A Political Theology of Climate Change – Review
A Political Theology of Climate Change, by Michael S. Northcott, April 2014. SPCK, 346 pages, ISBN 978-028107-232-3. RRP £19.99
The development of a science of climate change has proved to be divisive. In very general terms opposition to climate change comes from the political right-wing whilst support for it comes from the political left-wing. Because, on a worst case scenario, the probable effects of climate change are likely to be disastrous for our planet, there is an apocalyptic dimension to any political response. There is therefore a link from science, via politics, to theology. In this magisterial work, Professor Northcott seeks to explain why climate change science is divisive in the way that it is and how the interrelationship between a variety of disciplines, including philosophy, may be used to analyse what is happening and identify a possible way forward.
Professor Northcott moves confidently through philosophy, politics, history, theology and science, providing a much-needed overview of the complexities of the issues. This does not make for an easy read even though it is clearly written – but it is well-worth re-reading the more demanding sections in order to grasp the force of the thesis Northcott wants to make that climate change exposes the greed, selfishness and exploitation that are the worst fruits of the Enlightenment, and which work for the interest of the few at the expense of the poor. From this Northcott then seeks to recover an interpretation of ‘Christianity’ that offers an imperative for the poor.
Northcott uses the somewhat controversial interpretation by Carl Schmitt of the Pauline idea of the katechon (from the Greek for ‘to hold down’) in 2 Thess 2.6-7, (itself a concept subject to a variety of understandings) as a structure in which to explain the ‘empire building’ right-wing stance against climate change. Here Northcott risks entering a debate of labyrinthine complexity in order to establish his argument. I think he uses Schmitt’s political analysis in order to argue that the political consensus of the right is trying to preserve the imperium as the only effective bastion against the inevitability of the likely effects of climate change. Capitalism sees climate change as a threat to its essential assumptions that enlightened self-interest achieves the best for the common good; it therefore responds as a katechon – as a ‘restrainer’ (which will inevitably be futile) to prevent the resurgence of a renewed, post enlightenment version of ‘Christianity’ which, paradoxically, would be the planet’s best hope for survival.
It may seem churlish to identify one or two omissions in such a comprehensive overview, but I felt that Professor Northcott underplays the contribution of the Green movement and makes no mention of the wide-ranging policies of the Green Party, particularly regarding a land tax. I also missed any mention of the so called Deep Ecologists such as Arne Nӕss, who believed that because governments always act selfishly, there was more hope for the planet if the religions co-operated together in identifying an ethic respecting nature and the inherent worth of other beings; and Satish Kumar who insists that reverence for nature should be at the heart of every political and social debate. To be fair Professor Northcott does include references to the Transition Towns movement and the work of Eco-Congregations.
Professor Northcott’s thesis is directly relevant to the concerns currently being expressed in regard to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) a proposed free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States. Anyone seeking to understand and grasp the full implications of climate change and the responses it provokes will find much guidance and hope for the future in Michael Northcott’s immensely erudite and challenging book. I strongly recommend it but you will need to persevere to the end!
Donald C Macdonald