Comment

An environmental call to arms

Posted in: Comment
Date posted: 31 January 2017

As the world awaits nervously the ramifications of Donald Trump’s presidency, there is cause for serious concern about his reported rejection of the importance of climate change, his desire to increase fossil-fuel production, and his choice of environmental advisers.

One glimmer of hope comes in the fact that promoting renewable energy is predominantly a state responsibility in the United States, and many states seem to be pursuing it enthusiastically — more so, in fact, than in the UK.

Bill McKibben, the campaigning Methodist from Vermont, and founder of 350.org, was one of the first, more than 30 years ago, to warn of the dangers of global warming. In an article published last August in New Republic, he issued a stirring call to arms. The world was at war with climate change, he argued, and political leaders — like Neville Chamberlain at Munich thinking that he had done enough to keep trouble at bay — were failing to see the urgency of the times.

“World War Three is well and truly under way. And we are losing,” Mr McKibben wrote. “But this is no metaphor. By most of the ways we measure wars, climate change is the real deal: carbon and methane are seizing physical territory, sowing havoc and panic, racking up casualties, and even destabilizing governments.”

Yet most of our political leaders have failed to heed the warnings from climate scientists. Even if every nation complied with the UN Paris Agreement of December 2015, McKibben argued, the world would heat up by as much as a devastating 3.5º by 2100. NASA has published data showing that 2016 was on track to be the hottest year on record.

What would be needed to defeat this “enemy”? Mr McKibben noted that at Stanford University there were the beginnings of a “mighty Manhattan project”, to demonstrate how each US state could power itself from renewable resources. To replace fossil fuels completely by 2050, the US would need to produce 6448 gigawatts of clean energy — which, at current rates of production, would take 405 years (“which is kind of too long”).

The calculation is that the US needs 295 factories to produce solar panels, each big enough to produce 1 gigawatt of solar power every year. It did not need new technology, Mr McKibben said. Rather, it needed political will, and “a wholesale industrial re-tooling” on a par with what had been achieved so quickly to produce weaponry in the Second World War. It is also worth noting that it took the political skill and leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt to gear up the American public for battles to come.

What we have now is the biggest boom in personal consumption the world has ever seen, a very thin sense of social solidarity, and President Trump. It is difficult to find grounds for hope that the US will find the courage to build on the promises already made of introducing a carbon price, and the installation of half a billion solar panels in the next four years.

In the UK, we need a similar commitment to putting a price on our consumption of fossil fuels, and working for renewable energy as a matter of urgency.

But from the perspective of Christian discipleship we need more. The call to stewardship of God’s earth, to love of our neighbour, and to justice requires, among other things, a rethinking of our economy in terms not of unrestrained consumption, but in terms of the common good, greater social equality, and the sustainability of the earth system.

This may well require a willingness to accept some reductions in our material quality of life. As Bishop John Taylor wrote years ago, “enough is enough.” The Fifth Mark of Mission from the Anglican Consultative Council is: “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”

The theologian Sallie McFague has a different take on the language of fighting enemies. In her critique of consumerism, she says: “The crisis we face has to do with ‘how we live” on a daily basis.” For her, “the enemy” is the very ordinary life we ourselves are leading as well-off Westerners.

As long ago as 1989, the economist Herman Daly and the theologian John Cobb, in their now classic book For the Common Good (Beacon Press, 1994), concluded with these words: “Yet there is hope. On a hotter planet, with lost deltas and shrunken coastlines, under a more dangerous sun, with less arable land, more people, fewer species of living things, a legacy of poisonous wastes, and much beauty irrevocably lost, there will still be the possibility that our children’s children will learn at last to live as a community among communities.

“Perhaps they will learn also to forgive this generation its blind commitment to ever-greater consumption. Perhaps they will even appreciate its belated efforts to leave them a planet still capable of supporting life in community.”

That was 1989. God give us grace and courage in 2017 to take seriously the urgency of Mr McKibben’s call, and to work hard at our God-given responsibility of care for God’s earth.

Dr David Atkinson is an Hon. Assistant Bishop in Southwark diocese. This article originally appeared in Church Times (27 January 2017) and is reproduced with permission.

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