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The Tipping Point: Why climate change is the biggest threat facing our generation

Megan Cornwell reports on the Christian case for urgent action on climate change

Meteorologically it has been a turbulent few months for our world. In the UK we have experienced blisteringly hot weather; in Greece, Spain and Portugal, deadly wildfires caused by record temperatures have claimed the lives of scores of people. In Japan, severe flooding killed around 200 in July, after which searing heat put 23,000 people in hospital. The events of this summer followed swiftly on the back of the devastating Atlantic hurricanes and monsoon floods in India that helped make 2017 the most costly year on record for severe weather and climate events. Of the 18 warmest years ever recorded, 17 have occurred since 2001.

Experts concur that patterns of extreme weather are evidence of dangerous global warming, which 97 percent of climate scientists now agree is a man-made phenomenon. NASA puts it like this: “In the absence of major action to reduce emissions, global temperature is on track to rise by an average of 6°C(10.8°F), according to the latest estimates. Some scientists argue a ‘global disaster’ is already unfolding at the poles of the planet; the Arctic, for example, may be ice-free at the end of the summer melt season within just a few years.

Yet other experts are concerned about Earth passing one or more ‘tipping points’ – abrupt, perhaps irreversible changes that tip our climate into a new state.” The predictions are frightening: Old Testament-style flooding of countries, the elimination of coral reefs and animal species, people displaced from their homes due to drought and loss of life on a catastrophic scale.

It’s uncomfortable and even surprising to some of us to consider that our way of living is causing these devastating weather events around the world, but that’s what much of the science shows us. Since the Industrial Revolution, rich countries like Britain have built entire economic systems that rely on the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and gas, for energy. It’s what powers our factories, heats our homes and fuels our cars. It’s what’s produced through the process that creates the meat we consume at our dining tables. It’s the byproduct of burning fossil fuels: greenhouse gases, so called because they create a greenhouse warming effect over the earth, that results in increased global temperatures. Because warmer air can hold more water, stronger rainfall events are more likely. What’s more, warmer temperatures lead to melting ice in the Arctic, which causes sea levels to rise, increasing the risk of flooding in low-lying areas.

The Ecclesial Climate

Rev  Dr  Darrell  Hannah,  rector  of  All Saints’ Church, Ascot, and trustee of Christian environmental charity Operation Noah, says the Church has been slow to respond to the threat of climate change. This may, in part, be due to a misunderstanding of scripture, he says. Using Genesis 3, Rev Hannah explains that the picture which existed before the Fall, of harmony between God and humankind, also encompassed humankind and the natural world. He believes we’ve lost sight of how God will restore not only our relationship with him, but our relationship with each other and our world. He says Christians ever since the Reformation have tended to “reduce salvation” to a focus on individuals, “as opposed to a story of the Church as the body of Christ being united to one another...and this wonderful harmony with nature that is promised in the new heaven and the new earth.

“So, because we’ve reduced the gospel to this gospel of individual salvation,” he continues, “we don’t get the importance of creation. And so we have a sense that creation is just there for our exploitation.

“God is not simply going to trash creation at the end, he’s going to renew it, and so we can’t trash creation. But an equally important reason is that we as Christians believe one of the most important things we are called to do is to love our neighbour. And you can’t love your neighbour if you continue living a lifestyle that is causing climate change, causing greater floods, causing higher waters in the Pacific, causing forest fires and incredible temperatures in the Indian subcontinent.”

"Christians are failing to see that environmental abuse is a sin"

Are Christians failing to see that environmental abuse is a sin? Yes, he replies: “It’s an uncomfortable message, you know, because our whole lifestyle is based on this very luxurious, easy living; these cheap fuels that destroy the earth. And we don’t see the impact immediately.”

So, we’re talking about drastic lifestyle changes? For the American clergyman who was born and raised in Washington state, it’s less about what we give up and more about what we embrace. “I think we need to be bold and we need to find big steps, and I don’t think it’s enough just to recycle or use the car less. I think we as Christians, of all people, have got to find a way to recapture that apostolic value of simplicity.”

