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Searching for an alternative view: theology and the climate crisis

Searching for an alternative view: theology and the climate crisis

To open our COP26 series, David Nussbaum writes on how theology offers policymakers a new and timely way of looking at the climate crisis. 1/11/2021

Promotions for the recent BBC Earth series A Perfect Planet, narrated by David Attenborough, say: “this stunning series reveals how perfectly our planet is set up to nurture life”.  The final episode, entitled ‘Humans’, explains how the behaviour of our species is impacting the rest of the natural world.  Climate change is one of the principal impacts – and, as well as threatening human life as we know it, it is also a serious threat to the survival of many other species across the planet. 

Against the backdrop of this threat, alternative ways of looking at (seemingly intractable) problems are needed more than ever.

One of these alternative ways of looking is through a theological lens. Around a decade ago, while I was Chief Executive of WWF–UK, I met with the Energy Minister in the (then) Department of Energy and Climate Change (‘DECC’).  We discussed some aspects of Government energy policy, including the need to stop using coal as quickly as possible because of its high CO2 emissions. Towards the end of the meeting, out of the blue, the minister asked me whether I believed in God (perhaps he’d noticed from his briefing papers that I had studied theology).  I said that I did, and that I wondered what God thought about climate change, and our use of fossil fuels which was contributing to it.  I suggested that perhaps God saw it this way: he arranged for the earth to have some coal and oil easily accessible, so that we could get the industrial revolution going – with all the benefits that brought – but ensured that most of the rest was buried deep down where it was difficult, dangerous and expensive to get at.  In contrast, he had ensured that sources of energy from the sun in the form of solar, wind and wave energy (I didn’t mention hydro, biomass, tides or geothermal at the time) were staring us in the face.  So maybe God was rather puzzled as to why, especially now we knew about climate change, we hadn’t taken the hint to use these easily accessible and safer sources of renewable energy.  The minister thought for a moment, and then responded that this was the first time anyone had given him a theological perspective on energy policy!

Perhaps theology doesn’t feature often in our policy discussions, but it has been employed as a means of reflecting deeply on our relationship with creation for a very long time. For example, the story of Noah and the Ark is a familiar narrative to many: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others.  Whatever else we may learn from the story, it illustrates God’s concern about the variety of species on earth – what we now call ‘biodiversity’.  This is consistent with the creation narrative in Genesis 1, where God created all the creatures “according to their kinds” – in other words, he brought into being the different species of plants and animals.  And a few chapters later, we learn from the instructions given to Noah that it mattered to God that this diversity of creatures should be maintained.

As Sir Ghillean Prance, former Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, put it:

As a botanist, I am working with God’s creation.  All around me I see that what humankind is doing to the planet is motivated by greed. … The church at large, and I as an individual Christian, should be a strong voice in defence of creation, or ‘the environment’ as some people call it.

Of course, Christians have been (and continue to be) as complicit as others, especially in the West, in the current climate crisis. Yet the deepest sources of the Christian tradition contain valuable resources for understanding our human responsibility to care for God’s creation – the world, and everything in it.  As James Jones, the former Bishop of Liverpool, says,

If the Church wishes to find a common agenda with young people who are passionate about the future of the planet, it needs to recover to its theology the biblical vision and moral imperative of caring for the environment.

What is this biblical vision?

If we used the Bible to discern God’s ‘values’, one of them would surely be justice.  Climate change is also a question of justice: it may affect all humans, but its impacts are unevenly spread – those who already benefit from resources and technology are generally less impacted than others.  And those societies which have the highest historic emissions of CO2 per capita – such as the UK – are often those less affected by climate change, or more able to adapt to its impacts, or both.

Alongside justice, many of the psalms, and of both traditional and contemporary Christian hymns and songs, celebrate creation – the world which God called into being.  This musical celebration of the natural world should spur us on to stop and reverse the harm that we are causing to it by changing the climate.

Christians look forward to the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah 61:17, when God will renew everything, including the earth (Revelation 21).  But in the meantime, as well as acting themselves, Christians can urge all humanity to fulfil the creation mandate given in Genesis 1:26: to be God’s caretakers of his wonderful creation, and the incredible diversity of life on earth.

If you enjoyed this blog, you can find our COP26 series here.

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 Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

David Nussbaum

David Nussbaum

David Nussbaum recently retired as Chief Executive of The Elders, and was previously the Chief Executive of WWF–UK and Chair of WWF’s Global Climate and Energy Initiative.  He also holds various non–executive director posts, and a couple of theology degrees. 

Watch, listen to or read more from David Nussbaum

Posted 1 November 2021

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