Ahead of COP26, and in light of the current and ongoing climate emergency, Fulcrum will be posting a series of articles exploring climate change, theology and our ethical response during September and October. This is the first in this series: a lecture given at Christ Church Oxford Summer School 2018.
Do you recall the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics – with England’s green and pleasant land transformed by the smoking chimneys of the industrial revolution? There is so much to thank God for in science and technology. I spent some years as a research chemist, and am grateful for all the benefits science and technology have given us. But one of the things the early industrialists did not know is that by burning fossil fuels, by cutting down rain forests, by some aspects of industrial agriculture, we are putting a blanket around the earth, which is changing the climate. My grandfather did not know this, nor did my mother and father. But we do. This places a new and very particular responsibility on our generation.
All through the time of human civilization, the earth has had a relatively stable climate. To go back further, for several hundred thousand years, the average earth surface temperature has gone up and down, through the ice ages and the warm periods in between, partly because of the earth’s axis in relation to the sun, partly because of volcanic activity and so on - and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gone up and down as well. The highest concentration CO2 reached in 600,000 years was 280 parts per million. However, since the industrial revolution, and especially during our lifetime, that concentration has gone up and up. In 2013 reached 400 parts per million for the first time, and in 2018 was 411 ppm, and is still going up. And carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a very long time – many decades or more. If we keep putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at this rate, it has been calculated, the average surface temperature of the earth will very likely go up by 2 or 3 or 4 or even 6 degrees Centigrade in the next decades. This may not sound much, but when you think that the temperature difference between an ice age and the warm period in between is only about 6 – 7 degrees C., we are talking about roughly half an ice age change in a matter of decades. The earth has never had to adapt so quickly before. And that will create a very unstable climate especially for our grandchildren. And the people most affected will not be here, but in Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia - people who have done the least to cause the damage, and are the least able to adapt. Add to this the fact that at the moment the earth’s population is growing at the rate of a city the size of Birmingham every five days.
Climate disruption is already happening and it is changing more than the climate.
In August 2018, an international group of scientists published a paper which indicates that on present course ‘the planet is at risk of heading towards a ‘Hothouse Earth’ – with a possible long-term stabilization of global average at 4 – 5 degrees higher than pre-industrial temperatures. That would mean a sea level tens of meters higher than today, and parts of the planet uninhabitable. The reason, they argue, is that warming of above 2 degrees may trigger other events in the Earth system which create a sort of domino effect of increasing global warming - events such as release of methane from the ocean floor and from permafrost, die back of rainforests, reduction of snow cover and sea ice and so on. Their conclusion is that reducing carbon emissions – absolutely crucial though that is – will not be enough.
For the last 30 years, climate scientists have been warning us about the likelihood of more frequent severe weather events. The sea levels are rising, as people in the Solomon Islands, Bangladesh and The Maldives know. The oceans are getting more acidic, through CO2 dissolving in the water, which affects coral reefs and plankton, and that affects fish, and that affects the food chain. Some of the deserts are growing, which means that food and fresh water will become much more scarce in some parts of the world. Many creatures are becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate – what some call the Sixth Great Extinction: this time caused by us.
In a speech to the UN as long ago as 1989, Margaret Thatcher said:
“What we are now doing to the world, by degrading the land surfaces, by polluting the waters and by adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate - all this is new in the experience of the earth”.
There are a small but growing number of academics who discuss all this in terms of an almost inevitable near-term social collapse, a probable ecological catastrophe, and a possible extinction of all animal life including human by the end of this century. What are we to make of that?
What sort of world will my young grandchildren find when they are my age?
All this poses a number of ethical questions for us. For example:
- What should be our human relationship to the rest of the planet – to other creatures – to the loss of biodiversity?
- What sort of trust should we place in technology? If technology has caused our problems, is it technology that can provide solutions?
- What are our responsibilities to the parts of the world that are poorest and have done least to cause the damage to our atmosphere?
- How do we let future generations speak to us of their needs? (It is our carbon emissions that will still be around in their)
- Why do we maintain our dependence on fossil fuels, when we know that is a major cause of damage to the planet?
- How do we handle the need for global cooperation, as well as the human sin, selfishness and stupidity that hampers it?
- And behind all this; How do we handle our fears and vulnerabilities and anxieties about the future: how do we live and act and pray in the context of possible, even probable, future catastrophe?
These are all moral and I suggest spiritual questions. They are about global justice, about inter-generational justice, about living in the truth. In a speech at the Vatican 10 years ago, David Miliband who was then Environment Secretary said: “Climate is not just an environmental or economic issue; it is a moral and ethical one.” It is what Professor Mike Hulme characterised as a ‘wicked’ problem, that is a problem with no clear solution, one in which parameters keep changing, and which needs a systemic response holding together science, ethics and spirituality.
