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‘Once in a Lifetime: Climate Justice Summit’, Cambridge 23-25 September 2019

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by Nicky Bull (Chair of Trustees, Operation Noah)

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend ‘Once in a Lifetime’ for two days in September. Organised jointly by Amos Trust and A Rocha UK, it brought together a wide range of people to explore how churches, Christians and other people of faith can play a greater role in addressing climate change with justice, to accelerate a ‘just transition’ to a low-carbon world.

But first, to be clear, that climate change is a reality is no longer in dispute; that is not to say that there won’t be a great deal more to find out, or that some of the current conclusions won’t be modified – the science is always provisional until there is more information. And suggestions that climate change scientists, campaigners or activists are ‘in it for the money’ are unfounded. Ask any of them – whether or not they are making their living from working on the subject – if they would be happy if climate change unexpectedly turned out to be an illusion and they would say, ‘Yes, of course!’ These are people who carry a considerable burden of sadness and grief at what is happening to the climate, to biodiversity and to the ecosystems on which all life depends – and who fear for the future of disadvantaged people in the global south and for future generations all around the world.

Those who now deny the human impact on the climate and that carbon dioxide emissions are causing an unprecedented rate of average global temperature rise are like the lifelong smokers who deny that there is a link between cigarettes and lung cancer – just because they are not currently affected, and perhaps because they fear the truth, they refuse to believe it.

Furthermore, many of those involved with so-called scientific bodies that protest against taking action on anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change have vested interests; in a UK example, the Global Warming Policy Foundation is headed by a peer who has shares in fossil fuel companies. And in America the owners of Koch Industries, a massive conglomerate that has been described as ‘one of the primary sources of carbon pollution in the United States’, have devoted a considerable portion of their enormous income to funding a political campaign opposing all sorts of environmental and other regulations that might get in the way of their huge profits. There are also disturbing reports of climate and other environmental campaigners being killed for attempting to defend the land, their homes or the livelihoods of local people against the effects of mining, logging or agribusiness; Time magazine reported in July this year that there had been 201 such deaths in 2017 and a further 164 in 2018. So climate is undeniably a justice issue.

For many of us who are involved with climate change, the sadness associated with what is happening to the climate is accompanied by hope – hope that there may yet be time to turn the tide, reduce emissions, ditch our dependence on fossil fuels and build a better, fairer, more equitable world in which all have the opportunity to thrive. For Christians and many others that hope is sustained by our faith, by the ongoing work of scientists who are seeking to develop new, clean technologies more rapidly than ever before and by the rising tide of public engagement with the issue among young and old alike.

Amos Trust and A Rocha UK convened a summit to look at a whole variety of ways in which individuals and groups are involved in seeking to bring about the necessary just transition that does not prevent development or access to energy where these are needed but that seeks to bring this about without adversely impacting the environment or giving rise to greater levels of emissions of greenhouse gases.

In an introductory session we heard via video link from Professor Michael Northcott, who pointed out that despite significant involvement by the UN the international negotiations taking place around climate change still talk only about curbing emissions and mitigating against the effects of rising temperatures but do not address the problem of the extraction and sale of fossil fuels; this limited approach is therefore lacking in climate justice. By far the best strategies involve ending all extraction, replanting trees and restoring soils and oceans – because the most effective carbon sinks are oceans, soils and biomes. Professor Northcott also reminded the audience that the Christian tradition has a long history of giving to those in need, and also of relationship with other creatures.

We also heard from Dr Elaine Storkey, who has many years’ experience with aid agencies and has frequently been confronted over the last thirty years with the effects of changing climate on the poorest people: seasons becoming less predictable; harvests repeatedly failing; pathogens becoming more virulent – all things that were being predicted back in 1990 by Sir John Houghton, a leading climate scientist. When considering sustainable local responses to climate change we heard from a couple from Nicaragua working with CEPAD, a local church-based development agency; they stressed that love and concern is not enough – really understanding the culture is absolutely vital when working with people from other countries. There was a session on women’s leadership in climate justice, with contributions from a Muslim women’s community organisation from London who provide access to growing spaces and cookery tuition, helping these women to be able to appreciate creation even in the inner city and at the same time learning from them about the role it plays in their culture and practices.

An inspiring session on the Monday afternoon featured young people – ranging in age from school Year 8 to recent graduates – who have become involved in eco initiatives at school or university and also with the climate strike movement. They stressed that they value opportunities to hear and learn from those who have been engaged in this work for years – and equally it was good to learn from them about their particular concerns and where they see that they can have most impact.

A key session on the second day was around connections between the global north and the global south and various campaigns designed to achieve meaningful change. Among these was the divestment campaign, Bright Now, which is run by Operation Noah and is working for church congregations and denominations to divest from fossil fuel companies and invest in clean alternatives; we also heard from Hope for the Future, which ‘supports anyone and everyone who is concerned about climate change to raise their local MP’s awareness of the issue’.

Breaking into groups there was an opportunity to hear from a range of people about aspects of ‘spiritual activism’ and while Operation Noah Vice-Chair, Revd Darrell Hannah led a session looking at the book of Revelation, a former Operation Noah colleague, Revd Alex Mabbs, led a session on the spirituality of individual action on climate change. He proposes a dual cycle as a way of walking a path that is a response to a sense of calling to act on climate change. The inner cycle goes from prayer/meditation through a refusal to judge and a commitment to act in love and grace, and then back to prayer/meditation, and so on around. The idea is that in prayer/meditation you listen to your heart, ie to your feelings and desires. You explore how actions feel, whether they bring you a sense of joy and connectedness, whether they expand your soul and affirm life; or whether they feel overwhelming, close you down and bring a sense of greyness. Refusing to judge means that these discernments are not about whether your actions are good or bad; it’s simply about what resonates with your true, inner self and so listening to the call of your heart. Refusing to judge also frees you up from judging others so that you can celebrate actions being taken by others. The outer cycle is like a classic action-reflection cycle, going from doing something, through enjoying it and thinking about it, to doing something else. In this way taking initial steps can lead to doing more and the enormity of the apparent changes required is lessened. For example, changing your diet from a typical western diet of meat three times daily and lots of processed food to one that’s plant-based, organic and locally sourced is a huge leap and attempting it is likely to end in failure – but making incremental changes may actually get you there. Thinking about your chosen actions may include further research into impacts, which in turn sparks off new ideas for enhancing your action or trying something else. Alex has seen how this cycle has released church communities from feeling overwhelmed and fearful of the judgement of others. People have been set free to try things out and encourage each other to go further, and there has been a mood of celebration. The result has been people coming away feeling excited and motivated rather than guilty, and going on to actually make changes to how they live.

I think that everyone who attended the Cambridge summit will have come away having learned something new and having been encouraged by the stories from near and far, young and old. There are some big changes needed and time is relatively short, but the churches and faith communities around the world are increasingly involved and their voice is very important – and being heard.

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