The heat is on: why we need to talk about climate change

I don’t know which side of the climate change debate you find yourselves on, but I need to tell you that I’m not having that debate anymore. Even the BBC has realised that the question is no longer whether the world is getting hotter or if that’s just part of the normal cycle. Rather, the question is – how hot is the world going to get before we do something about it or descend into anarchy.

The world is hotter now than it has ever been. Remember back to June and the heatwave we all enjoyed? And how we compared it to 1976 which we remembered from our younger days? Well, the firs image shows is how unusually hot the world was in 1976. And the second how unusually hot it was in June 2018. There’s really no comparison.

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17 of the world’s hottest 18 years have happened this millennium. That is every year bar one since 2000. And the one remaining hottest year was 1998. The heat is on, and there’s no doubt that it has been caused by human activity – mainly burning coal, gas and oil which pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, trapping heat and warming everything up.

What’s the big deal, some might say. All that lovely warm weather! Why wouldn’t we want more of it? And more of it we are going to get – heatwaves like the one we had this year are predicted to become more frequent and more intense as the global temperature rises. But heatwaves do have their downsides – this summer we saw the peat burning outside Manchester and wildfires in Greece, Portugal, Sweden, California, Australia, to name but a few.

Global warming is not all about heatwaves, though. The rising temperatures are changing the climate in many different ways. The oceans are warming and the ice caps are melting, and so the sea levels are rising. This puts many of our big cities at risk in the future – including London and New York. We’re gonna need that Thames Barrier. But it also puts many smaller, poorer places at risk. Island nations in the Pacific are at risk of being either totally submerged or rendered uninhabitable by sea water poisoning.

Archbishop Winston Halapua, Archbishop of Polynesia, puts it like this.

“For some of us from the Pacific Island States, the truth is as plain as writing on a wall, our land and livelihood are drowning while others refuse to see. How can we say to our grandchildren, the home you were to inherit and were told about is destroyed? Where is justice for them and for others?”

Warmer seas are leading to fiercer and more frequent hurricanes. Warmer water causes the hurricanes to be stronger and warm air holds more water, so the storms when they hit have stronger winds and more rain. The strongest hurricane to make landfall (Typhoon Haiyan) hit the Philippines in 2014. One almost as strong hit the Philippines just a few weeks ago. The devastation is enormous, and the recovery for a poor country like the Philippines is long and slow. Haiti, another extremely poor country, is still reeling from the impact of Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

The hotter global temperatures are also disrupting global weather patterns. Rainfall patterns, that have been predictable for years, are becoming erratic. Some places are becoming wetter, and at times weeks’ or months’ worth of rain are falling in a few hours. Did you see the images of the rainfall that swept through Majorca on Tuesday. And in Kerala, in South India, the monsoon rains in August this year brought an unprecedented amount of water in just a few days. Homes and vehicles were swept away and the extent of the flooding goes on for miles.

But in other places, unpredictable rainfall means the rains don’t come when they should, or even at all. In places like Ethiopia, when the rains fail, the crops fail. When the rains fail in successive seasons, this means drought and starvation. Cattle die and income dries up. Food prices go through the roof and people cannot survive.

I’m not here to debate with you whether climate change is real or not, whether it’s caused by humans or not, or whether the things that scientists predict will happen or not. Climate change is real. It is driven by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere put there by our modern industrial lifestyles. And its effects are being felt already, right now, by the poorest communities on our planet. Climate change already has a grip in places where life was already a precarious dance with the weather. Its impact is being felt by those already living on the edge. By those who have contributed the least to make it happen. By those who have the least resources to protect themselves from it and to adapt to its consequences.

Here in the rich, industrialised north, we have filled the skies with poison, and we are just beginning to be aware that our actions may be coming home to roost. For years, our sisters and brothers around the world have been losing their livelihoods to a monster they did not create. That’s why, at Christian Aid, we talk about climate justice, and why campaigning for action to tackle climate change has been part of our work for over a decade. People cannot develop and grow new businesses to build their own route out of poverty if the rains keep on sweeping it away. Entire communities are forced to leave their homes and because their land can no longer sustain them.

