Are Christians thinking about the environment?

I’m putting together a background paper for a half-day workshop I’m running next month, including a couple of paragraphs complaining about our lack of action and the virtual absence of the issue in the last election.

Happened to see on Facebook a link to a Premier Christianity article “6 issues Christians will be rallying around in the new Parliament“. A pleasant surprise that “The Environment” appears as number 2, and hoping that this proves true, particularly in the leadup to Paris this autumn. It also notes that Amber Rudd, the new Energy and Climate Secretary, is reputed to be a Christian. News to me, but again an encouraging sign for our involvement in this area.


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Apologies for the hiatus and more on Living Lightly

Apologies to followers of this blog for the long pause in posts. A combination of a change in role and finishing up the editing for the Lausanne Movement book on Creation Care for the Gospel has meant I’ve had virtually no time to write. That book is now with the publishers so I have a bit more time for now, so hope to be putting something up about fortnightly for the time being.

Talking of books, our Living Lightly Living Faithfully book (which you can buy or download free from here) continues to attract interest. I had the opportunity back in February to speak at an interfaith event organised by Cambridge Carbon Footprint who had been inspired by it in their work with faiths (more on that in a later post) and today in the post we’ve received a copy of a review in Science and Christian Belief by Chris Naylor, Executive Director of A Rocha. It seems to be an environment special with two other similar books reviewed too.

Naylor’s review is positive, but he concludes:

Although the authors show that there are huge resources in the religious texts, traditions and communities… the book is light on practical examples where religious communities are making a significant contribution… In that regard the book reflects a sad reality. In twenty years of ‘Creation Care’ work it has been my experience that it is usually only a minority who integrate their faith in their work, travel, shopping and everyday lives. However, I have also seen the extraordinary difference it can make when communities do live holistically by their faith. As the book demonstrates there is no neutral ground here – how we live matters.

True words, and reflects the struggle we had when putting the book together. We wanted to call for environmental awareness to move from a minority pursuit for specialists to a key part of the work of the various faiths, but there were virtually no examples of this happening. It also links to a question I was asked at the Carbon Conversations meeting: making the point that if the religious groups in Cambridge all combined their efforts to encourage the local councils to “act more green” then something more might get done. However, this seems to be in the realm of theory – I’m not aware of any example of this kind of cooperation anywhere in the UK.

So our book continues to inspire those in the field already, but how to make the breakthrough to those beyond still rather eludes us.

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“Can we afford to save the planet?” Reflections on adaptation and mitigation

Last week I was at the Houses of Parliament for a Christians in Parliament event entitled “Can we afford to save the planet?” The panel of six contained three economists and three others. The economists were Nigel Lawson of the GWPF, Andrew Lilico of Europe Economics (whom I knew as a regular Telegraph columnist), very much also in the GWPF camp, and Michael Jacobs, of the Grantham Institute and LSE, well-known proponent of climate action. The three others are all well-known supporters of climate action: James Jones, former bishop of Liverpool, Martin Harper of the RSPB and Andy Lester of A Rocha.

I’m not going to summarise the entire meeting, but just draw out three points to give a feel for the way the debate is now.

Firstly, Nigel Lawson’s position seems to have shifted somewhat. He is no longer asserting climate change isn’t happening, although he still claims there’s been no recorded warming this century, and that the IPCC’s figures are likely to be on the high end. Instead, the debate for him, and Andrew Lilico too, is between whether we should mitigate now or leave adaptation for the future. They argue for adaptation on three major grounds:

  • The priority now is to get economic growth and in particular to get people out of poverty. That will provide the economic position for a far-richer future to be able to adapt. Mitigation now is in conflict with adaptation later.
  • If we don’t really know what’s going to happen, there’s no point wasting money now. Let’s see what’s down the line and what science and technology can do for us then.
  • China and India (the first and third largest emitter) aren’t going to sacrifce their economy and the USA isn’t going to take action without those two doing so. We’ve been trying for a multilateral agreement for 25 years and continuing down this path is just flogging a dead horse.
  • (Lilico’s point) Perhaps the future will be happier to accept a different climate if it comes with other benefits of economics.

