This week world leaders meet in Copenhagen to get an international agreement on climate change. How likely are they to achieve anything, and what can the Church do? [for your free digital edition of this month's Christianity magazine, click here!] 

The young woman on the screen is sitting in front of a webcam, looking into the lens. “Gordon Brown,” she says, “this is really important. There isn’t much time.” It’s not a new British spy drama on TV, though the woman on the screen is trying to save the world.

She is one of hundreds of people who have recorded videos as part of Christian Aid’s Mass Visual Trespass, a multimedia campaign encouraging the UK government to act on climate change. The messages collected will all eventually be projected, like giant, temporary graffiti, onto British power stations.

Christian Aid is not alone. It seems that every Christian mission, development, church or relief organisation has some kind of scheme to engage its supporters or members with the issue of climate change. Even government departments are planning events and making videos. And December is already shaping up to be a particularly busy month. That’s because from 7th-18th December leaders and representatives from more than 180 nations will gather in Copenhagen, under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to negotiate an international plan to save the world. With the battered and bruised Kyoto Protocol coming to the end of its fairly unsuccessful remit in 2012, and the effects of climate change reportedly already causing untold suffering to poor communities in vulnerable parts of the globe, the Copenhagen meetings are being called some of the most important talks in the history of the world. What remains to be seen is whether they will achieve anything.

Their aim is clear: to come up with a globally coordinated response to the challenge of climate change by deciding on how much industrialised nations like Britain, and major developing nations like India and China, will cut their CO2 emissions. Also being discussed will be the equally important issue of how poorer nations will be able to fund a more sustainable approach to their own economic development. It is hoped that rich, ‘high-carbon’ industrialised nations (which have until now been the greatest world polluters) will fund developing nations’ transition to green economies, since the wealthy nations have benefited most from polluting industries.

But in a world so recently rocked by financial crisis, is climate change seriously still on any government’s agenda? And what, if anything, can be done to stop a phenomenon that seems to be happening as a direct result of the way so many of us live? Is Christian involvement just so much bandwagon-jumping – too little too late in a debate that we’ve only joined since it became popular? Christians, experts and even some Christian experts from the worlds of theology, science, academia, development and lifestyle have been answering these questions, and often even agreeing on some of the answers. But one thing seems almost universally accepted: if Copenhagen matters, it’s because climate change matters.

Why climate change matters

That, of course, is still denied by some dissenters. An initial question Christians need to ask when considering Copenhagen is whether a significant portion of the scientific community is dubious about whether climate change is happening and is man-made. The short answer to this question is ‘no’. Professor Sir Ghillean Prance should know. An expert in biodiversity and plant taxonomy, current scientific director of The Eden Project, former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and responsible for introducing 450 Amazonian plant species to science, he thinks so-called ‘climate sceptics’ are “like ostriches burying their heads in the sand.”

“The current rate of extinction, caused by humans, is at least a thousand times more than the natural rate of extinction,” he says. “Climate change is now the biggest threat to biodiversity.” Climate change, according to current scientific thinking, is the direct result of our society’s life and industry. As we burn fossil fuels (in power stations, factories or our car engines), ‘greenhouse gases’ such as Carbon Dioxide (CO2) are produced. These gases (given the ‘greenhouse’ tag because they function in the atmosphere as a kind of insulation, allowing the sun’s energy in, but largely preventing heat from escaping the atmosphere) have risen 40 per cent since the industrial revolution. As a result, the planet is warming, causing disruptions in its weather, seasonal and climatic patterns.

But the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC, “a thousand or more of the world’s very best scientists,” according to Prance) recognises these facts and becomes more definite about the reality of climate change with every scientific report it releases, does not convince everyone. Groups like the Scientific Alliance, an organisation described by Sourcewatch as “a loose body of industry-friendly experts and biotechnology enthusiasts”, still actively seek to cast doubt on the science behind climate change and the conclusions of the IPCC. But even its director, Martin Livermore, despite his belief that the IPCC is operating within a “flawed hypothesis”, admits: “There are very few people who I know who would say that carbon dioxide and other so-called ‘greenhouse gases’ don’t have an effect on global temperatures. That’s really almost beyond debating.” What he does debate is whether they “have a dominating effect”, and questions the wisdom of attempts to do something about it that is not “cost-effective”.

Prance thinks the issue of cost is key, suggesting some industries actually finance sceptics, “buying their opinions in order to cast doubt on climate change.” The claim is not without support. “The climate change agenda,” he says, “is resisted by those who fear the economic and environmental changes we need to make.”

But the economic implications of climate change are by no means limited to the potential impact on multinational corporations’ bottom lines. They are felt most acutely by the global poor. Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State for International Development, recently travelled to the flood-zones of Bangladesh with Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband, because of the close link between climate change and poverty in that region. “If you are in any way serious about dealing with the 1.4 billion people in our world who are still living on less than $1.25 a day, you need to be serious about climate change,” says Alexander.

