climate change through the tenets of their respective traditions. This culminated in the 2015 ‘Interfaith
Climate Statement’ to the Paris climate meeting, which affirmed:

   … that all faiths recognise a moral obligation to avoid harm, respect fairness, and care for the
   vulnerable … Taken together those statements seem to show a united front from religious leaders for
   robust action on climate change (Willis Jenkins, Berry, & Kreider, 2018, p. 91).

Perhaps most significantly, the position of the Catholic Church as articulated by Pope Francis’
Encyclical Laudato Si’ (2015), called for greater attention to, and observance of, ethical principles when
debating the relationship between climate change and progress and development. Climate, the Pope
argued, is ‘the common good’ and he sees both science and religion as merely different approaches to
understanding reality, both of which have a role in the important dialogue around ‘a duty to protect the
earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations’ (cited in O’Neill, 2016, p. 750). Pointedly, he
rejected White’s (1967) thesis that Judeo-Christian thinking has licensed environmental exploitation,
instead citing St Francis of Assisi when calling for the need for greater connection and mutual
responsibility between humans and nature. He also cautioned against the reliance on both unregulated
markets and the paradigm of unlimited growth arguing for a new economic model based on more
ethical principles of progress and development. Reactions to the Pope’s intervention were mixed: one
study determined an increased level of engagement among American Catholics in particular (Maibach
et al., 2015) while some evangelical Christian groups criticised the Pontiff for engaging in a political
rather than a theological argument (O’Neill, 2016).

One point of contrast is among US evangelical Christians who continue to hold significant sway in
American politics. Studies indicate that the majority identify with the Republican Party (Funk & Alper,
2015), and note a strong connection between conservative or right-wing political views and climate
scepticism (McCright & Dunlap, 2011; Smith & Leiserowitz, 2013). Powerful evangelicals also have a
strong, if paradoxical alignment with the US business model that Perkin (2000) argues stems from their
Puritan roots. Explanations for this include reactions to economic dysfunction resulting from
globalisation; the influence of individualistic cultural worldviews that act to shape responses and
interpretations of climate science risks and public policy responses (including environmental regulations
and carbon taxes) which they perceive as worsening their plight (Kahan, 2011); negative perceptions of
environmentalism as being associated with corrupt, cosmopolitan elites (Lockwood, 2018); distrust of
scientists and liberal advocates who are perceived as emblematic of these elites; and a belief in the
omnipotence of God who would not have created nature so fragile that it could be so easily destroyed
by mankind (Wardekker et al., 2009). However, this group is also by no means homogeneous, and
Smith and Leiserowitz concluded that ‘the majority … do believe global warming is happening, human
caused, and are at least somewhat worried about it (2013, p. 1015).

Explanations for this are complex but broadly speaking, among some evangelical Christians in
particular, ideology rather than theology, appears to more strongly influence attitudes to
environmentalism (Willis Jenkins et al., 2018; Rossen, Dunlop, & Lawrence, 2015). In the examples

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discussed, both speakers deride the passion of environmental advocates by equating this as akin to
pagan worship which they characterise as less valid than their own monotheistic Christian devotions.
Both see continuous economic growth as a moral imperative and fundamental human right, seemingly
regardless of the broader long-term environmental consequences. Both characterise environmental
advocacy, particularly by ‘the godless Greens’, as a threat to the hegemony of conservative Christian
values and its attendant influence upon social power structures largely because they also advocate for
progressive social causes such as same sex marriage, abortion, drug reform and assisted voluntary
euthanasia – policies described by the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) as ‘their agenda for social
deconstruction’ (cited in Maddox, 2013). This characterisation of Green politics and politicians as
atheistic and anti-religious has been challenged and Maddox’s (2013) study of the religious affiliations
of Australian Greens candidates concluded that those ‘candidates interviewed saw the Greens’ position
as a valid expression of a Christian ethic’.

