Climate change and the church: will religion be our saviour?

Written by Edward Bevin, Guildsman

Mark Dowd, a former Dominican monk, who regularly worships at St Bride’s, was in discussion with Rector David Meara on Sunday February 18, during the Eucharistic service, to discuss an hour-long Channel 4 TV programme on February 12 entitled God is Green.

The programme was enthralling and Mark interviewed a number of senior members of the church, asking why the world’s major faiths appear to be taking very little notice of climate change throughout the world.

God is Green from Mark Dowd on Vimeo.

In this article, which first appeared in a recent edition of the Catholic Herald, Mark explains the background to his television documentary, about which the Daily Telegraph TV reviewer was somewhat kinder in his comments than those of his opposite number on The Times.

“I have just finished typing in the words “Peccatum Carbonis. Papal Encyclical. Read. Act. Save the Planet,” into my computer. The website I accessed is called “churchsign” and it allows you to make your own fridge magnets and car stickers with your chosen text inserted into a ready-made template of a church sign. Now lest you all think I have been taking strange mind-altering drugs or consumed a trifle too much altar wine, let me explain what these are for.

I have been badgering Channel Four for well over a year about making a TV programme called God Is Green in which one would examine what, if anything, the world’s major faiths are saying and doing about what amounts to the biggest collective planetary emergency the world has ever seen. I am talking about climate change/global warming: terms which are woefully timid and spectacularly understate the emerging scientific consensus about how CO2 emissions are allowing mankind to take the biggest gamble ever made with the fragile state of the planet’s biosphere. I assume for the sake of this article that many of you may have seen former US Vice-President Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth and are well up on the facts. If not, a brief resume of the story so far.

The levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have remained fairly constant at around 240 parts per million for the last 600,000 years or so, that is until the industrial age. The mass burning of fossil fuels, the expansion of the automobile and aviation sectors and exponentially rising levels of energy consumption to drive air-conditoning units and numerous other appliances have sent this figure soaring. It is now at 380ppm and it is a safe assertion that many scientists, if not all one hundred per cent of them, concur with the view that if this figure gets into the 450-500 ppm bracket, we will usher in a potentially cataclysmic period in which temperature extremes will hit many part of the planet. Although the average temperature rise may well be in the 3 to 5 per cent bracket, this masks the fact that huge areas will be hit by drought and flooding. Environmental refugee numbers may hit in excess of 200 million. More than sixty per cent of the world’s population lives within 30 miles of the coast. I don’t have to go on.

Although the evidence has been firming up on all this during the past ten years since the signing of the 1997 Kyoto treaty, there has been very little said about all this from Catholic leaders. It is true that the late Pope John Paul II said some very fine things about the need for us all to undergo an “ecological conversion,” and Australian and American Bishops have also written strong words about the subject. But if we look to Rome, we find next to nothing about global warming specifically, save for half a paragraph in the 2004 Catholic Compendium of Social Teaching. If we look back at the emergence of Fascism, Communism and many other developments in recent history, the Magisterium was often slow to make its pronouncements known. That’s hardly surprising for a body that is by nature conservative, preferring to wait and see what evidence emerges and check out over decades if trends and evidence amount to anything or are just a passing, temporary zeitgeist. However, time is not on our side. Many who belong to the august panel of the IPCC, the scores of scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, state that we have a ten to fifteen year period to turn round the tanker, or this whole process will develop a momentum of its own which will leave much of humanity battling to stave off extinction. The latest report from the IPCC’s scientific panel, the fruit of six year’s work, is due out in Paris on February 1st and its findings are not expected to send the champagne corks flying.

Many in the church, like Father Sean McDonagh, a Columban father, want more from Rome. “What we want is leadership,” he says. “The Church isn’t like Tony Blair, worried about losing votes because of some backlash over introducing carbon taxes. It must have a prophetic voice and take risks.” Fr McDonagh is no slouch on this issue. He has just completed his own impressive tome, “Climate Change: A Challenge to Us All.” When pressed to evaluate the performance of the Roman Catholic Church so far on a scale of one to ten, he said he could truthfully muster only a score of 1.5 to 2.

Where the Church needs to lead from the front is in stating that the very people on the planet who emit the least in CO2 emissions, the poor and destitute of Africa and low-lying Asian countries like Bangladesh, will be the first in the firing line if and when the climate turns on us. This is why environment is the responsibility of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace inside the Holy See. Its head is Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino and it was with great expectation that I went to meet him recently in his offices just next to the beautiful piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere. He had kindly set aside half an hour in the middle for another typically busy schedule: on the day in question he was overseeing a conference on poverty and migration.

