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Are Faith and Climate Action compatible?

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Shilpita Mathews, a Research Assistant at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, believes that the climate crisis requires faith communities to be catalysts for change, as she writes in this guest blog for Operation Noah.

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The main square of Nui Island in 2015, still under water over a month after Cyclone Pam created huge waves. Photo credit: Silke von Brockhausen/UNDP/Creative Commons via Flickr

As UK faith leaders call for an environment focused economic recovery post Covid-19, there have been great strides in faith-based climate activism. Yet Christians are often perceived as an obstacle to climate action with climate denial or apathy frequently attributed to religious communities. Within the Church, questions persist. By reflecting on my personal journey and addressing common scepticisms I argue that Christians play a key role in leading climate action.

The journey thus far

Having witnessed the Asian Tsunami in 2004 and the Bangkok floods in 2011, I have seen first-hand the devastating impacts natural disasters have on the poorest communities, especially in the global South. The strong relationship between environmental and social justice is evident, as climate change continues to impact the most vulnerable in our society.

Amidst eco-anxiety and dismal climate forecasts, faith serves as a reminder that ultimately, climate action is not about us saving the world, but fulfilling a God-given mandate of environmental stewardship. This view is shared by Christians working in conservation and climate change, from the former Chair of the IUCN to leading climate scientists.

Whilst recent actions by Christian leaders has been promising, from the Pope’s Laudato si’ to fossil fuel divestment by the Church of England, there is a long way to go. For this to ensue, key scepticisms must be addressed.

Shouldn’t poverty alleviation be the biggest global priority?

  1. Western-centric humanitarianism: Ironically, this thinking has been most prominent in post-industrial countries. Conversely, Christians in developing countries, often comprising of agrarian communities, are most attune to the dependence on nature for human flourishing. To ensure a sustainable future for subsequent generations, climate action and poverty alleviation must go hand-in-hand.
  2. Delinking of creation from salvation: God’s redemptive work has been the motivator behind Christian humanitarianism. But one of the biggest danger in churches today is overlooking His creation. It is important to remember that the ultimate act of redemption was motivated by God’s love for the world, or the entire cosmos, as argued by Peter Harris, cofounder of ARocha.
  3. A myopic view of climate action: The urgency of climate action is often lost in discussions around mitigation technologies as climate adaptation policies lag behind. Yet not only is climate change disproportionately affecting developing countries today, its worst effects are endured by the poor, women, children and ethnic minorities.
  4. Biblical commitment towards creation: Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rev Rowan Williams calls for a Jubilee year as we seek an end to social and environmental oppression. There are stark parallels between the Jubilee 2000 campaign, recent calls for debt forgiveness and the need for greater climate adaptation financing in developing countries.

Isn’t the world going to end anyway?

  1. Creation care and eschatology: There are numerous theological arguments presenting a comprehensive case for creation care and its alignment with eschatology, or the end of times. This presents not only an intergenerational vision, but an eternal vision for the world. A compelling argument for climate action, regardless of the outcome, comes from God’s ongoing work in reconciling all things on earth and heaven (Colossians 1:15-20).
  2. An eternal home: The promise that one day the earth will be renewed, reinvigorates the call to not only love our neighbours but love the eternal home in which we will dwell. If anything, the promise of ultimate restoration should make Christians the strongest proponents of climate action!

Are climate activists trying to play God?

  1. Stewardship v Sovereignty: Climate solutions are often deemed to usurp God’s power, particularly ideas like geo-engineering. Whilst criticism is healthy, and more rigorous research is required, this must be separated from overarching dismissals. Human environmental stewardship is different from divine sovereignty. Fighting for climate justice is out of reverence for the Creator and His world as opposed to insolence against His will.
  2. Climate change as a consequence of sin:  A relationship with God helps unearth the root cause of the climate crisis – a crisis of greed and overconsumption within our hearts. From this perspective, our current lifestyles, sustained by lordship over natural resources, may themselves be regarded as an attempt at playing God.
  3. Beyond climate activism: Climate action as embraced by today’s youth, calls for an attempt to live in harmony with our Creator and His world. This change in mindset means everyone has a role to play. The neighbourly love that is the foundation of faith needs to be at the centre of climate solutions.

With 84% of the world’s population identifying with a religious group, Christians must be onboard to spearhead a 1.5 °C world. In a world where religion is often the cause rather than the solution to problems, faith communities can be catalysts for change.

About the author

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Shilpita Mathews is a Research Assistant at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and is currently completing a MSc in Environmental Economics and Climate Change at the London School of Economics. She also writes as a Climate Correspondent for Youth Ki Awaaz, an Indian youth media platform and serves in the student ministry of her home church, All Souls Langham Place in London.

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