When I call to speak with Joe Ware, media manager at Christian Aid, he is keen to emphasise the importance of campaigning as an effective tool in the fight against climate change: “I definitely am of the view that the way we’re going to fix it is not through lots of individuals doing tiny things, we do need some structural change. And so engaging politically in this is really, really important. It doesn’t have to be going down with a massive placard and protesting, although I think that’s one perfectly good way of doing it. It can be very simple things such as writing to your MP to say this is something you’re concerned about and asking them to do more. Because if you can get the government to change, then you bring about massive amounts of change on a big scale, which is what we need.”

After a successful campaign asking supporters to email the Prime Minister just before the UN climate conference in Paris in 2015 – at which global leaders agreed for the first time to limit carbon emissions – Christian Aid is now asking supporters to email HSBC and other banks to ask their chief executives to invest in clean energy initiatives that don’t harm the planet, such as wind and solar, rather than fossil fuel projects. Ware tells me this simple idea is working: “Obviously, they [HSBC] rely on British customers and individuals, and it’s amazing how, since we started the campaign, HSBC have started to have conversations with us. They’ve started to want meetings; they want to avoid any negative publicity, they want to avoid campaigners.”

Those with financial clout have power, which is why action on the political and economic front can be so effective. Rev Hannah knows this first-hand; he was one of the clergymen who called for the Church of England to divest – withdraw its shares and financial support – from fossil fuel companies.

In 2015, after becoming increasingly convinced that the climate crisis was a moral issue, he put forward a motion in his Oxford Diocese calling on the Church of England to immediately divest from companies that supported the coal industry; and to divest from oil within three years and natural gas within five. The committee that decides what motions General Synod considers for debate, chose instead to put forward a motion from the National Investing Bodies. This motion – that passed unanimously at Synod – divested the Church from the worst polluters and began a process of “robust engagement” with the remaining businesses in their investment portfolio.

While this symbolised some progress, Rev Hannah felt it was still moving too slowly for the kind of drastic change that was required. Which is why this year he passed another motion in Oxford calling on the CofE to divest by 2020 from any oil and gas company that had not brought its investments in line with the agreed global goals set at the UN climate talks in Paris. “Again, the business committee did not take our motion,” he tells me, wearily. Instead the Diocese was allowed to bring an amendment to a motion put forward by the National Investing Bodies. “Their motion was weaker,” says Hannah, “it promised some divestment from companies that were not moving quickly enough – it was really loose language.” What finally passed was a compromise, committing the Church to divest by 2023 from any companies not aligned with the Paris goals. “I would much prefer it to be 2020 or 2021 but there we are,” he says.

Ware agrees that parts of the Church have been slow to respond. “But,” he says, “the exciting part is that when the Church moves, things happen. Ultimately it was an evangelical William Wilberforce that helped to bring about the end of the transatlantic slave trade; it was Martin Luther King, a Methodist minister, who helped to bring about civil rights in America; it was Desmond Tutu in the Church in South Africa that helped with apartheid to build that kind of reconciliation with the country. And so there are great examples of Christians in the Church, when it does get its act together and it does take on these issues. It can really be very, very powerful.”

Beyond the Polar Bears

Sylvia Ngondo (pictured above) lives in Chirambi in central Malawi with her four children. When the country suffered a severe drought in 2016 she struggled to feed her family, resorting to giving them leaves in desperation to fill their stomachs, knowing they had no nutritional value. She told Tearfund: “When there is no maize my children are crying throughout the day, looking for food. I have got nothing to give them so I give them the leaves just to ease their hunger because I have got nothing else for them.” Sylvia remembers good rains and healthy harvests as a child, but now the seasons are unpredictable, which makes farming difficult. Last year was the worst drought in many decades.