I began by asking him why, if this really was a huge threat, had his Pontifical Council devoted so little space to it in its Compendium? “This is only a first edition,” he said. “We can add to it.” Then he informed me that the Vatican was planning a conference on global warming to be jointly hosted by his own Council and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (a story revealed exclusively in this paper recently.) So far so, good. But as I sat there opposite this smiling, diminutive Cardinal, I wondered how far this subject had impacted on his life in practical terms? I fished out of my pocket a small white object and placed it across the desk in front of my interviewee. “Does your Eminence know what this is?” I asked, pointing to a low-energy light bulb. His eyes bulged. A huge smile erupted on his face. “Oh yes,” he said,” I have a number of these in my home and indeed there are a number in the offices of the Vatican.” This was much more than I had counted on. When I teasingly berated him by pointing to his TV on standby in the corner of the room, he looked sheepishly at me: “No, no, I normally switch it off. It is only on because I was checking something before you came in.” The next thing, he would be telling me that the Popemobile had been fitted with a catalytic converter and had plans to run off vegetable oil.

So having lulled me into a sense of green complacency, it was all the more surprising when the Cardinal continued: “By the way, the Holy See does not have any carbon emissions. You see, we buy it, we buy it next door from Italy.” But you take plane flights don’t you?” I interjected. “I mean how many miles have you flown in the last week or two?” He paused. “About 50,000 he said,” laughing, “but these planes, they are not dependent on the Vatican!” Which is tantamount to saying that if you buy a 4X4 and clock up the 20,000 miles year in it, it is Ford or Toyota who are to blame and not the driver. I did point out that 50,000 miles amounted to about 23 tonnes of CO2 emissions, but he simply laughed. “Would the Holy See not consider the merit of more video-conferencing, to cut out the flying?” He paused. “ Why not? Why not? As a matter of fact, I have already had some of these but this is a practice that will improve. Oh how I wish I could do this because those trips, they are very tiring.”

I suspect breaking with the flying habit may prove harder to kick than these comments suggest. Many of the men in red are veritable globetrotters (well up there with television documentary makers,) and have enough airmiles to fly to Pluto. A lot of them love the fuss and attention shown to them on international visits: who wouldn’t? As I ended my encounter with the smiling Cardinal, I knew he was flying to London the next day to meet Gordon Brown and launch an immunisation credit scheme: a bold plan to try and inoculate 500 million youngsters in the developing world by the year 2015. On his 48 hour trip to the UK capital, the cardinal would go on to be received by seven different cabinet ministers: not the same as talking to them via a computer screen it must be said.

On the rare occasions when you are granted an interview with the Holy See, it is normally customary to submit a series of written questions in advance so the various advisers can prepare a brief for their superiors. One of the questions I had tabled was: “ Does the Vatican have investments in the coal and oil industries and if so, given the urgent nature of the global warming issue, would it be prudent to revise such investments?” Due to shortage of time I didn’t get round to asking this one on camera, but at the end of the interview, Cardinal Martino handed me three sheets of A4-sized paper: his team had prepared succinct answers already to my list of questions. Musing on the papers over a bruschetta in the piazza some fifteen minutes later, I looked down at question number six on investments: a candid response leapt from the page: “I do not know whether the Holy See has investments in the coal and oil industries.” I did admire the directness of the reply, but I do hope he went away and checked all this out since I am sure this one is going to crop up in the future. Investment decisions are integral matters of justice and peace, are they not?

I departed Rome feeling relieved that, at last, the Vatican was taking an initiative on climate change in the form of a global warming summit, a move that the Cardinal said he had discussed personally with Pope Benedict. But I also reflected that it is going to take a great deal to haul this from the periphery to the centre of most Catholics’ imaginations. It may be that many of you reading this article carry the same intellectual and philosophical prejudices that I had only a year or so ago. “Greens?? Atheists, tree-huggers, pantheist weirdos,” I used to think. The mutual suspicion of the religious and environmental constituencies is succinctly captured by Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, a man who described himself to me as an “evangelical atheist.” “In the past, Christians have often accused environmentalists of effectively being pagans, of being earth-worshippers. And environmentalists have often seen religions as being antipathetic to the environmental message because they put God and man, made in the image of God, at the centre of the universe and everything must revolve around him.”

