We all talk about the weather. But the summer floods – the worst the UK had seen for years – meant it made the front pages of the papers more than anyone could have anticipated. Images of people stranded and homeless across the country – particularly in Tewkesbury – left a lot of people asking, “Why did this happen?”.
While climate scientists have been reluctant to make the link between global warming and the summer’s catastrophic weather, it did bring home for many how we are at the mercy of the elements.
It might even serve as the ‘sudden jolt’ which Al Gore says is needed to make people aware of the danger. In his film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, Gore uses the boiling frog metaphor (the contention that if you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump straight out, but if you put it in cold water and turn the temperature up little by little it will never jump out) to illustrate human ignorance towards global warming. In reality, there is little debate over whether the planet is heating up, and whether it is a problem.
“Climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today, more serious even than the threat of terrorism,” says David King, UK government chief scientific advisor.
Most scientists do claim that it is due to human activity. The chief scientist at the Met Office, Prof. John Mitchell, says, “Human-induced increases in carbon dioxide (CO2) are enhancing the greenhouse effect and amplifying the recent warming.”
The real question is what, if anything, can be done to halt it?
Is it down to individuals changing their habits? Low energy light bulbs and switching off stand-by buttons on TVs and computers at night are fairly straightforward, but what about other things? Should you choose paper or plastic bags (some forms of plastic take hundreds of years to degrade, but paper takes more energy to produce)? And should you turn off the air conditioning in your car (driving with the windows open uses more fuel)? Further to that, is individual action going to make any difference at all, or is the only thing which will make a difference some sort of global consensus and policy shift?
There’s a lot of confusion, which appears to have paralysed most of us into inaction. A recent Norwich Union survey found that nine in 10 people realised they should be doing more to be environmentally friendly but didn’t feel inclined to do it, and so told ‘little green lies’ to keep up with the neighbours.
More than half of people surveyed said they would be unlikely to alter their way of life despite pressure from the media, politicians and their children to be greener. “People are feeling a great deal of anxiety, irritation and fear that what they are doing is not enough or is wrong,” psychologist Corinne Sweet told the Daily Telegraph recently. “Their anger can lead them to give up altogether and then be wracked with green guilt.”
For churches, there is a further interesting dimension to the climate change situation, namely, is there a Christian imperative to act?
There has been some interesting theological debate about what the Christian response to climate change should be. There are those who believe that having ‘dominion’ over the earth (Genesis) means we have the right to exploit the environment.
Other believers have voiced concern about environmental issues hijacking the faith agenda. “Our hope is that global warming alarmism would not become a defining or a dividing issue for evangelicals,” says Jim Daley, CEO of conservative evangelical group Focus on the Family. Daley was one of a number of prominent figures who wrote to the US National Association of Evangelicals asking them not to take any position on global warming.
“In our view, this is not a scientific issue that found political support,” Daley says. “It appears to be an effort by politicians and environmental activists to leverage a scientific issue for political gain. “Think of it this way: if there’s a clear environmental problem with a clear solution and the cost is within reason - then let’s do it. But with global warming, it’s not clear what’s causing it, and it’s not clear that there is anything within our power to make a significant difference with respect to the earth’s temperature.”
This view is not as widely held in the UK, where support among Christians for combatting climate change is growing. Many claim that creation care is a fundamental part of the Christian message.
“Anyone who takes the Bible seriously as the Word of God will not fail to see the breadth of our human responsibilities outlined in biblical revelation,” says Dr Elaine Storkey, president of Tearfund. “The command to love God with everything we have is quickly followed by the command to love our neighbour as ourselves. A key part of loving God is to exercise faithful stewardship of the world God has made. A key part of loving our neighbour is not to harm them or exploit their vulnerability to climate change.”
According to Tearfund, the world’s poorest people have contributed least to our changing climate yet they are hardest hit by the effects. It estimates there could be 50 million environmental refugees by 2010 and 150 million by 2050 as a result of climate change.
“Indifference to climate change is not only to reject God’s call to stewardship, but to show indifference to neighbour love, for millions of the world’s poor will suffer today through environmental changes,” says Storkey. “Rising sea levels, erratic weather conditions, coastal erosions and lack of water are all partly effects of human irresponsibility.”