Four main counter-arguments were made to this:

  • We know roughly what the cost of mitigation is, and it is reasonably affordable. The cost of renewable energy is now coming down to be on a par with fossil duel energy in many areas. By contrast, we don’t know what the cost of adaptation is, or even if it is possible to adapt to the more extreme end of warming (5+ degrees). I’ve not seen anything from the pro-adaptation camp giving any idea of likely costings. But the costs of dealing with sea-level rise seem to be enormous, both economically and culturally: only fairly moderate rises will require a number of island states to be abandoned completely, and I’ve seen estimates of around the $10 trillion mark to protect the east coast of the USA from sea level rise.
  • Some of the changes forecast are irreversable or essentially impossible to adapt to: species extinction for instance.
  • Ethically, we do not have the right to force the future into sorting out what we have left them. Particularly since the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide are now understood to be the major factor behind the likely rise in temperature emissions.
  • Mitigation now has benefits to us, particularly in lessening pollution, which the World Bank says costs 4% of GDP in the top 15 economies.

On the subject of whether agreement was possible, it is worth noting that since the meeting a bilateral agreement between the USA and China has been announced. I haven’t yet read through the details, but it gives a good degree of hope for the Paris conference next year. Michael Jacobs made a bet with Nigel Lawson that a binding agreement would be made then, and at least on this evidence, he looks like winning it!

The second point is that most of the panel seemed united on the need for continued economic growth and personal sacrifice in energy consumption is not going to get us anywhere. This last point is a major change in narrative from much of what the green movement has been arguing for years, and was particularly made by Andy Lester.

He argues that the conservation and green movements have lost direction and focus, and that people see their arguments as all doom and gloom. Around the country, people are feeling less hopeful in general, and switch off to bad news.

Instead, we should be arguing for local conservation methods, encouraging people (particularly children) to reconnect to nature and develop a love for it, and through that help us to all cooperate, and have a stable and positive enough economy to bring an end to poverty.

What is not included in this narrative is any sense that the rich worldwide need or have any obligation to curb consumption and energy use, which many have argued is a necessary part of the equation. Michael Jacobs cited a report he has worked on: “Better growth, better climate”, which argues that economic growth is compatible with climate action. It has however been critiqued in that even if every recommendation was followed (a big ask) then carbon emissions would not fall fast enough to achieve the IPCC’s RCP2.6 (lowest emissions) pathway.

A very different view was put by both James Jones and Martin Harper, whose starting point was that the planet needed to be the starting point: Jones said “without a viable planet, we cannot afford anything. It is our only larder.” But it feels like they might be becoming a smaller minority, with even other climate campaigners seemingly retreating to a position that we can only save the planet to the extent we can afford it.

Finally, are such public debates worth having? Although there were some interesting views posed, much of what was said is familiar, and I don’t know how much the participants were willing to listen or change their mind. I happened to follow Nigel Lawson and Benny Peisner (a GWPF colleague) out of the building, and they felt the meeting had gone reasonably positively with “a less biased panel than usual”.

I didn’t feel Lawson’s performance was regarded so positively in the hall. He seems to have lost much of his incisiveness even since the last time I heard him 18 months ago, and he gave some long and less-than-coherent answers to some questions. What was interesting was others’ reactions. Michael Jacobs sitting alongside, was visibly rolling his eyes, whereas Bob Ward, sitting next to me, was clearly getting irate and eventually shouted out that Lawson’s facts were incorrect! However, James Jones and Andy Lester, the two Christians on the panel were still listening politely and respectfully. (I couldn’t see Martin Harper, nor do I know what his faith is.)