Faith in nature?
A final perspective explored by a range of influential thinkers (see Dunlap, 2004; Hamilton, 2009;
Hulme, 2015; McKibben, 2006; Merchant, 1993) is that environmentalism shares certain characteristics
with religious belief systems in that ‘it offers a complex series of moral imperatives for ethical action and
judges human conduct accordingly’ (Cronon in Dunlap, 2004, p. iv). Cronon notes that while
environmentalists are broadly uncomfortable with the idea of environmentalism as a secular faith, the
larger philosophical questions they ask relating to how we should live, parallel those of traditional
religious creeds in providing guidance for how we ultimately make sense of our lives in the broader
context of the universe (p. v). Achieving spiritual transcendence via immersion in nature (of the kind
described by Rachel Carson (1962) in Silent Spring and much earlier by Henry David Thoreau (1854) in
Walden), requires a much broader definition of religion and religiosity (W. Jenkins & Chapple, 2011),
one that potentially threatens the narrower notions espoused by conservative and evangelical
Christians in particular due to the implications for the reduced status of humans within the Creator’s
order. From this perspective, former Liberal minister and Abbott supporter Kevin Andrews wrote that:

   What is at stake in the Greens’ ‘revolution’ is the heart and soul of Western civilisation, built on the
   Judeo-Christian/Enlightenment synthesis that upholds the individual … as the possessor of an
   inherent dignity and inalienable rights (cited in Maddox, 2013).

This is obviously a complex area beyond this paper, but it has been widely argued (e.g. Hamilton, 2009;
McKibben, 2006; Merchant, 1993) that the post-Enlightenment emanating from thinkers such as
Newton and Descartes has ‘rendered the Earth dead’ (Hamilton, 2009, p. 2), thus subordinating it
cultural consciousness to human needs. As Carolyn Merchant observed with respect to the mechanical
view of nature:

   The image of the earth as a living organism and nurturing mother had served as a cultural restraint
   restricting the actions of human beings. One does not readily slay a mother … (1993, p. 3).

With respect to our difficulties in meeting the challenges of climate change, Hamilton argues that ‘only a
reconnection with Nature [which requires a shift in consciousness] can save us from the climate
disruption now unfolding before our eyes’ (2009, p. 1).

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I have argued that today not only have most mainstream religious faiths engaged publicly with climate
change by affirming for their followers the importance of environmental stewardship, but that many of
those who adopt religious discourse to discredit environmentalists and climate change science in
particular, do so primarily from a political and ideological position, rather than from a mainstream
theological one. Both science and religion, it has been argued, have a role to play in activating climate
consciousness and political action ‘with differentiated language but shared purpose’ (Tucker, 2015, p.
949). Religious and ethical perspectives can aid climate consciousness by awakening and engaging a
moral and ethical view of the planetary emergency that is not totally directed by economic indices of
wellbeing (Brown, 2016; Hulme, 2017).

For audiences for whom politics and religion are closely intertwined, religious discourse is both a useful
and distracting rhetorical strategy. The extent to which it accurately reflects mainstream Christian
teachings, however, is debatable as I have illustrated. For some, it adds a deeper dimension to the
public debate which resonates with a significant cross section of the US audience in particular
(Wardekker et al., 2009). For others, in Australia which has one of the most secular populations –
recent census data indicates that almost one third of Australians noted that they had ‘no religion’, up 50
percent since 2011 (ABS, 2017) – audiences are less tolerant of attempts to connect politics and
religion, the impact is more difficult to discern. Even so, the 2019 Australian federal election has seen a
noticeable rise in both right-wing populism and debate around religious freedoms, much of it predicated
on fears of attacks on freedom of speech and the subsequent erosion of so-called ‘traditional’ values.
Simultaneously, climate change has been elevated to a top order concern among voters in contrast
with previous elections (Hanrahan, 2019) with Tony Abbott himself in danger of losing his long-held
seat to an independent challenger campaigning on the need for more substantive climate change policy
(AAP, 2019). The appropriation of religious metaphors and imagery as a rhetorical disguise for climate
scepticism, in Australia at least, would appear to be losing agency.

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