Review of Michael Northcott’s “A Political Theology of Climate Change”

politicaltheologyclimatechangeA Political Theology of Climate Change

Michael S. Northcott

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This review first appeared in the Church Times and we are grateful for permission to reproduce it here.

THIS is a hugely important book. It is about the end of a habitable earth, and how to avert that.

Why, though many climate scientists use apocalyptic language about dangerous global warming (summer Arctic ice will disappear for the first time in two million years), is climate change such a low political priority?

Why, since burning coal is such a threat to life, and reduction in fossil-fuel dependency so urgent, is humanity planning to build another 2000 coal-power stations?

Why is the UN search for emissions targets so unworkable? Why are governments powerless to take action? Why, though the G20 agreed in 1999 to end fossil-fuel subsidies, has nothing happened?

Michael Northcott addresses such contradictions in the course of his important book on political theology. It is wide-ranging, immensely erudite, and powerfully argued, in conversation with, among others, Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant,A. N. Whitehead, Alasdair MacIntyre, Augustine, William Blake, and (surprisingly) Carl Schmitt.

Climate change calls in question many assumptions of our post-Enlightenment rationalist culture of scientific materialism and free-market economics, in which body and soul, nature and culture, science and ethics are forced apart. It questions the supposed "objectivity" of science in Bacon's mechanistic world, which leads to a view of humanity detached from nature, and driven to exploit it. Climate change discloses the illusory assumption of (morally blind) neo-liberal capitalism: that human flourishing can be achieved by the "corporately sustained engine of economic growth", when the chief cause of environmental catastrophe is burning fossil fuels: they need to stay in the ground, and low-carbon energy should be developed instead.

Humanity once understood itself as being interdependent with the natural order; now human action is the primary cause of damage to the planet on which all life depends.

Climate change crosses national borders, and so puts questions to unrestrained global corporations. Northcott argues for a recovery of the nation state as the proper authority to regulate extraction and emissions within its borders. The nation state under God needs to acknowledge the stark reality that it is constrained within ecological limits, as well as moral boundaries. Reducing climate damage will require sacrifices of consumption and economic growth.

Northcott has given us the benefit of his life's work so far. It is not easy bed-time reading. The style is dense in places, and it is sometimes repetitive. But its message is vital, and life-giving, and should inform the Archbishops' Council's new environment working group, and the Ethical Investment Advisory Group, as well as individual Christian disciples and local Christian churches and communities - and the UK Environment Secretary, and Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change also.

Northcott has written political theology. Apocalyptic is understood in terms of judgement from God - the unveiling of the true inter-relationship between God, humanity, and the earth. He criticises Locke's political theology for detaching human values from their intrinsic derivation from the Creator. The "end of history" is nature calling time on the freedom of the wealthy to raid the planet for resources to sustain industrial civilisation, while forcing increasing numbers into poverty of diminishing food and water.

The nations are accountable to God for maintaining the connection between nature, society, and the sacred. The fulfilment of history is in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Spirit. The meaning of nature lies in the messianic gift of suffering love, the recovery of compassion and grace. The vision that drives Northcott's political theology of the present is of the divine future in which ultimately the whole of restored creation worships God - and the centre of that worship is a Lamb on a throne.

2 thoughts on “Review of Michael Northcott’s “A Political Theology of Climate Change””

  1. What is the practical value of a political theology of climate change?

    “…for non-scientists to realise [that slow changes in climate are leading to catastrophic outcomes], the rise in conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East needs to be presented in ways that make the connections between climate and culture. Modern political scientists tend, however, to decontextualise politics from geography, and culture from nature, and hence are more likely to read signs of growing conflict in Islamic terrains, and the overflow of terrorism and other problems into the West, as evidence of a ‘clash of civilisations’ rather than as evidence of climate change. As I argue in what follows, political theology offers an alternative perspective because it situates culture in creation, and politics in the geography of the nations.”

    Northcott, Michael S. (2013). A Political Theology of Climate Change. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Kindle Locations 180-184.

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