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Is there still hope for the climate?

Colin Bell

Colin Bell

Colin Bell joined the Faraday Institute to work on a joint project with the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE) on 'Hope for creation: a biblical vision for contemporary environmental policy'. This project involved research, writing, organising a conference and editing a follow-up book. He is now involved in two other projects: editing a second book on creation care for the Lausanne Movement, and producing and delivering resources on faith, values and environmental issues for schools and church youth groups.

The following article was first published on KLICE Comment

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Environmentalists have long warned that the effects of global warming are severe, imminent, and, unless we take urgent action, largely inevitable. The first two decades of the current century may well be recorded in history as humanity's last opportunity to save itself from calamity. But if current trends continue they will also be the period when the first unequivocal effects of global warming become apparent: both what we are now observing and revised scientific analysis suggest that changes in climate are on average occurring at an earlier date than the existing consensus would have predicted.

While the headline rate of global warming has slowed a little, 2012 has been another year of weather extremes. Headlines included the wettest year in England for a century despite a dry start to the year and extreme heat and drought in the USA, with harvests devastated in both countries. Hurricane Sandy, amongst the worst on record, hit the East Coast of the USA, only a year after another "one-in-a-100-year" storm. Arctic sea-ice reached a historic minimum, leading experts to revise forward the time when we can expect an ice-free summer from 2100 to possibly later this decade.

Definitively blaming such events on our greenhouse gas emissions is near-impossible but their number and magnitude is such that evidence is mounting up that climate change is upon us. Expert forecasts of the consequences continue to worsen, and the window of opportunity for staying within the generally accepted 2°C target is closing rapidly. Despite this, the prospect of international or national action seems as far away as ever. Last year's two major summits in Rio and Doha were ignored by public and major world leaders alike.

We now face the twin challenges of adapting to an uncertain future and trying to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate against things getting still worse. We must do both against a backdrop of financial difficulty and public indifference. Many secular activists are beginning to give up. They see some form of complete societal or environmental collapse as inevitable and the question becoming how to survive it and move on from it afterwards. All this poses challenges to those formulating communications: what message can we bring and will people still be willing to cut emissions if they perceive it to be already 'too late'?

Yet there are some new signs of hope. While a vociferous minority still doubt climate change is happening or caused by humanity, the wider public may be starting to see that something is not right. For example, 70% of New Yorkers identified climate change as a cause of Hurricane Sandy. People may demand action from their leaders.

In the Christian world, where serious interest and action remains relatively marginal, there have been two positive steps. The Church of England is making environmental theology more central in what its ordinands are taught in its new curriculum. More significant worldwide are moves in the Lausanne Movement, an influential pan-evangelical grouping. At a recent consultation, it affirmed an earlier call that 'Creation Care is indeed a "gospel issue within the lordship of Christ"' and sought to explore more what this means in practice. Conclusions included that care for creation is a necessary and integral part of our response to the Gospel, our mission and our worship. It is something all Christians should participate in rather than simply a special interest of the few. This should be done because God made and redeems creation, not just because creation might be in crisis now.

Adopting the Lausanne perspective more widely has two advantages. It makes the message more palatable to those, especially in the USA, who deny that we are in crisis and making it parallel to issues of conversion helps motivation. We do not just try and tell the gospel to those we see in danger of death, although death aids urgency. We often continue to hold out hope of friends becoming Christians and pray for and talk to them about Christ for years with little sign of progress because we believe it to be the right thing to do. In the same way, we should continue to care for creation as best we can even if our own efforts seem to be swamped by those of others and the planet appears to be sinking into doom by some means or other. Christian hope and our gospel obligations demand no less.