God’s creation is full of wonder and beauty. The Bible tells us that the world reveals God’s glory, and that we have a responsibility to nurture and care for it and all the creatures who live in it. This has to include action to tackle climate change. But that’s not the most compelling call for me. I believe God calls his church to be leaders in the movement to stop catastrophic warming. And I hear that call the loudest from the Old Testament prophets, who demand that God’s people act to ensure that the poor receive justice. Amos condemns those who oppress the innocent and deprive the poor of justice. They cannot come before God, because what he requires is this:

‘Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’ Amos 5:24

We serve a God of justice. We are called to love all God’s children. We show neither love nor justice when we allow their homes and livelihoods to be washed away, or to be poisoned by salt water or pollution, or to become dried up and parched. We cannot stand by and let the poorest suffer the consequences of the actions and lifestyle of the rich.

And until this week, that’s where I would have stopped, and moved onto some of the actions I think we as individuals and we as church should take. And I would’ve hoped my appeal to justice would’ve moved you or convinced you, and that you would take up my ideas once you got home. I would’ve motivated you with encouragement about the Paris Climate agreement, where 192 countries made an agreement to take steps to cut their carbon emissions so that the global temperature wouldn’t rise more 2oC above the temperature from before we started burning fossil fuel – what we call pre-industrial levels. And we could’ve celebrated that unprecedented act of global unity and gone home with a spring in our step.

But on Monday, the IPCC (Inter-governmental panel on climate change) published a new report. This report looks at what it thinks the planet will be like if we do get to 2 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels, and it doesn’t look good. In Paris, countries made a commitment not to exceed 2 degrees, and made some encouraging noises about trying to stick to 1.5 degrees of warming. And for the first time, this report looks at the difference in outcome between those two possibilities.

The impact on the planet is stark. If warming is kept to 1.5oC, coral reefs will still decline by 70-90% but if at 2 degrees virtually all of the world’s reefs would be lost. Similarly, Arctic sea ice would remain during most summers if warming is kept to 1.5C. But at 2C, ice free summers are 10 times more likely, leading to greater habitat losses for polar bears, whales, seals and sea birds.

The impact on people is also dramatic. Extreme heatwaves will become more common. They will be experience at least once every five years by 14% of the world’s population at 1.5oC but by more than a third of the planet if temperatures rise to 2oC. Water shortages and drought will affect twice as many people round the world at 2oC as would be affected at 1.5oC. Food scarcity will also increase and at 2oC hundreds of millions more people, particularly in poor countries, would be at risk of climate-related poverty. Sea-level rise would affect 10 million more people by 2100 with that half-degree extra warming.

The IPCC calculates that we have until 2030 to make the necessary changes to ensure that the temperature doesn’t rise more than 1.5oC compared to pre-industrial levels. That’s just twelve years. But despite the talk about sticking below a 2oC, the current pledges that countries have made mean we are actually on course for a rise of 3oC. Given the dangerous situation predicted at 2 degrees of warming, 3 would be disastrous. We must act. We must act urgently. We’ve got 12 years.

So it’s a good job that the IPCC report also goes on to outline ways in which it believes it is possible for the world to keep warming to 1.5oC. These include dramatic reductions in carbon emissions by switching to renewable energy, in particular electrical transport systems, large scale re-forestation, and increases in carbon capture technology. These are all massive things, things that come under the category of bigger than self actions.

So, what can we do?

Let’s start with the individual actions that we can take and then think about what it means to act at a bigger than self level. There is plenty you can do to reduce your own carbon footprint. You can switch to a renewable energy provider. It’s easy and quick and you can do it without leaving the house. And it might even save you money. If you can, you can add solar panels to your house – but if you’re going to do this, do it soon, because incentives from the government will stop come April next year. Energy efficiency is also important. What can you do to insulate your home so you don’t need the heating on for as long? How about loft insulation and draft proofing doors and windows?

Think about transport. Walk or cycle whenever you can. Choose public transport over your car as much as you can. And if you have a car, when you need to change it, choose an electric vehicle. And most significantly of all, don’t fly.