The Christian ethos seemed to make the meeting go far less acrimoniously than similar secular meetings I have been to, and I hope this witness was noticed. Whatever we might feel about the likelihood of Nigel Lawson and similar figures changing their mind, their views need to be challenged, but respectfully, and this kind of meeting seems to be a good forum for that.


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What does a 2C rise look like?

We talk about a 2 degree Celsius rise, but what does that look like in terms of climates we know? Here’s a table I put together to help me think about it. The places are chosen to give a roughly equal gap of just over 2 degrees, with a primarily Atlantic climate to give comparability.

City Latitude Average max Average min Daily average Difference from previous
Lerwick (Shetland) 60°10 9.5 5.3 7.4
Glasgow 55°57 12.7 5.9 9.3 1.9
London 51°30 15.3 7.8 11.6 2.3
Bordeaux 44°50 18.5 9.1 13.8 2.2
Coimbra (mid Portugal) 40°13 21.2 9.8 15.5 1.7
Agadir (SW Morocco) 30°26 23.4 13.4 18.4 2.9

Obviously this is pretty crude, but it gives a feel for the kinds of shifts we can expect, especially in ecosystems.

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Why is it hard for Christians to talk about population?

I was talking with Lowell Bliss, one of the authors of our Climate Change and the Gospel book when the issue of the lack of discussion of population among Christian environmentalists came up. He wondered whether at the Jamaica conference which led to the book, there had been any explicit mention of population levels as a specific problem, either global or local, and we thought no, it hadn’t. Migration had been talked about, in particular in a session looking at influxes into Asian cities and the difficulties that caused, but as an issue of redistribution than sheer numbers.

In turning the conference proceedings into the book and looking for gaps that needed to be filled, I’d pushed for a chapter on population to be added, and fortunately had an expert in mind to write it. But the number of people with such expertise in the Christian world seems relatively small, and population is often mentioned merely as an aside in books on the climate, if at all.

For example, taking a couple of books off my shelf largely at random, Jonathan Moo and Robin Routledge’s As Long as the Earth Endures seems to have no mentions of population at all, although it is clearly a factor in how humans take dominion over the earth, the subject of one chapter. Michael Northcott is not one to shy away from difficult issues but his A Moral Climate starts with a chapter detailing the problems facing the world, without mentioning population as a multiplier for other issues. This point does get made in a later chapter in a discussion of Ethiopia, but only in a single paragraph.

There are definitely exceptions though. Lowell gives a few pages to the issue in his Environmental Missions book, and he tells me John Stott gives it as the lead environmental issue in his last book, The Radical Disciple.

This is far from the interest shown in some previous decades. I=PAT and similar formulations seem to have been common parlance in secular environmental writing of the 1970s for instance: I’m not familiar enough with Christian works of the period to know how much it carried through. But why might it be so difficult to mention today? Here are my initial thoughts (purely from a UK context), but it would be interesting to think through these further.