If he had continued his theme, he might have mentioned the D-word: “dominion.” This is the key term used at the end of chapter one of the Book of Genesis when man is “put in charge” of creation. Some translations of this text actually talk of man being told to “subdue the earth.” The language appears harsh, yet the temptation behind it, to see the material world and all God’s creatures merely as put there for man’s benefit and enjoyment, is a commonly held view which goes back centuries. The early seventeenth century, a period of scientific rationalism, had thinkers like Francis Bacon coming out with the following:

“I am come in very truth, leading you to Nature with all her children, to bind her to your service and make her your slave…the mechanical inventions of recent years do not merely exert a gentle guidance over Nature’s courses, they have the power to conquer and subdue here, to shake her to her foundations.”

Bacon’s contemporary, Descartes, went one step further, speaking of man becoming “lord and possessor of nature.”

To be fair, much of nature in the early 1600s probably looked wild and hostile to mankind. But it is one thing to soften its rougher edges, it is another for man to become a Greek Promethean figure, seeing himself as somehow separate from the web of nature and to be able to “do things to it” without there being any serious consequences. We have come too far. In Genesis, man is given “dominion” over the earth and the birds and the air and fish of the sea, but the Hebrew word from which the D-word comes has a deep sense of responsibility under God’s reign which means man must steward the earth. Adam is told to “serve” the earth. In the story of Noah, God makes a covenant, not just with man, but with all of creation.

So back to the Church. What must we do? The priority is to urgently discover a prophetic voice. A true prophet is not some superstitious crystal ball gazer. He or she paints a picture of a disturbing future that will come about if the community does not change its ways. If such a prophet succeeds and his warnings are heralded, the vision does not come about. My fear is that in democracies, political leaders may be afraid to take out the tough measures necessary to repair the damage. Yes, we can hope for cleaner fuel, renewable energies in the decades to come, but we are also going to have to drive less, fly less, halve energy bills through better insulation, install more efficient lighting and heating if we are to avert dangerous climate change. These are no longer bourgeois lifestyle fads, they are moral imperatives because the fate of millions of people may well depend on them. And before you engage in the “what can I do compared with the CO2 output of China?” argument, remember the charitable donations following the December 2004 Tsunami. The aggregate effect of millions of small choices can resonate around the world. Many alive have heard mention of the sacrifices which took place courtesy of the “war time spirit,” but are too young to actually recall them. It is time to invoke a return to such values.

In short, we need to be involved in nothing less ambitious than what one scientist has called “a species –wide call to self-limitation.” And if our politicians won’t lead, then step into the vacuum please people of faith, and leaders especially. Will Imams encourage Muslims to limit their flights to the annual Hajj at Mecca to shrink that footprint? (Islam’s colour after all is green, giving it a branding advantage!) Will the Vatican issue in more video-conferencing for its Cardinals and hack down the airmiles? Think of the inter-faith possibilities of uniting disparate religious communities around this one issue. Think of the appeal to youngsters, many of who in the West have given up on institutionalised religion as “boring and irrelevant,” to find a group of seventy and eighty year old cardinals who will not live to see the worst of possible climactic disaster, nevertheless, passionately arguing the toss over the environment and the future of the planet.

And there are signs of hope if you look for them .Take the USA, a country under President George Bush which has continued its opposition to the 1997 Kyoto Treaty on cutting CO2 emissions. Americans, although fiver per cent of the global population emit one quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide. Many in the evangelical wings of Christianity in the country sincerely believe that we are living in the end times and that global warming may well God’s way of punishing human wickedness and ushering in the Second Coming. If you hold such views, there is no point in trying to stop it. Indeed, to do so, might be standing in the way of the divine will. Such views are, quite frankly, repulsive and founded on such an unreconstructed view of a revengeful Godhead that on theological grounds alone, they would scarcely merit mention. Except they are views which are deeply-held and are a reality we have to deal with. But countering this is a whole new group who have formed the Evangelical Climate Initiative. Hundred of leading pastors have signed up for action in the USA, courtesy of an inspirational man from the UK, Sir John Houghton. Sir John is not only an evangelical himself, he was also a key figure with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from 1988 to 2001. In a series of talks to American Christians, he persuaded them of the scientific facts behind his case and managed to get them to cast off their old views about an exploitative approach to creation and embrace the notion of stewardship. The result? Thousands of unlikely citizens from the Bible Belt and beyond are now ready to make the climate a central issue in the 2008 Presidential election. If these people can change their mind then anything is possible.

The Roman Church, of course, is universal, and has a centralised teaching authority. It is uniquely well-placed to make an impact if it chooses to do so. But will it? What will be the outcome of that conference next month at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace? The theologian Bernard Lonergan once famously said: the Church often arrives “a little breathless… a little late”. It is time to prove that perception wrong.”

Posted On: Thursday 15th February, 2007

congregation sitting for service


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