Think about consumption. Agriculture contributes a high proportion of greenhouse gases, but not all agriculture is created equal. Producing meat takes up much more energy than plants, and red meat, especially beef, takes up more than pork and chicken. Dairy products are energy intensive too. The biggest impact you can have is to go vegan, but any reduction in meat and dairy consumption helps. And it’s not just what we eat. Everything we buy and use takes energy to make and transport. So buy less, throw away less – mend it, repurpose it and if you can’t do that, recycle it rather than throw it away.

Individually, these are small actions. If we all take them, then they add up to slightly bigger actions. But realistically, it’s still not enough. On their own, they don’t cut it. We are not going to tackle climate change by going vegan and switching to a renewable energy supplier. We need bigger, structural, political change. Not just a few people switching, but whole scale investment in renewable energy and away from fossil fuel. How do you get investment in anything? It has to look like it’s something worth investing in. Every person who switches to renewable energy makes the market bigger. So to make the market bigger, you can spread the word to your family and friends and get them to switch. Every time I introduce someone to my renewable energy company, I get £50! Tell everyone in your church. In fact, tell your church! Get your church to change its energy supplier.

I can tell you that this really works. I’ve been involved in a scheme to get churches to switch to a renewable energy supplier in Sheffield and Leeds Dioceses. When one of the current suppliers got wind that another company was taking their energy business, they were not happy! But they couldn’t compete if parishes wanted renewable energy. So what did they do? They went green too! So now, whichever company churches use, they get renewable electricity.

As this story shows, when it comes to business, money talks. If we want to move away from fossil fuels and develop better renewable solutions, we have to move the money. And not just the money we spend, but the money we invest. Like pension money, or the money the banks invest. That’s why Christian Aid is asking supporters to challenge the banks about where they are investing money – asking them to stop funding fossil fuels and to start investing in new, clean energy. At the moment we’re targeting HSBC because they are listening, and where they go, other banks will follow. You can add your voice to this challenge via our online campaign. But wherever you have investments or pensions, you can ask the challenging questions about what the banks are doing with your hard earned cash. Or your church’s cash – does your home church have any investments? Or what about the bigger networks and denomination that your church belongs to. Where is their money invested? Have you asked the question?

The other lever we can move when we act together is political. Politicians need votes, so the obvious thing to say is use yours wisely. Politicians act if they think it will get them votes – and so our corporate actions are important for creating the political space for politicians to act. Joining in online actions, or marches and protests generates the political legitimacy for that viewpoint. If there are no voices in favour of on-shore wind-farms, there will be no more on-shore wind-farms. It works on a one to one basis too. Have you ever met your MP? Get to know them and consistently bring your concerns to their attention. If you need somewhere to start, Christian Aid has another online action you can take. We need new legislation for action to tackle climate change. At Christian Aid, we’d like it to be ambitious enough for the 1.5 degrees scenario. That means our carbon emissions need to be zero – or at least add up to zero when you take into account things that remove carbon like planting trees – so we’re asking for a net zero carbon target. Can you ask your MP to support this target in the new bill? And then, when you’ve emailed, go and visit them.

Join in with what’s going on – local groups or national groups, online or offline, environmental groups like A’Rocha or campaigning groups like 350.org or Greenpeace, or sign up to find out what development agencies like Christian Aid or Tearfund are doing – both of these regularly campaign on climate justice. Or even join a political party and lobby from the inside. And lobby the leaders of your church too. Is your minister speaking out about climate change? What about the senior national leaders of your church? What are the internal processes you can use to bring climate justice onto the agenda? Wherever we can come together, we need to do this in order to make the political space for politicians and big businesses to act.

Friends, this is urgent. We’ve got 12 years to make an impact, to act for justice for all God’s children at the sharp end of climate change, to encourage our churches to be leaders in the movement for climate justice. We can all take the first step, but what we really need is to act together. I’m going to finish with some words from one of the authors of the IPCC report:

“We have presented governments with pretty hard choices. We have pointed out the enormous benefits of keeping to 1.5C, and also the unprecedented shift in energy systems and transport that would be needed to achieve that. We show it can be done within laws of physics and chemistry. Then the final tick box is political will. We cannot answer that. Only our audience can – and that is the governments that receive it.”

Our job now is to come together to create the environment for that political will to flourish.

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Gender pay gap: still too wide

IMG_1280.JPGIt’s the centenary anniversary this year for women getting the vote. One hundred years later, surely the journey to equality between men and women is here?