  1. Most obviously, anything involving children can be a very emotive issue. For most people, having a child, or at least the possibility of having one, is a blessing. Those who find it difficult or impossible to have a child find it a struggle and sometimes even a stigma. Anything which involves the suggestion that this opportunity should be taken away or limited needs to be handled with care, and those who decide to remain childfree are often thought to be rather odd. All this goes even more so in our more modern UK society where personal freedom and choice has been increasingly promoted over any idea of common good.
  2. If you talk about the need for population reduction in the Global South – which is of course where the fastest rises occur – various charges can be laid at your door. One is post-colonialism, wanting to interfere in others’ affairs, or perhaps even racism. Here we see a reflection of a cultural shift since the 1970s: at that point it was still considered acceptable for the UN and similar bodies to advocate policies for the whole world, even if the ideas came largely from Global North experts and perhaps favoured Global North countries. A second objection brought is that asking the Global South to reduce their population deflects from the real problem: over-consumption in the North. (Of course, those trying to address this problem get told that it will be soon swamped by the rise in consumption of billions in China and India, with other nations following behind. Sometimes you can’t win.)
  3. Talking about population reduction in the UK has a different set of problems. Opinion polls have shown that a sizeable majority think it would be better if the population were lower, but the practicalities of getting there pose challenges. This is particularly true if we look at environmental considerations and set a target based on those: for example the Global Footprint measure would advocate a cut to about a third of our current population. There are three major (perceived) obstacles: the need for coercion along the lines of China’s One Child Policy, the need for younger working people to balance the elderly to keep the economy going (the ‘demographic time-bomb’), and again accusations of racism: population is growing both through immigration and a higher birth rate among recent immigrants. Cases can be made against all of these, but it is hard to get a public hearing or a rational debate.
  4. There also seems to be a general perception, at least among those who claim to know something about population, that it isn’t as much a problem as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. I would suspect this is due to a combination of two factors. First, graphs of the mid-range population forecast suggests that rapid population rise will be over by about 2050, and the overall peak around the end of the century will be 10 billion or a little over: that doesn’t feel so much more than now. Second, it’s known (rightly) that much of the rise is already locked in. A combination of these two factors leads to the view that everything will be fine and there’s not much that can be done to improve things in any case. (Neither of these is true: in particular, though we know that educating and empowering women are amongst the most effective ways of curbing population rise, we have plenty of that left to do.)
  5. Environmentalists have tended to focus on climate change as “the issue”. This has tended to squeeze out many other concerns that we should have. A typical counterresponse to population campaigns can thus be to argue that the other issues are more important – at least according to environmentalists – thus giving an excuse to not worry about population. Those arguing for population decline have now improved their argument to put population in a wider portfolio of environmental and socio-economic issues which interrelate and need addressing together. More mainstream environmentalists need to make the equivalent move in the opposite direction.
  6. All of the above apply equally to secular and Christian campaigners. Christians have their own separate problems. One is that the Bible teaches that children are a blessing, we should fill the earth and we should seek to have descendants who can carry forth our inheritance. These points are made both explicitly and implicitly through the Old Testament; one of the most significant themes is that Israel is formed of those who trace their lineage back to Abraham. The New Testament does not repeat these themes, but does not counter or update them either, save for the replacement of Israel with the people of God who form a spiritual rather than biological family. What is needed is better understanding of how these theological principles apply today, reading them in conjunction with wider environmental concerns. This hasn’t been studied adequately, partly due to the controversy of the topic.
  7. A second problem for Christians is the teaching of Roman Catholics and some others against some methods of birth control. This is a difficult issue: as a non-Catholic I can sympathise with the reasons for holding such a view even though I do not agree with it.

So what needs to happen? Certainly environmentalists, both faith-based and others, need to know more about the facts of the case. When they do so, they will discover that action is still definitely needed, even if that action is just more of what we are already doing, and that a clear argument needs to be made against some of the false reasoning that many believe. The information is out there, but just needs to be expounded and included in environmental writings in an appropriate way. Secondly, a sensible theological debate in the Christian world is overdue, and theological input lacking: more research is needed.

But perhaps most important of all is for population to retake its place amongst the key environmental indicators: part of what we all consider when we look for a better future for our world.

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Scientists call for religions to transform our world

A somewhat surprising headline appeared in the Telegraph last week: Scientists turn to Pope Francis and world’s religions to save the planet. Even more surprising: it was reporting a paper in Science, in which two professors, of economics and oceanography, argued that some of the world’s key problems – unsustainable consumption, population pressure, poverty and environmental degradation – were unlikely to be addressed by our national governments or our existing “socioecological processes”. Instead, religious influences might be the answer:

The transformative step may well be a massive mobilization of public opinion by the Vatican and other religions for collective action to safeguard the well-being of both humanity and the environment.

Readers of this blog will find this a familiar idea, but it is not a viewpoint often expressed by scientists who (as far as we know) have no publically professed faith.