"The world gets enough energy from the sun in one hour to fulfil all the world's energy needs for a year"

It’s stories like Sylvia’s that have galvanised the Christian development agencies into action. Tearfund are keen to emphasise that fundamentally climate change is about saving people’s lives. But the message that global warming is a justice issue: a phenomenon that mainly impacts those least responsible for it and least able to cope, has taken a while to filter down. Ben Niblett from the charity’s advocacy team puts it like this: “People need to see that climate change is about making people hungry and thirsty, which it is. And in a way it’s about getting beyond the polar bear. Polar bears are beautiful and we see something of God’s glory when we look at them...But it’s the urgency of caring for our neighbours that motivates people more, I think. And also understanding that it’s urgent...future generations may seem a long way away but it’s about people like me being hit now...I think, once you get that across, people are really willing to respond.

And respond they have. More than 5,500 churches across the UK are now committed to switching their energy suppliers to a 100 per cent renewable source, a change that many say is also cost-effective. With the average annual church electricity bill around £1,000, British churches are set to divert as much as £5m from fossil fuels to clean energy.

Before and after photos of the west side of McCarty Glacier in Alaska, showing glacial retreat. The first image was taken in 1909 and the second in 2004

These images, taken from space by NASA, compare ice coverage in 1984 and 2012

An Act of Worship

Niblett believes that caring about climate change is not an optional add-on for Christians. We discuss the fact that many people in the UK think nothing of buying a coffee in a single-use plastic cup, most of which are not recyclable. Even when they can be recycled, it takes energy – usually from burning fossil fuels – to convert it into something else.

“In a way, it’s a great example of something that’s a completely innocent pleasure. Having a chat over a coffee with a friend; it’s an excellent thing. But it’s certainly a very small change to have a reusable cup instead of a disposable cup. And that change is a way of loving your neighbour...So buying that cup, and then actually remembering to take it with me is an act of worship, and I can still enjoy the coffee, but I can do it in a way that doesn’t accidentally cause collateral damage.”

For Niblett, personal responsibility is crucial: “I think it’s our generation’s biggest challenge,” he says. “When they write the history books of this era, ‘What did you do about climate change?’ will be one of the main chapters in that history.

“Most issues of justice can get worse or better and it’s worth making the effort to make them better, like providing more clean water for people,” he says. “But it’s never the last chance to provide clean water. Whereas there is a point where climate change will have run away with us and temperature rise will have gone beyond the point we can cope with at all easily. And once that has happened, we can’t get it back. So that’s why it’s urgent now, because we have to tackle it now. If we go on increasing our carbon emissions over the next 20 years, it will be too late.”

Experts say that if we were to stop emitting greenhouse gases today, global warming would continue to happen for at least several more decades, if not centuries. That’s because it takes time for the planet to respond: carbon dioxide, the most common heat-trapping gas, lingers in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.

But there is hope. The world gets more energy from the sun in just one hour to fulfil all the world’s energy needs for a full year. Renewable solutions, such as solar panels and wind farms, could make all the difference, if investment was forthcoming. And green shoots are springing up: New York City has divested from fossil fuels, the whole of the Republic of Ireland has begun the process of moving its €8bn national investment fund from fossil fuel companies. Closer to home the UK is planning to ban the sale of all petrol and diesel cars by 2040. It seems the future is electric, if the increased sale of these cars is anything to go by. And on the global stage, despite President Trump bailing out of the Paris Agreement, American businesses and cities are recommitting to 100 per cent renewable energy. But there’s still a big way to go internationally for many nations, including China, the world’s biggest polluter.

Rev Hannah said something that shook me while we were discussing eschatology (the study of the End Times). He said: “What are you going to say [when you stand before Jesus]? Are you going to say: ‘Well, Jesus, I knew that it was going to destroy creation, and you valued creation, and it was causing great suffering for my brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, but I carried on because there wasn’t anything I could do and I knew you loved me anyway’...I mean, it’s not going to elicit the ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ response.”

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