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04 July 2014

Turning the Tide: the Church and climate change

Turning the Tide: the Church and climate change

The words 'climate change' are increasingly on the lips of humanitarian and environmental groups and charities. The topic occasionally makes it onto the political agenda, but rarely finds its way into the Church.

David Cameron pledged in 2010 the coalition would lead the greenest government ever – something now derided by campaigners.

But is it time global warming was firmly on the Church's agenda?

Only last September, The Times reported the results of a government-funded survey – which quizzed 1,000 people – and showed the proportion of those who did not believe in climate changed had more than quadrupled since 2005.

Climate change is quite clearly a complex problem.

How should politicians respond to the devastatingly honest report released by the UN in March this year? In it, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said the impacts of global warming were likely to be "severe, pervasive and irreversible".

Should the government's priority be economic growth or making sure temperature increases are limited over the next decade or so?

Christian Aid believe the cost of climate change mitigation would be minimal once the cost-savings from taking action are added up.

But is the tide of belief in tackling climate change turning among believers? Or is a lack of universal support among the Church another reason why such an institution is increasingly seen as outdated?

Some progress can be seen though. 

In February, the General Synod voted in favour of a motion re-affirming the Church of England's commitment to play a leading role in the effort to prevent climate change, including through its ethical investment activities. Methodists are also set to debate disinvestment. 

In March, the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Steven Croft spoke out about the need to be proactive on climate change when he recognised the importance of "Christians…taking action to raise this agenda once again in the political life of this country". The scientists tell us that these increases of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide in the earth's atmosphere throw the planet's sensitive ecosystem off-balance with global warming occurring when these gases trap warmth from the earth's atmosphere rather than it being released. But do evangelical Christians simply feel too small to change things? 

Susan Durber, Christian Aid's theology co-ordinator, said she suspected that "churches were caught up in a feeling of powerlessness to change things".

"Sometimes there lingers a prejudice in churches that talking about creation might lead towards paganism or new age spirituality."

Organisation A Rocha encourages conservation among Christians. Alliance Council member Ruth Valerio, A Rocha's churches and theology director, said: "My vision is for the UK Church to get to a place where it's as common for it to be involved in acts of creation care as it is to be engaged in community involvement.

"If you look at the evangelical Church you'd be hard pressed to find a church that doesn't do some sort of community work, if you did, you would think it is deficient as a church.

"I want to get to a place where if a church wasn't involved in creation care you would think it was deficient."

But why has climate change come to the fore now? It made the agenda of this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, has been mentioned by world leaders including President Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, and came closer to home with this year's flooding across the UK.

Campaigns hope the 2015 UN Climate Change talks in Paris will produce a binding and universal agreement from all countries.

Dr Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas Tech University.

In April, Dr Hayhoe was named in Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

The 42-year-old evangelical Christian said: "People used to think climate change was just about polar bears and the Arctic but what reports like the IPCC show us is that climate change is here, and it's affecting us now. It affects our health, our economy, our food, our water and our communities.

"As a Christian, I feel talking about climate change is vital because we are to love others as Christ loved us.

"Many people feel the science threatens the idea of God's sovereignty and ask, how can God be in control if climate change is happening?

"When we look around the world, we see that real people are affected by the decisions we make every day.

"Of course we've always had droughts, storms and heatwaves, but what's happening is climate change is increasing the risk of those events, making them more frequent or in some cases quite severe.

"How can we call ourselves Christians if we bury our heads in the sand and ignore the reality that God's creation is telling us?"

Ben Niblett, senior campaigns officer at Tearfund, said an important part of tackling global warming was looking to the cause.

"It's about justice," he said. "The people who are feeling most hit by climate change are the ones who did the least to cause it.

"Each of us in the UK emits an average 7.7 tons of carbon dioxide a year, compared to 0.3 for the average Bangladeshi. Jesus made it very clear we are to love all of our neighbours across races and nations."

Digesting such information leads to questions not just about the fairness or lack thereof in climate change, but also how it is linked to issues like poverty.

Susan Durber said: "Climate injustice is already making people poor in many parts of our world.

"Farmers are finding the rainy seasons are much shorter that they can no longer grow enough food. In some parts of the world glaciers are shrinking so people have less water to irrigate their fields.

"Anyone who cares about global poverty needs to care about climate change." 

Nick Spencer, research director at Theos, co-wrote Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living. He said the public dialogue about climate change was increasingly evangelical in its thinking.

"It's seen as perfectly acceptable how you choose to live your life;who your sexual partner is, how you spend your money. With these things, freedom is the watchword.

"With regards to the environment, it's perfectly acceptable to say there's a right and wrong way to live.

"Climate change and the environment are not subsidiary to the gospel –they are an absolute essential part."

If this is the case, then either it represents a major failure on the part of the Church to teach this stewardship role, or Christians just disagree with or prefer to ignore passages in the Bible about it?

Susan Durber said one of the "great misunderstandings of what Christian faith was about" is this idea that "God is more about some mystical and eternal 'other' world than this one".

"We are absolutely called to make disciples, but I think being a disciple is precisely about living in faithfulness in creation and giving yourself to the task of renewing the world and the way that we live in it."

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