What lies behind this? One factor is that Pope Francis is widely known to be writing a papal encyclical on the environment. It is hoped, with some justification, that he will call for the Roman Catholic church to become far more active in tackling this issue than it is at present. But it is also worth noting that the initial invitation to partnership came from the Vatican. Both authors were invited to a Workshop on Sustainable Humanity held at the Vatican in May this year. Its concluding statement included parallel calls for practical action on environment, poverty and renewable energy sources for all – true sustainable development – and a renewed attitude of humanity to itself and its surroundings, seeing them as inextricably linked.

A human ecology that is healthy in terms of ethical virtues contributes to the achievement of sustainable nature and a balanced environment. Today we need a relationship of mutual benefit: true values should permeate the economy and respect for Creation should promote human dignity and wellbeing.

It’s regrettable such a powerful statement and the workshop as a whole failed to attract more media attention. Let us hope that Francis’s encyclical receives more notice, particularly in the light of the round of climate negotiations now underway.

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Changing everything?

Over the last week I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything. It has been published now, one presumes, to link in with the major climate summit to be held in New York next Tuesday at which Ban Ki-Moon hopes various nations will set out bold new policy proposals which can form part of a binding climate treaty at the Nov/Dec 2015 Paris conference. Preceding that, and perhaps more relevant to Klein’s argument, are the mass Climate Marches round the world that happened this weekend.

Klein’s book is the fruit of five years’ research, travel and interview with a wide variety of those interested in the climate, ranging from mainstream climate scientists and activists through numerous concerned groups to time spent with the climate-denial Heartland Institute. From this, she has come to various significant conclusions:

Firstly, choosing to do nothing (and she sees it as an active choice) will transform our world, largely for the worse:

We know that if we continue on our current path of allowing emissions to rise year after year, climate change will change everything about our world. Major cities will very likely drown, ancient cultures will be swallowed by the seas, and there is a very high chance that our children will spend a great deal of their lives fleeing and recovering from vicious storms and extreme droughts.

In response to this, we need to make radical changes to the way we live, and urgently. And unfortunately, on top of all the many other reasons climate change action is difficult, the crisis has come at an unusually bad time: Klein notes that the period around 1990 when climate change first became widely known was also the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet-style communism, when neo-liberal capitalism won out as the dominant politico-economic ideology, so much so that anything else became inconceivable. It was also a period of increased free trade, for instance seeing the formation of NAFTA and the takeoff of globalisation.

This style of capitalism Klein sees as incompatible with any form of environmentalism. She defines its relationship with both planet and people as “extractivism”, which

 … is a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking. It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continue. Extractivism is the mentality of the mountaintop remover and the old-growth clear-cutter. It is the reduction of life into objects for the use of others, giving them no integrity or value of their own–turning living complex ecosystems into “natural resources,” mountains into “overburden” (as the mining industry terms the forests, rocks, and streams that get in the way of its bulldozers). It is also the reduction of human beings either into labor to be brutally extracted, pushed beyond limits, or, alternatively, into social burden, problems to be locked out at borders and locked away in prisons…

This isn’t totally a product of the last twenty-five years: both industrialisation and colonialism depended on similar principles, but both its scale and the severity of its effects have expanded massively recently.

Action on climate change therefore cannot be separated from action to reform our socio-economic system, and here the climate denialists have a point when they claim global warming is “anti-American” or takes away our freedom. The right wing thought they could enjoy their victory over all other forms of economics, but their window of opportunity has proved to be very small indeed.

[They have a] deep fear that if the free market system really has set in motion physical and chemical processes that, if allowed to continue unchecked, threaten large parts of humanity at an existential level, then their entire crusade to morally redeem capitalism has been for naught. With stakes like these, clearly greed is not so very good after all. And that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time–whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market.

In fact, despite their pseudo-scientific bluster, climate denialists probably have a better handle on the situation than many “moderate” climate groups who are trying, but generally failing, to change things through gradual action inside the system. That strategy worked well in the more environment-friendly times of the 1960s and 1970s (between Silent Spring and Ronald Reagan) but not since. Amongst other problems, it fell foul of the principle that humans do not, and cannot, take complete control of Planet Earth: the doctrine of “dominion”.