International Christian agencies across Britain seem to agree. Gareth Wilde, mission education coordinator for BMS World Mission, says that its international partners are reporting increasingly “intense” weather patterns, from flooding to droughts. Similarly, Paul Cook, advocacy director at Tearfund,says that it is the poorest communities in “forgotten corners of the world” who are being worst affected by climate change. Christians, he says, “have a real duty to do what the Bible says, to love our neighbour and adapt our lifestyle so that we are a blessing rather than a curse to them.”

Why theology matters

The argument has been made that while Christians may have a duty to help the world’s poor adapt to climate change, there is no biblical or theological reason to try to ‘save the planet’, particularly as the earth is destined to be burned up at the end of days. And if there is no biblical or theological mandate to care for creation, then Copenhagen is irrelevant for Christians.

Dr Richard Bauckham, Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews and senior scholar at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, does not believe the earth will be destroyed. He argues that the passage in Revelation 21:1, often used to justify a careless attitude to the future of the planet because of its reference to a ‘new earth’, is worded in a very similar way to the ‘new creation’ that is the born-again believer in 2 Corinthians 5:17. “Paul is clearly not thinking that we’ve been replaced by some other person,” he says. “The kind of continuity that Paul assumes salvation of human beings ensures is exactly the way that Revelation appears to be thinking of the whole cosmos.”

According to Bauckham, the idea of the earth’s destruction is one that has cropped up regularly throughout the Church’s history and is an essentially Greek pagan idea, expressing Plato’s philosophical separation of the physical and the spiritual. The Church, he says, has always resisted this by insisting on the resurrection of the body when Christ returns. “That idea of bodily resurrection carries with it the idea that the wholematerial world has a destiny in God’s purpose,” says Bauckham.

“Our bodies are our solidarity with the rest of material creation.” The Rt Rev James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, agrees: “A Jesus theology is all about ‘earthing’ heaven. It’s not about destroying the earth, escaping the earth and bagging your place in heaven.” He believes that Christians who are anti-environmental need to go back to scripture. “From the very beginning of the Bible it is about the earth being good. Yes it has been affected by the fall and evil, but the earth will be renewed.”

Why, then, have Christians been ‘late to the party’ in terms of climate change activism? Bauckham believes that, in the early days of environmentalism, “a suspicion of some kind of pagan natureworship” characterised Christian attitudes to the movement.

That opinion is no longer prevalent. Today the Church of England organises ‘carbon fasts’ over Lent and has launched a Climate Justice Fund, in partnership with Tearfund, which will enable churches, parishes and individuals to pray and give directly towards alleviating the effect of climate change on poor communities. Baptist Unions in England, Scotland and Wales have partnered with BMS World Mission to produce Futureshape, a video, text and web-based resource that explores the theology of creation care. And the number of Christian websites, campaigns and initiatives focusing on climate change (including Christian Aid’s Countdown to CO2penhagen, Tearfund’s Seal the Deal and CAFOD’s Create a Climate for Justice campaigns) is quite staggering.

It is not just campaigning organisations that are on board, according to Dr Michael Northcott, Professor of Ethics at Edinburgh University School of Divinity and author of a number of books on Christianity, global politics and the environment. “Church leaders like the Patriarch Bartholomew [head of the Eastern Orthodox Communion], Rowan Williams, and indeed Pope Benedict have quite recently spoken out about this, and increasingly they have been joined by evangelical leaders in the United States, the UK and around the world.” The problem, according to Professor Northcott, is that even when we do speak out, we tend to be ignored. “The Church in the UK has consistently criticised the market economy, the free market, global injustice and ecological problems arising from a devotion to growth without limits,” he says. “The Church has not been listened to. Indeed, it has been dismissed as being inexpert or unrealistic.”

Why politics matters

Regardless of whether government starts listening to us now or not, Northcott believes that a just, significant deal at Copenhagen is unlikely. “The United States has already passed a bill in Congress which allows it to carry on using almost asmuch CO2 as it’s using now for the next 15 years.” In effect, he says, the actual percentage of emissions the Bill commits the US to cutting is a mere seven per cent. That is far short of what Tearfund’s Paul Cook sees as essential: “The richest countries need to cut their own emissions by 40 per cent by 2020 and there needs to be money on the table from the richest countries to help the poorest respond to climate change.”

“If America goes to Copenhagen with that Bill, which it will,” says Northcott, “the Chinese and Indians will just hold up their hands and say: ‘You aren’t doing anything – why should we?’” Douglas Alexander is not quite so gloomy: “With the election of Obama to the White House, we believe we now have an American government that genuinely wants to get a deal,” he says. “The Chinese government, given the growing evidence of the effects of climate change on its own population, is, we believe, very sincere in wanting a deal.”

Recent elections in India have meant very strong statements have been made by its new government regarding its unwillingness to compromise its development and povertyreduction priorities for the sake of cutting carbon – an easier priority to sell to voters in countries like Britain that are already reaping the rewards of full industrialisation. “It’s vital,” Alexander therefore says, “that we as a government and we as an international community listen to the very real concerns of the Indian government and engage with them.”

