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Date posted: 20 January 2016
Christians need to keep up the pressure on climate, say David Atkinson and Ian Christie.
‘We have frittered away the last 22 years.’ This bleak judgement on the lack of progress on sustainable development and climate policy since the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ in 1992 comes from the academic and UN advisor Jeffrey Sachs. Does the recent Paris climate summit offer more hope?
It was in 1992 that world leaders agreed urgent action was needed to find pathways of development to enable everyone live a decent life within Earth’s ecological limits, and to avoid irreversible disruption of the climate and other life-support systems. Since then, despite copious scientific evidence, and repeated official pledges of action, the world remains on course for a disastrous 3- or 4-degree rise in average surface temperature by 2100.
Perverse and complacent policymaking continues. The proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) threatens to diminish social and environmental standards in the name of free trade, and contradict international policy goals for sustainable development and climate change mitigation. In the UK, the Climate Change Act (2008), with all-party support, led the way in setting long-term, ambitious and binding targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. However, in 2010 the Coalition Government abolished its Sustainable Development Commission. And since May, the Conservative Government has frustrated renewable energy investors by slashing subsidy and increasing VAT for clean energy; has abandoned support for carbon capture and storage; and has dropped out of the top ten countries investing in low-carbon energy. So many mixed messages have been sent that it remains hard to detect any consistent concern about environmental risks.
And yet … The Paris climate summit has reignited hope. That conference opened with impassioned pleas from political leaders. David Cameron said: ‘Instead of making excuses tomorrow to our grandchildren, we should be taking action against climate change today.’ Negotiators from 195 countries toiled to deliver an historic deal to curb global emissions, and provide financial assistance for countries least able to adapt. These huge commitments will need urgent and determined action from our Government and all its partners in the EU and OECD. To meet the goals set at Paris, we need massive investment in clean energy technologies, determined political leadership, constant pressure on policymakers, and example-setting in civil society and business. Paris is but one (crucial) step in the process of ending poverty and hunger, protecting the planet, and fostering peaceful, just and inclusive societies.
That an ambitious accord was agreed in Paris owes a great deal to the pressure exerted over recent years by a broad ‘coalition’ of NGOs, major companies, cities – and churches . Many corporations are developing enterprising strategies for sustainable production and consumption and have demanded radical action from governments. Faith communities have been urged to use their influence and unique capacities. 2015 brought many inspiring signs that churches are waking up to the challenges, with growing realisation that environmental issues are not primarily economic or political, but spiritual. They are about our vision, our values. The challenge is for a change of heart and mind, away from the sins of over-consumption, and towards justice, generosity and care for the common good. The General Synod Environment Working Group under Bishop Nicholas Holtam is taking a lead. The Archbishop and other faith leaders made the Lambeth Declaration on climate change. Pope Francis issued his magnificent Encyclical, drawing on theological and spiritual resources, urging the world to respond to the connected plights of the Earth and of the poor. Christians of all denominations, and people of all faiths and none, responded to calls for prayer, pilgrimage and demonstration in the run-up to the Paris summit.
Thankfully, climate change and sustainability are now central to our Christian witness and mission. At November’s Synod, Archbishop Sentamu spoke of witnessing the effects of climate change in Polynesia. He quoted two school children: ‘The shoreline extended more than 150 meters out towards the open sea until 1995 when the sea level started rising … all the graves now lie submerged at high tide and at low tide they are exposed and covered in barnacles.’ Archbishop Sentamu commented: ‘Concern for the planet is not a Christian ‘add-on’, but intrinsic to our understanding of the gospel today. The affirmation we make when reciting the Creed – ‘God the Father, Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth’ – is foundational for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Care for God’s creation is an essential and vitally important dimension of our Christian discipleship and mission.’
In the light of this, here are nine New Year Resolutions for the Church of England:
1. Pray for our mission ‘to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth’, ‘to respond to human need by loving service’ and ‘to seek to transform unjust structures of society’.
2. Regularly include in our worship gratitude to ‘God the Creator’, especially during Creation Time.
3. Review the carbon footprints of ourselves, our churches, parsonages and diocesan offices, and live with more restraint, less waste, more generosity, more gratitude.
4. Hold our Government and major corporations to account, and (e.g. through PCC letters to MPs) urgently encourage the transition to a low carbon economy, to minimise dependence on fossil fuels, and work for clean energy and against deforestation and further loss of biodiversity.
5. Work for a reshaped economic system that prioritises the alleviation of poverty, and works for the common good and the wellbeing of all creatures.
6. Move our investments towards a zero carbon portfolio.
7. Critically examine the proposals for TTIP in the light of the Church’s mission.
8. Hold our Government to its pledge of increased aid for less developed countries.
9. Encourage partnership links with overseas dioceses to keep fully informed – for our prayers, our giving and action – of the local effects of climate change and loss of sustainability.
David Atkinson is an Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Southwark. Ian Christie is a Fellow at the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey. He writes here in a personal capacity.
An edited version of this paper was first published in Church Times on 1 January 2016.