COP26 reflection from Bishop David Atkinson
Astonishingly, it is now over 30 years since Margaret Thatcher addressed the United Nations:
“What we are now doing to the world, by degrading the land surfaces, by polluting the waters and by adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate – all this is new in the experience of the earth”. (Speech to UN 1989). Thirty years on we now know much more about biodiversity loss, extinction of species, and human-induced climate change. David Attenborough and Extinction Rebellion in their different ways have helped change the public mood.
It is nearly six years since the UN Conference in Paris brought 196 Parties together, who agreed to set the world on a course of sustainable development, aiming to strengthen the global response to climate change by limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 to 2.0 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. How are we getting on?
In 2019, Boris Johnson’s Government announced that 2020 would be a critical year for the future of our planet: “We have an opportunity to make changes to stop the activities which are polluting our land, water and skies, impacting people’s lives, and making parts of our planet uninhabitable . . . to build a cleaner, greener, brighter future for our children, grandchildren, wildlife and our planet”. So they launched 2020 to be “a Year of Climate Action to inspire positive action and engagement on climate change across the UK”. Of course 2020 turned out to be the year of Brexit and the coronavirus. What was progress like on climate change?
In their Progress Report to Parliament in June 2020, the UK Climate Change Committee were able to say, referring to early decisions by the Government: “There were important new announcements on transport, buildings, industry, energy supply, agriculture and land use”. However, they go on: “But these steps do not yet measure up to meet the size of the Net Zero challenge [the law requiring the UK to reduce net emissions of greenhouse gases to zero by 2050]. We are not making adequate progress in preparing for climate change”.
So much talk. And yet “inadequate progress” – inadequate even for the unambitious date of 2050: it should have been 2030! Instead, the Government shamefully decided in February 2021 to plan for the opening of a new coal mine in Cumbria, a decision which led to James Hansen, a senior climate scientist, to write to the Prime Minister, describing this as “contemptuous disregard for the future of young people and nature”. Apparently that decision is now being reviewed.
Why is climate change so urgent for Christians? The coronavirus should have taught us that we humans are not autonomous independent beings. That inequality and resulting poverty are evils. That there can be good progress when we work together, but that selfishness hinders any sense of the common good. It has shown us that we can only live within limits, and that some good things have to be sacrificed, if others are to flourish. Climate change raises so many similar issues.
Our Christian story is about cooperation (fellowship) not competition; about generosity not greed; about self-giving love and service especially on behalf of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people. Amos said some strong words about justice and uplifting the poor, and Jesus pronounced a blessing on those who hunger and thirst for God’s justice.
The story of our faith is of the earth-system, which is not a mechanism which we can manipulate to feed unlimited consumption, but God’s living creation of which we “earthlings” are an interdependent part, and are its servants. How we treat all the rest of God’s Earth and God’s creatures matters. All that we have, life and the means of life, come to us as God’s gift to be cherished responsibly.
In an address to international faith leaders in February 2021, the Archbishop of Canterbury made clear why tackling climate change is urgent for Christians. He said:
“The Covid 19 pandemic has forced the world to look at how we have been living and operating, when so much of what was considered ‘normal’ was not possible. We have been confronted by our behaviour: by our sin, our greed, our human fragility, our exploitation of the environment and encroachment on the natural world. . . . Climate change is an issue in which greed, fragility and interconnectedness come together. . . . To live out my Christian faith is to follow Jesus. That must include standing alongside the most vulnerable and marginalised on the frontlines of the climate emergency. As faith communities, my prayer is that we might stand together, emissaries of hope and love, calling for God’s justice and peace upon this precious world. Now is the time for action.”
Our Christian story is not about “the acquisitive society” but rather about a cooperative society and the common good, which implies an approach to economics based not on the assumption of individual self-interest, but on living within God-given limits, on shared human values and the welfare of all God’s creation. It is a story not of false optimism based on the myth of inevitable progress, but hope rooted in compassion, in self-giving love, in the redeeming, re-ordering grace and faithfulness of God.
Bishop David Atkinson was a teacher and chaplain in Oxford, Archdeacon in Southwark and Bishop of Thetford in Norwich Diocese. He is a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, a former Trustee of Operation Noah and author of books on ethics and pastoral theology, including Renewing the Face of the Earth. He is married to Sue, with two children and eight grandchildren. www.bishopdavidatkinson.co.uk
One of the most effective things we can do about COP26 is to encourage our government to demonstrate genuine climate leadership in its own laws and policies. And one of the best ways to do that is to support the CEE Bill:
Have a look at all the actions we can take around COP26:
And for more inspiration…
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