It was in that context that Pope Francis produced his magnificent Encyclical Laudato Si. in 2015, in which he calls on humanity to awaken our conscience and to take urgent action.
The Pope writes on behalf of the Earth, ‘our common home’, and particularly from the perspective of the poorest inhabitants. We need, he says, to integrate the question of justice so as to hear together both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.
It was in that context, too, that in 2012 Operation Noah published its Ash Wednesday Declaration on ‘climate change and the purposes of God’. It reflected on God’s joy in creation, and our joy in God’s gift; our need to repent of past stupidities and sins, on the call to love our neighbours and do justice in the world, and on the grounds for hope in God’s faithfulness. Professor Mary Grey commented on this:
‘For Christians, the themes of this statement - joy, repentance, hope, justice and so on – are not optional: they are at the heart of our identity as Church. We will encounter them in the form of a question when we face God’s judgement: “What did you do to cherish my creation in its hour of danger?”
How have we got to this point?
I think we have lost the biblical sense that there is a wonderful triangle of relationships between God, humanity and the earth - that we humans are part of the earth, and dependent on the earth for our well-being, but we also have responsibility as God’s image-bearers to care for God’s creation on God’s behalf. Instead of this rich triangle of relationships, there have been strong tendencies to ignore either ‘God’ or ‘the earth’. Many people –especially from the Enlightenment onwards - tend to displace God, and think only of our human relationship to the earth. This is what Martin Buber called ‘The Eclipse of God.’ Then we either think of ourselves as the Masters and Possessors of Nature (as Francis Bacon once put it) - using the world to provide for all our wants, so we exploit it, and extract it, and damage it without thought of the future; or we think that Nature is some great power which we cannot control, nothing we do can make any difference, so let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die - a sort of fatalism. John Donne captured something of the sense of loss that the new science of Francis Bacon was producing: ‘’Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.’ On the other hand, too many Christian people seem to have concentrated entirely on the ‘God – human axis’ of the triangle, and simply - and damagingly - ignored our human relationship with the earth. One Christian moral imperative is to recover that triangle: God, humanity and the earth. God’s earth is resilient, but we are called to exercise responsibility for it, and the decisions we make have a great effect on it for good or bad.
One Church of England Report of a few years ago was called ‘Sharing God’s Planet’, and another was called ‘Church and Earth’. Both in their different ways sought to address the Christian Imperative to care for God’s world, picking up the Fifth of the Five Marks of Mission adopted some years ago by the world-wide Anglican Consultative Council:
‘To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.’
The point we have got to now is full of contradictions. Many climate scientists use apocalyptic language about dangerous global warming, yet climate change seems such a low political priority, not least in Trump’s White house, despite recent encouraging noises from China and even India.
Burning coal is such a threat to life, and reduction in fossil fuel dependency is so urgent, yet we are planning globally to build another 2000 coal fired power stations over the next few years.
The G20 agreed in 1999 to end fossil fuels subsidies, and nothing has yet happened.
In 2015, the Paris Climate Accord was the first time 194 countries came to a common mind in seeking to reduce global carbon emissions such that global earth surface temperature rise is held at 2 deg. or ideally 1.5 deg.. This was a good first step – but was not mandatory, and Trump has already indicated that he is not going to play ball.
Michael Northcott (A Political Theology of Climate Change SPCK 2014) discusses these contradictions in terms of the ‘pulling apart’ which happened at the Enlightenment. With the eclipse of God - the fracture of my triangle - nature is pulled apart from culture, body from spirit, science from ethics. There is a separation between humanity and the rest of the natural order, which drives us towards exploitation – and makes human action the primary cause of damage to the planet on which all life depends.
In the New Testament, the word used for pulling apart, dividing, separating, setting at variance, is ‘diabolos’ - there is something diabolical. The ministry of Jesus in the Gospels, on the other hand, is predominantly, healing, gathering up fragments, restoring, and putting back together.
Part of our moral imperative in Christian mission must include a repair of the breach between body and spirit, nature and culture, science and ethics. This needs collaboration between those engaged in the mission agenda, and the ecological and the developmental agendas, as part of the Mission of God to make all things new. In other words, Economy, Ecology and Equity all belong systemically together.
Which brings me to one theological model of interrelationships: that of Covenant.
We often think of covenant as between God and people: God, Israel and their land. But that is a symbol of a deeper cosmic covenant: what I called the triangle of relationships between God, humanity and the earth. Here, then, are four big covenant words: Creation, Sabbath, Justice, Hope.