So let’s see! Organisations employing more than 250 workers have until April to publish mean hourly rates of pay for men and women. This week, we found out that over 500 firms have already done so. How are we doing?

Well, the answer is, not so great. The headlines are that women are, on average, paid 52% less than men at EasyJet, 15% less at Ladbrokes, and 33% less at Virgin Money. The gender pay gap is alive and well.

Now, whenever I see posts on social media about the gender pay gap, they are usually followed by a barrage of comments complaining that the post misunderstands the data, and that the equal pay act means that men and women receive equal pay for equal work. In fact, the comments from some of those businesses highlighted above reveal the same. Virgin Money said they were ‘confident’ men and women were paid equally for the same jobs. The discrepancies arise because men are, on average, in higher paid roles than women.

I want to tackle these two distinct areas. Are men and women paid equally for the same and similar jobs? And if they are, does the gender pay gap matter?

Are men and women paid equally? It appears not. I don’t think anyone these days can get away with paying men and women differently if they are doing exactly the same job. But the trouble starts with jobs that are similar but not exactly the same. Twenty years ago, my own profession (speech and language therapy) won its claim that it was of equal worth to male dominated professions like clinical psychology and pharmacy. Meanwhile, only last year, women working in Asda won their claim that their work on the shopfloor was of equal value to work done in the warehouse, where the predominantly male workforce was paid more. This could cost Asda up to £100m.

But even if women are paid equally for equal work, the gender pay gap still matters. Ladbrokes put their pay discrepancy down to ‘weak representation of women at our senior levels’. But as Jeremy Miles AM of Welsh Labour points out, this isn’t the explanation, it’s the problem. Men at EasyJet earn so much more money because 94% of its pilots are men. So why aren’t there more female pilots?

We may just be mopping up the last vestiges of unequal pay. But we have a long way to go before men and women are represented fairly in the workforce. Women fill more roles in retail work, care work and part-time work, all of which are usually paid less. And men still fill more senior roles in too many organisations. I’m not sure how we’re going to get there, but I figured a crucial step on the journey is to realise we haven’t yet arrived.

Who wants to be an Eco Church?

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Who cares about the environment?

Do you? Are you worried about air pollution in our cities causing premature deaths among children and the elderly? Are you concerned about the rising tide of plastics filling the seas? Concerned enough to get your own reusable drink containers? Have you watched in horror as tropical storms have devastated the Caribbean while floods have driven millions from their homes in Asia and drought has brought further millions to the brink of starvation in East Africa?

Something needs to be done! But whose responsibility is it? Is it the job of environmentalists and ecologists? Will governments act? Or businesses? Or is it down to individuals? What about the church? Do Christians and the church have a duty to act, or is the environment beyond the responsibility of an organisation whose primary purpose is the glory of God and the care of souls?

The exhortation to look after God’s creation has been with us since the beginning of humanity. The way the heavens and the earth display the glory of God is woven throughout the Bible. Our responsibility to ensure we manage our resources so there is enough for everyone is shouted in the voices of the prophets. And the Biblical principles of Sabbath and Jubilee demonstrate how we should live in harmony with the earth and its seasons, not exploiting it for every last grain or drop.

When we care for our world, we care for its people too. Or, conversely, if we want to serve our communities, we must also be concerned about the environment in which they live. And that includes our sisters and brothers in the poorest communities in the world, bearing the brunt of the dramatically changing climate caused by the carbon emissions of the rich.

So, now that I’ve convinced you that action to tackle climate change and take care of the planet is part of the church’s mission to love God and all his people, what are we going to do about it?

I spent last Saturday at A’Rocha’s Northern Eco Church conference, with a bunch of other people with a desire to green the church. A’Rocha is a Christian conservation charity at heart, and out of this passion it has devised a toolkit to help churches do what they can to become more involved with care for the environment. The Eco Church scheme provides a structure to help churches act and the award recognises and celebrates what has been achieved.