There is extensive critique of many environmental organisations and individuals for both their rhetoric and relationships. Some are funded directly or indirectly by fossil fuel companies and other polluters. Others either water down or over-palatise their message:

Moreover, in the name of reaching across the aisle, green groups are constantly “reframing” climate action so that it is about pretty much anything other than preventing catastrophic warming to protect life on earth.

So what needs to happen? First, environmentalism needs to be linked to fundamental economic reform. We need to argue for an end to neo-liberalism, an end to unrestrained economic growth, and an end to extreme economic inequality. The last is needed both on moral grounds, including that people who have benefitted from long-term environmental pollution should pay for it, and also on the practical grounds that the poor have enough on their plate already and cannot be obliged to pay for their own climate adaptation too.

I agree with the point in general, and her criticism of some business leaders: an analysis of Richard Branson’s failure to keep up to his promises gets an entire chapter. However, I fear she seems blind  to the positive action at least some businesses are taking. Some positive notice of what small local businesses and those with more progressive outlooks are doing would be appreciated. And although multinationals are certainly not doing what they could, I’m not sure all their claims can be dismissed as greenwash. To take one example, a submission by over 300 big firms calling for a meaningful carbon price seems to have at least some merit! Klein argues we should push for whatever culture change we should get: I’d say that that applies equally inside the business world.

Secondly, we need to organise mass and local movements with the passion to want change but, importantly, a clear vision for what change is needed. Various case studies are included, but two are worth noting: both in continental Europe and the USA, local groups have succeeded in getting small-scale renewable electricity generation off the ground where large national or multinational companies have failed or night tried. Secondly are some partnerships between campaigners and indigenous peoples in North America. The latter have a far clearer sense of an appropriate relationship with their local environment, and often legal treaties giving them use of it (including clean water). Wider groups can assist with asserting these rights, and together – under Klein’s umbrella term of Blockadia – they have won some victories against fossil fuel extraction or transport.

It is this vision which Klein thinks should be taken wider. Most positive social transformations recently have been underpinned by a mass movement which is both willing to stand up against something wrong and provide a viable alternative – for instance the US Civil Rights Movement. Today we have several example of mass movements that have failed through lack of vision (notably Occupy), and plenty of thinkers who might be right but fail to recruit support from the masses.

Putting the two together can provide protest movements that not only oppose but provide “regenerative” solutions. And they need to be economically literate, while not purely (neoclassically) economic: they have to also assert the intrinsic value of life and our world.

Indeed a great deal of the work of deep social change involves having debates during which new stories can be told to replace the ones that have failed us. Because if we are to have any hope of making the kind of civilizational leap required of this fateful decade, we will need to start believing, once again, that humanity is not hopelessly selfish and greedy–the image ceaselessly sold to us by everything from reality shows to neoclassical economics.

Klein would no doubt approve of the climate marches this weekend as an attempt to establish and build this sort of mass movement. But I think she would see it as only part of the picture: we should not go home and think “job done” but both continue to push, and also discuss in our communities the kind of regenerative society we want to build.

It is here where a potential link can be made with religious involvement. Klein doesn’t mention faith groups, but there are some helpful parallels. At their best, religions bring about improved standards of life for all, and a “regenerative” approach to creation is what underlies the second creation ordinance to Adam: to “work and care for the garden” (Gen 2:15). And the principle of both opposing what is wrong and providing a new positive vision is one familiar to us from the prophetic literature.

As can hopefully be seen from the above, this is a helpful and inspiring book which sums up a wide field with some new insights I haven’t seen as clearly expressed elsewhere, notably her summary of the climate denial movement. With a few caveats, this book deserves the widespread notice it will no doubt receive on the back of Klein’s previous two well-known books. And I hope environmental movements will take the message they need to from it and be more successful in their transformative activities.

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