(i) Covenant and Creation
A text from John’s Gospel:
(a) In the beginning was the Word; all things were made through him.
This immediately resonates with Genesis 1, - the whole of creation leading to the worship of the Sabbath; humanity, God’s image bearer, charged with responsibility of creation care. Nature is God’s creation; ‘the earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps 24.1)
All we have, life and the means of life comes to us as gift. If as the prophet Amos says of God the creator, he is “Lord of all”, then our first ethical response needs to be one of allegiance. Can we develop an ethic of allegiance to God, the Lord, which acknowledges the interdependence between humanity and the earth, and both as dependent on God.
However, John’s Gospel continues with this somber note:
(b) The world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.
I think this means that it is possible to be alive in God’s creation but not be alive to God.
As long ago as C8th BC, the prophet Isaiah wrote:
‘The earth dries up and withers; the world languishes; the earth lies polluted under its inhabitants. For they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant’. (Isa. 24. 4f.)
Isaiah understands the judgement of God against Israel’s waywardness as symbolized by environmental degradation. There is a strong biblical theme of creation in jeopardy
It is worth pausing here to notice how many of the stories we tell each other about nature, about climate change, illustrate the eclipse of God from the world, and the consequent attempts to separate humanity from God’s earth.
(i) There is a story about Management and Control.
From Francis Bacon onwards there is a view of nature as a mechanism which we can manipulate, exploit for our own benefit. You get this in Nigel Lawson’s book about global warming: In broad précis: ‘The earth is very resilient; technological discovery has always come to our rescue in the past; we can manage the world for our benefit; there is no need to worry.’ How do we respond to such complacency?
(ii) At the opposite extreme, there is a story of doom. ‘The earth system is very fragile and sensitive to climate change; we are seriously damaging the environment: Be afraid - be very afraid.’ In his book ‘Ten Billion’, Stephen Emmott’s verdict is “I think we’re stuffed” - well, he actually uses a rather stronger Anglo-Saxon word. How do we respond to overwhelming despair?
(iii) There is a third sort of story that seems to be about greed. We are a ‘market-led’ economy in which something called The Market rules; finance trumps every other consideration; everything, including the environment becomes a commodity to be desired, or given a price tag. In Boris Johnson’s Margaret Thatcher Lecture a year or two back, he celebrated greed, along with self-interest and competitiveness as important drivers for economic growth.
The Christian Gospel gives us a different story:
- instead of management and control: a story of interdependence, cooperation and fellowship;
- instead of despair: a story of compassionate love and mercy leading to hope;
- instead of greed and competitiveness: a story of generosity, self-giving restraint and service.
All in all, the Christian Gospel is a story about love: God’s love for God’s creation; God’s call to us to love our neighbours and do justice in all our human affairs, and to exercise responsible care for God’s creation. An Ethic of loving Allegiance.
(ii) Covenant and Sabbath. Sabbath is about the rhythm of the days of the weeks; the rhythm of work and rest; a reminder of spiritual values.
Sabbath is a sign that the creation is oriented towards the Kingdom of God’s glory.
Sabbath speaks to us about God’s delight in creation, about the sacredness of the created order. It is Sabbath that underlies the Jubilee laws of Leviticus, with their reminder that the earth is the Lords, and that the earth itself needs its rhythm of life in order to be replenished and sustained.
This suggests the importance of living within God-given limits - not only moral limits, but the physical limits of the carrying capacity of a finite earth, and the economic boundaries set by a finite planet.
We could call this an Ethic of Restraint. A call to live differently.
Just suppose we had a world in which we were not all trying to consume as much as we could to keep GDP growing and growing as though there were no boundaries, or in which we could significantly reduce our dependency on coal, oil and gas, and satisfy our energy needs in other ways. We would not be extracting so many resources from the earth, and the earth could be more sustainable; the air would be cleaner and we could breathe more easily; the water would be fresher and there would not be wars fought over clean water; the land would be more fertile and our food security would be stronger; people who live in London or New York or Shanghai – not to mention the Solomon Islands - would not be afraid that their cities will flood. We could build a cleaner and healthier and better-fed world that is more just, with less poverty, and less anxiety about what the future will hold. Is that still within our reach? The time available is diminishing. An Ethic of Restraint.
(iii) Covenant and Justice: Justice is the social expression of what Jesus called neighbour-love. It was on the Sabbath in Nazareth that Jesus gives us the Jubilee text:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to
- bring good news to the poor
- release to the captives
- recovery of sight to the blind,
- to let the oppressed go free”.
