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Copenhagen and climate action: do we need to turn to the religions?

Copenhagen and climate action: do we need to turn to the religions?

The challenge posed by man-made climate change is often said to be the most complex problem ever to confront humankind. The reasons are well known. First, while the basic science of the greenhouse effect is not in doubt and the probability of serious climate disruption from our waste emissions very high, we have to rely on complex and inevitably incomplete computer models of the climate system to work out what kinds of risk we are running as we pump carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. This gives plenty of scope for the minority of vociferous ‘sceptics’ or ‘deniers’ to claim that our base of knowledge is too flimsy to justify expensive action.

Second, we will have to act in advance of more precise knowledge being gained - if we keep postponing radical action, by the time we know exactly what threats are in store it will be much too late to do much about them. So we can never know the exact nature of the troubles we are trying to avert.

Third, the cost of mitigating and adapting to climate change will be enormous, and so furious opposition is aroused among the many interests with something to lose if we move away from our high-carbon economy.

The climate challenge starts with science but action to deal with it depends on politics. Thanks to the weight of interests appalled at the challenge to established worldviews, consumption patterns and business models, the science remains contested despite the strength of the evidence, models and professional consensus behind it. So far the political willpower to act on the messages in the science has been weak and unevenly spread around the world. While it is undoubtedly impressive that the ‘international community’ has managed to set up a process of global negotiations on climate action, the results so far have fallen far short of what is needed to arrest the rise in emissions and give the world a good chance of keeping now inevitable temperature rises within tolerable margins.

Perhaps the necessary willpower will be forthcoming this month, but it would be wise not to count on it. One grim possibility raised by the climate change story so far is that human society simply is not equipped to deal with challenges of this scale and long-range implications. A related point is the fear, now widely expressed, that Western affluent democracies cannot cope with the challenge.

The rich world has to take the lead - it has the money, technical capacity and moral obligation - in dealing with the problems. But the politics of the affluent societies of the West means that its elected leaders might not be able to rise to the occasion. Their time horizons need to stretch many decades, if not centuries, ahead in relation to climate; but the US House of Representatives is up for election every two years, and US Presidents every four. Governments are under enormous pressure from established commercial interests, which bankroll many election campaigns for legislators. Politicians are elected to lead, but much of the time are anxiously practising ‘followership’, scanning opinion polls, calling focus groups and avoiding any challenges to the voters that might prove unpopular at the next election.

They also like to rely on technological fixes to environmental problems. But climate change demands cuts and changes in consumption as well as mass diffusion of new technologies. Politicians in affluent societies are used to trying to give voters what they want in material terms, not to telling us that our lifestyles must change radically for the good of future generations and the rest of life on Earth. Whether democracy is able to rise to the climate challenge is a big question for the next few decisive decades.

At all events, progress so far with climate policy has been completely inadequate. If political leadership is necessary but far from sufficient, what other sources of pressure, exemplary action and social and technical innovation are available? Ed Miliband, the UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, has called for civil society to put great pressure on elected politicians to stiffen their sinews. So far the voice of civil society has been dominated by the relatively small-scale world of campaigning environmental NGOs. Plainly, for all their strengths, these do not have the power and influence to move the world in a low-carbon direction. What we need are civil society movements that are unafraid of messages about ethics and justice, sacrifice and solidarity, and that have legitimacy and social influence around the world.

Who else but religious organisations and communities – whose adherents amount to over 80% of the world’s people – can take this on? There is growing interest in the potential of the world’s faith traditions and communities to play this catalytic role, and this has been recognised in a remarkable UN project with the Alliance of Religion and Conservation. Many faiths have drawn up Seven Year Generational Plans, rooted in their traditions and teachings, on climate and environmental action. (Theos was part of the team behind the Church of England’s Plan, Church and Earth, launched last month with many others at a UN conference in Windsor.)

The world’s religions have come late to this party, and some - especially the Roman Catholic church - have yet to grasp the scale of the challenge and of the opportunity it offers to the faiths to set an example in low-carbon development and integrate ecological responsibility in their living traditions. But others are beginning to act, and the new Plans reflect urgency and a sense of responsibility and potential. Climate action is too important to be left to politicians, that is certain; how far do we need the religions to be catalysts for action in civil society and for pressure on policymakers? Contemplating the environmental and technological crises of humankind in the 1970s, the philosopher Martin Heidegger said ‘only a god can save us’. In our time, is it the case that the faiths are essential to save us from our short-termist and selfish consumer politics and rouse us to deal with the climate crisis?

Ian Christie is an Associate of Green Alliance and co-author with Nick Spencer and Brian Cuthbertson of the new Church of England environmental vision and ‘seven-year plan’, Church and Earth.

Ian Christie

Ian Christie

Ian Christie is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Environment and Sustainability, University of Surrey and a Theos Associate.

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Posted 10 August 2011


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