The award covers five areas. Worship and Teaching encourages churches to include climate and environmental themes in its songs, prayers and sermons across all ages and groups. Management of buildings covers issues of heating, lighting, renewable energy, insulation and energy efficiency. Management of land considers how churchyards are managed for the benefit of wildlife and the people in the surrounding area. Churchyards are now the last remaining homes of some of our most endangered indigenous species. Global and community engagement gets churches involved with wider environmental issues on a national and global scale and encourages them to engage with the holders of power who can make a difference. And the final section, lifestyle, challenges us all to consider our own carbon footprint, what we eat, how we travel, what we buy, so that the whole congregation can act to transform our world.

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Holy Trinity Thorpe Hesley

In the Sheffield area, 6 churches are registered to become eco churches. Christ Church Stocksbridge and St Leonard’s Dinnington are on their way. Bannercross Methodists and Dronfield Baptists have a bronze award, and Holy Trinity Thorpe Hesley and Saint Andrew’s Psalter Lane are silver award holders. On Saturday I met people from St Luke’s Lodge Moor, St Thomas Crookes, St Thomas Philadelphia, Crowded House church and the Cathedral. Along with my church (All Saints Ecclesall) I wonder which one will be next. Perhaps it will be yours?

 

 

Back to School: maths, gender and clothes

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My daughter started her A-levels this week. She’s doing Maths, Further Maths, Physics, and a design/engineering course about the built environment. Or, as my son puts it, maths, super maths, science maths and engineering maths. I’ve had lots of reactions to that, and I’m interested in yours. So I’ll leave a little gap here while you react without reading ahead to what others have said…

 

There’s the usual “oh I did Maths and Physics A-level” or its opposite, a sense of awe that anyone could do Maths or Physics. But the most interesting one is something like “Good for her!” which roughly translates as “it’s really great that a girl is taking those subjects”. I can’t knock this reaction because it’s true. It is great. The maths class is reasonable evenly split between boys and girls, but there’s hardly any girls in physics and even fewer in further maths. It’s also partly why she chose physics – because fewer girls do it and she wanted to break the mould. But it’s still remarkable that in 2017 it is worthy of comment that girls are opting for maths and science courses at A-level. There really is still a lot for feminism to do.

When she was born, I cast disdain on pink clothes. I must have expressed this rather more fiercely than anticipated (there is precedent for this), because my mother-in-law stuck to it doggedly. So we ended up with a wonderful sunny array of bright yellows and oranges, with just the odd bit of beige thrown in. Sixteen years later, this issue has not gone away. There has been recent mounting pressure on retailers who separate toys by gender, with a girls’ aisle festooned in pink and sparkles while boys get primary colours and trucks. Even Lego for girls is pink. This extends to clothes, and even more worryingly, to sexualised slogans and styles for little girls. But this week (hurrah!) John Lewis has announced that it will no longer divide its store into ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ sections. Rather, it will have one section for children’s clothes, as body shapes between girls and boys are no different until puberty. It is also launching a new ‘gender-neutral’ range of children’s clothes.

The reaction to this news has been astonishing! While lots of people are supportive, others are threatening to boycott John Lewis for (wait for it!) political correctness gone mad. This article from the Christian Institute is the one that drove me to my keyboard for this blog. No-one is making boys wear dresses, though they can if they want. But it is about making sure girls have the freedom of choice to wear clothes featuring dinosaurs, cars, space aliens and football without having to shop in the boys’ section.

Does this all really matter? Here’s what Let Clothes be Clothes had to say. ‘When we looked at tops sold in Mothercare, there were over 20 STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Maths) themes sold as “boys t-shirts” and not one for girls. The idea that boys and not girls will be more inclined towards Science themes is harmful to girls AND boys, and is insulting to all the Women who have forged a path in STEM fields.’

And here’s a cautionary tale about why we need women in engineering. When airbags were first designed and fitted to cars, they had only been tested on man-sized crash test dummies. Consequently, when they were deployed, women and children were at risk of injury from the airbag. This didn’t change until 2011, so watch out if your car is older than that!

The gender gap is still wide open (along with many other gaps). I’m sure you haven’t forgotten the massive pay gap between the highest paid men and women at the BBC. For the rest of us, the gap in earnings between men and women means that once we get to Friday 10th November (equal pay day) women will effectively be working for free. This is the same as last year, so we’ve made no progress in a year. I’m proud of my daughter for her ambition to break gender constraints and stereotypes. We need her ambition, because we’ve still got a long way to go.