Justice, especially for the poorest and most disadvantaged people. Climate change calls us to love and to do justice for our neighbours - including those overseas and those not yet born. Justice requires a fresh look at our economy: we need different sort of economics, rooted in human values. Economy, Ecology and Equity need to be thought through together, an Ethic of Love and Justice.
What might this mean in practice here?
At a personal level, we try to restrain the drivers of over-consumption, radically restrain our consumer lifestyles; we try to become more energy efficient, and reduce our own dependence on fossil-fuel energy.
At a social level, we work with others in our neighbourhoods, or with the local council, perhaps with farmers markets, or community energy schemes, or managing waste disposal, or arguing for better local public transport and safer cycle lanes. We could develop more local democracy and local accountability – instead of being bound so much by the power of global corporations.
At the national level, we hold our governments and corporations to account - and to the legal obligations of the UK Climate Change Act (2008), and our national commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement. We think about how our money is invested, how to create an economy which is not based on the assumption of unlimited growth, but on human values. We think about what can be done to help us reduce our corporate dependency on fossil fuels, and work for energy efficiency and a low carbon economy.
All in all we need to find a way to bring economy, ecology and equity back into relationship again within the triangle of relationships between God, humanity and the earth.
(iv) Covenant and Hope: Hope is a big covenant word, linked in the New Testament to the incarnation of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead - and rooted in the redemption and healing of the whole of creation. The incarnation is the repair for our cultural splits between body and spirit, nature and culture, science and ethics. Whereas John’s Donne wrote “Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone”, the Incarnation - at the centre of our triangle - is ‘coherence restored’: God, humanity and earth reconnected; the cosmic covenant fulfilled.
It is through Christ, says St Paul, that God reconciles all things to himself, making peace through the blood of the Cross. It is through Christ entering into the depths of disintegration, even to death, that reintegration, new coherence, healing and resurrection are possible, and the vision becomes one of the whole creation made new - or, as Hans Kung puts it, ‘The Kingdom of God is creation healed’.
But hope does not mean the false optimism that imagines we humans have the key to all our problems. It does not mean the blind optimism that refuses to believe there is a problem at all. If our hope is optimistic, it is an optimism of grace. It is a hope such as sustained the NT writers in the face of various impending catastrophes in the ancient Roman world, a hope in the faithfulness of God – that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it – and that the Lord, the Giver of Life, even in the midst of the forces of death, has a purpose for God’s creation which includes what the Book of Revelation calls ‘destroying the destroyers of the earth’ which I think means the triumph of Love and Life over all the powers of destructiveness. It is an Ethic of Hope in the Faithfulness of God, which empowers us to live hopefully, and to redouble our endeavours to live faithfully and urgently to recover our human calling as God’s image-bearers in responsible care for God’s creation.
Can climate change be a wake-up call to live differently, more safely, more heathily, with more space for the human things money cannot buy: friendship, loyalty, communion, creativity, love. Can it provoke us into transformative action –a different way of living, informed by God’s Wisdom? a rethinking of our desires, and the costly restraint that discipleship will entail?
So, in summary, I believe climate change requires of us
- an ethic of allegiance to the Covenant Lord, the Creator of earth and heaven, and a recognition that human well-being depends on the earth’s well-being;
- an ethic of restraint in response to the sacredness of God’s gift, and living within limits;
- an ethic of Love and of Justice in relation to our neighbours - those especially in the poorest parts of the world, and those not yet born;
- and ethic of Hope in God’s faithfulness - not a blind optimism that all will work out well, because at the moment it looks as though we are heading for some sort of catastrophe - but Hope in the Faithfulness of God, centred in the Christ who holds God, earth and humanity together, and whose promise is to make all things new.
Let me conclude by returning to Pope Francis. The whole Encyclical is ‘book-ended’ with prayer and worship. The Pope celebrates creation as gift of God’s love; he grieves over our sin and selfishness; he expresses gratitude to God for science and technology; underlines the damage done by the power of a technocracy unrestrained by morality; he pleads for a recovery of our humanness as God’s joyous image bearers in responsibly loving, cultivating and caring for God’s earth. He ends: ‘Laudato Si’, mi’ Signore: Praise be to you, my Lord’.
A fuller version of some of the themes of this lecture were published on the Operation Noah website in a paper entitled ‘Climate Change and the Gospel’ (2015). www.operationnoah.org.
 Developed first, I think by Dr C J H Wright in God’s People in God’s Land, Eerdmans / Paternoster Press 1990.
Dr David Atkinson is a former Bishop of Thetford