It is not only significant developing-world emitters of carbon, like India and China, that have to consider their economic wellbeing when considering action on climate change. The recent financial crisis has put increased pressure on British politicians too, to stimulate economic growth. But that emphasis on growth, with its attendant excesses of production, consumption and pollution, may be part of the problem.

“You can’t reduce carbon without reducing excessive devotion to economic growth, both in government and corporate circles,” says Northcott. Sadly, he sees the government’s response to the economic crisis as an example of economic concerns working against ecological priorities. “They’ve just pumped money into the economy. It hasn’t been green or low carbon money. They simply pumped money into the economy to get the same engine of consumption running again.”

Ruth Valerio, a Christian writer and speaker on lifestyle and the environment, agrees. “When the recession hit, it was like the wheels had fallen off the car, and all the politicians and financial leaders were all desperately trying to screw the wheels back on,” she says. “That’s what we’re still trying to do. And nobody has asked whether we’re in the right car or on the right track. Maybe it’s not just that the wheels have fallen off, but that we’re heading in the wrong direction.” “If the planet was a bank,” says Tearfund’s Paul Cook, “we’d have bailed it out already.”

Why Copenhagen matters

Considering all the potential obstacles to a meaningful international deal, is Copenhagen all that important? More important than historic meetings like the Treaty of Versailles, says Valerio: “The Copenhagen talks are about as important a set of meetings as our world has ever had. The history of the world could be made or broken at these talks.” Ghillean Prance agrees: “The Copenhagen talks are vital for the future of the world and it may be our last chance really to get things together in time.”

So what can Christians do to help? “Pray,” says Paul Cook. “Prayer makes a difference. Pray that world leaders will have moral conscience and do the right thing at Copenhagen.” Naturally, he also thinks Christians should be joining in the many campaigns to convince government that the electorate cares about climate change enough to give them permission to make bold decisions.

Ruth Valerio agrees: “I know that someone like Gordon Brown wants to be able to do things, but feels, with the short-termism of politics, that the electorate wouldn’t stand for it,” she says. “We need to show him that there is more to the electorate than just selfishness.”

Why you matter

Whatever happens at Copenhagen, climate change will remain one of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced, and every human being has a responsibility to do what they can to meet it, not just through their leaders, but in their daily lives. “We can talk about big theories,” says Valerio, “but actually it comes down to: ‘Do I get in my car or do I cycle? Do I need to buy this product? Do I need another skirt?’ And when a lot of people do little things, a big difference can be made.”

To quote that great moral philosopher, Dr Seuss: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”


“If only I knew more...”

Confused about Climate Change? Want a deeper understanding of the theological, political and scientific issues than a magazine article can give you? These books are an excellent place to start:

L is for Lifestyle – Christian living that doesn’t cost the Earth (IVP) by Ruth Valerio: Non-threatening, practical advice on how to live a Christian life with a lighter tread on the planet. A Moral Climate – the ethics of global warming (DLT) by Michael Northcott: It’s time to get radical about climate change. This book puts forward an intelligent, challenging, readable vision for just that.

Pollution and the Death of Man (Christian Art Distributors) by Francis A Schaeffer: A visionary book from the Godfather of modern evangelicalism, published before climate change had ever been mentioned.

The earth under threat: A Christian perspective (Wild Goose) by Ghillean Prance: Scientific knowledge and experience, interpreted through a Christian theology of stewardship. The theology of the book of Revelation (Cambridge University Press) by Richard Bauckham: Put end-times theology in its correct context with a book that is about so much more than the future of the Earth.

Jesus and the Earth (SPCK) by James Jones: What Jesus has to say about the environment, with helpful questions for groups or personal refelction.


“But I can’t do anything about it!”

Yes you can. Praying, demonstrating and changing your own lifestyle are all within your power right now. Here are a few helpful ideas to keep in mind:

Attend this event The Wave – 5th December 2009: Thousands of people on a festive, family-friendly march through London, showing our leaders that we want them to do the right thing and act on climate change. Basically like a Make Poverty History for those affected by climate change, this is one event you and your church must not miss.

Try this at home The Carbon Fast: Lent may be long gone, but it’s not too late to give up something that matters. Spiritual discipline and activism, all rolled into one challenging and meaningful exercise.

Make a scene The Mass Visual Trespass : Take a picture, record a video or send a message that will be projected onto power stations in letters big enough for Gordon Brown to see from Westminster.

Start playing games Create a Climate for Justice: Hours of righteous, activist fun are to be had at where online interactive animation meets speaking truth to those in power. Your message to world leaders in 140 characters.


“Whose side am I on?”

Want to give time and money towards fighting climate change? Support these organisations:

A Rocha: Christian conservation charity that is adding daily to the number of countries in which it operates.  

Operation Noah: Commited Christians trying to encourage Britons to live simply and face the threat to God’s creation.  

Climate Justice Fund: You and your church can make a direct difference to the lives of those affected by climate change.