Lifting the gagging law?

Bearing WitnessThis tweet today from Christian Aid has gladdened my heart. It looks like there is finally some action to change the Lobbying Act, which effectively silences charities from ‘political’ campaigning in the 12 months before a general election, while doing nothing to stop the crushing influence of money and big business on government. I know, it’s odd what makes me happy!

More than 100 charities have signed a letter to civil society minister Tracey Crouch, calling for the Lobbying Act (known as the gagging law) to be overhauled. They call it a “confusing and burdensome” piece of legislation that “weakens democracy, rather than strengthens it” because those representing the marginalised and vulnerable have been “silenced”.

I’ve been on the receiving end of the confusion. In the run-up to the election in June, Christian Aid picked its way through the act and ended up advising members of staff that even their person social media accounts shouldn’t endorse a political party if it could be construed as speaking for Christian Aid. I looked at my Facebook page. It was also the run up to Christian Aid Week and the only posts there were about Christian Aid or the Labour party. For the sake of a fine, I had to choose. So, for the duration of the election I chose politics, feeling, rightly or wrongly, that whoever was in government would have more impact than me on the lives of the poorest wherever in the world they might be. But I was left unable to talk about or promote the fundraising I was doing for Christian Aid Week on my personal threads. I’ve only got a reach of 400 on Facebook, so I’m not making that much impact, but multiply that across all my colleagues in any charity who use social media and suddenly the impact is significant.

So the act is messy. But why should charities meddle in politics, rather than getting on with their core business of helping people? Actually, I believe that their core business of helping people is a political act, because it says that people are worth more than the system or situation that has left them in need. But above and beyond that, charities allow the voices of the marginalised and vulnerable to be heard. They have a unique perspective of how policies have an impact on those they are trying to help.

I’ve just spent the weekend at Greenbelt with Christian Aid. While we’ve been there, we’ve been talking about climate change. Actually, it turns out that the rest of the world was also talking about climate change, or trying not to talk about climate change. I didn’t really pick up the news about the flooding in Houston, Texas until I got home. But unprecedented catastrophic weather is a feature of the new world we are creating by pumping carbon into the atmosphere.

At Christian Aid we talk about climate change because droughts, floods and typhoons devastate lives and livelihoods. The work we do to help the poorest communities build their own routes out of poverty is stymied by the changes in the climate caused by the richest countries in the world. Those with the least responsibility for the change feel its impact the hardest and have the fewest resources to cope. If we are going to be true to our ambition to end poverty, then we also have to tackle climate change.

This weekend we’ve been focused on financial institutions especially banks. But we also include government policy and spending in our campaigning. We’ve campaigned to ask the Government to stop burning coal to generate electricity. We want better plans outlining how we are going to reach UK carbon reductions targets. We’d like to see investment in renewable energy technology. All of these asks are political. Each political party approaches them differently, and some not at all. But the Lobbying Act closes down discussion of each party’s offering, leaving Christian Aid to rely on general statements without serious discussion of the issues at stake.

It is not enough for charities to provide whatever services, help or development that are within their remit if they cannot also work to change what causes the problem in the first place. There will be no end to poverty unless the underlying structural causes of poverty are changed.

Here’s an example. We have great debates while we are at Greenbelt, late at night sitting outside our tents. This year we had one about tax credits – complex, unwieldy, but are they really good or bad? Yes, they redistribute money back to those who need it most, putting money in the pockets of the poor. Yet at what cost? The system has become more complex so that work makes you better off, but this leaves people confused, struggling to access what they are owed, and afraid of making mistakes and ending up with large sums to repay. But it has also failed to address the underlying injustice of poverty wages. People have more money, so wages do not have to increase. Tesco can turn a tidy profit and still pay workers a pittance because they are topped up by tax credits and so people can get by. And thus, the tax payer funds Tesco’s profit. I should say, Tesco are not the only culprit, just an obvious one.

Systemic, structural, political changes are necessary to solve ‘bigger than self’ problems like poverty and climate change. It is not rational that charities are not able to speak out about the conditions that create the situations that they are working to relieve. Shelter should be able to campaign for better housing policy and speak out when current policy is unjust. Food banks can see why people are going hungry and need emergency food and need to be able to call out the ideology that puts people in poverty. If we cannot do this, we collude with the causes of injustice and become part of the system that causes the poverty in the first place.