Offsetting the cost
So, if reducing our carbon emissions does become a priority – what is the best way to go about it? Climate Stewards, a branch of international nature conservation organisation A Rocha, has plenty of simple, practical advice on its website about things you can do to cut your personal contribution to CO2 emmisions from insulating your home properly to taking your own bags when you go shopping. It goes further than that, suggesting that you offset the emmissions you are responsible for. Carbon offsetting means mitigating your greenhouse gas emissions by paying towards tree planting or associated schemes.
“Reducing CO2 emissions is slow, but you can offset immediately,” the Climate Stewards website reads. “Voluntary offsetting slows down climate change and reduces the impact on the poor, who are most at risk. Offsetting reminds us that climate change is our responsibility and creates a self-imposed incentive to reduce our emissions. Offsetting demonstrates to politicians that we are serious about wanting action on climate change.”
Celebrities and politicians have bought into this concept very vocally and a growing number of blue chip companies and airlines as well as government departments, are also signing up to such projects.
Organisations, too, are backing Climate Stewards. Tearfund, for example, seeks to do everything possible to reduce its carbon footprint but, as a development charity, acknowledges that some travel is unavoidable. “We reached the decision that from April 2007 we would offset all international air travel for staff with the Christian offsetting company Climate Stewards,” says Tearfund’s advocacy director Andy Atkins. “In addition to the projects they run, we are encouraging them to develop renewable energy projects in the developing world.” However, carbon offsetting is not without its critics.
“Carbon offsetting is better than nothing,” says Nick Spencer, a director of Christian thinktank Theos, who cowrote a book for SPCK and the Jubilee Centre on climate change, “but to me it smacks of medieval indulgences. We can carry on sinning but we can buy time off in purgatory. The schemes which invest in sustainable projects are better than those that plant trees, but really it is better not to fly.” In fact, some tree planting schemes have actually caused more damage. The 10,000 mango trees planted by the band Coldplay to offset the release of its second album, for example, have died. Giving trees the right amount of nutrients and water to absorb CO2, in some locations, can cause more pollution.
Brendan Bowles, co-founder of Climate Stewards, says, “We ensure the trees we plant are an indigenous species so that they protect the land and create a good habitat for local plants and animals.”
Climate Stewards’ tree planting is planned to meet international standards to support local communities via improved employment and food security, as well as absorbing carbon dioxide and safeguarding biodiversity.
Eco-warriors or eco-worriers?
When the truth hits home about the planet heating up, it is easy to panic. But the good news is, it’s not too late to do anything.
“If we stop emitting carbon dioxide now, the effects will continue but they won’t be as devastating as if we don’t,” says Nick Spencer. “The challenge could be minimised. Lives could be saved.
“If one room of a house is on fire, do you give up and say there’s no point in calling the fire engine?”
What will be absolutely key to addressing climate change is a shift in political will. “The government is unlikely to take these tough decisions urgently enough unless the public urges them to do so,” says Andy Atkins. “So we encourage our supporters to join us in putting pressure on our leaders [as well as] cutting their own emissions.”
“People model the right way of living,” adds Brendan Bowles. “You can compare society to a shoal of fish - the shoal moves as one but there is no leader. We can see this in how society works; people copy each other. Think of a speaker giving a presentation and yawning – the whole audience ends up yawning too.”
“If three million Christians all switch to renewable energy and sign a petition saying so, that is a powerful message which will encourage change,” adds Spencer.
Their message is that Christians can make a difference. Many would go further, and say there is an imperative to act. The Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, Rt Rev James Jones, has drawn similarities between climate change and the abolition of slavery. He argues that future generations of Christians will look back and be amazed that we were so complacent over global warming, just as we find it hard to believe that 200 years ago many Christians failed to oppose slavery.
Some have even argued that not to act damages Christian witness in the world. Sir Ghillean Prance, world-renowned botanist and commentator on environmental issues, claims that many churches have lost young people to the New Age movement because of the neglect of rich teachings on care for creation and social justice.
“Jesus asks us to take up our cross daily and follow him,” says Elaine Storkey. “Today, taking our cross might mean deliberately cutting back on waste, on energy consumption, on pollution, on self-centred living. But if we are to be real witnesses to Christ in a needy world, we surely cannot live any other way.”