The space available for civil society to act is being squeezed. Dissent is part of democracy, to curtail it is to curtail our freedom. Yet that is what is happening. Public spaces are being privatised, the right to strike is being made more difficult, and in some professions removed altogether, registering to vote has become more complicated. The Lobbying Act is just another way for power to silence its critics, and it’s high time we broke that silence.

This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein

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I did some teaching for trainee Lay Readers in Sheffield Diocese recently, about discipleship and our care for the environment. The Assistant Principal, Bill Goodman, wondered if I’d read Naomi Klein’s book. Well, to be honest, I’d based most of my talk on her book! I’d thoroughly recommend it, and to help persuade you to read it, here is his book review.

Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (London: Penguin, 2014)

Naomi Klein is not for the faint hearted: an uncompromising thinker and activist, a compelling communicator. She is clear that we are now in the final decade of opportunity to avoid catastrophic climate change. She sees much of our current environmental crisis as driven by the rapacious demands of unregulated capitalism – while being equally scathing about the destructive effects of some centralised socialist regimes. The key problem she attacks is what she terms ‘extractivism’ – a desire to extract resources endlessly from a finite planet, while also disregarding their polluting outcomes.

The book is in three major parts. The first section, ‘Bad Timing’, considers how our current climate crisis has developed since the industrial revolution, and how it has accelerated in recent years, fuelled by free-market fundamentalism. She sees an urgent need to rebuild the public sphere (health care, affordable homes, flood defences, public transport), with those who cause pollution – particularly fossil fuel companies and users – paying their fair share of the cost. I found much of this section familiar, but brought to life by her gift for researching and recounting true stories from today’s world which bring the issues vividly to life.

Her second section, ‘Magical Thinking’, critiques some recent proposals for solutions to the climate change crisis: miraculous scientific interventions (such as seeding our atmosphere with sulphates to dim the sun), philanthropic billionaire ‘messiahs’ (such as Richard Branson), and market-based ‘green business’ solutions. She is scathing about all these options, particularly the way some environmental groups have been co-opted and neutralised by the big-business groups they are seeking to work with.

The final section, ‘Starting Anyway’, looks for effective responses to the crisis. One is to invest our savings and pension funds not in oil and coal, but in firms that positively promote the transition away from carbon to renewable energy – so her antipathy towards our current model of capitalism is not total: she can work within the system to some extent. In addition, she champions the direct action of ‘blockadia’ – passive resistance to fossil fuel extraction and other polluting industries, particularly by the local communities most affected. These need to move beyond ‘NIMBY’ism to a wider perspective: ‘Not In My Back Yard – Nor In Anyone Else’s’. Her inspiring stories often focus on indigenous groups disputing land claims with mining companies in USA and her native Canada (also Nigeria and Ecuador); these stories have less immediate resonance in our corner of the world, although they might inspire us to support the groups described and to think about action in our own context.

For Klein, solutions need to be both top-down and bottom-up. She is convinced that only significant intervention and regulation by governments (of the kind seen in the USA in the 1960s and 70s) can turn the tide, with a kind of Marshall Plan for the planet. But where is the political will to be found? It needs to come from ordinary people, leadership bubbling up from below, with social media helping spread its reach. She draws inspiration and hope from grassroots groups and people movements, often arising from particular crises (such as the Occupy movement after the 2008 financial crash); mass movements are needed now, demanding radical action and initiating it at local levels. I find myself wondering whether this will be enough; I hope so – what is the alternative? She sees one striking example of how this was achieved in the past, in the historic movement to abolish slavery. Despite mockery, outrage and fierce resistance from the powerful, a key foundation of the global economic order – slavery – was eventually abolished (although sadly, with significant compensation paid to the slave owners).

Klein expresses no overt faith stance; but a number of her concerns resonate with mine as a Christian. When so many politicians today resort to self-serving pragmatism as the only way to motivate us, Klein’s moral conviction and passion for social justice is a refreshing change – she sees it as morally self-evident that we need to reduce the glaring inequalities that marginalise many and disfigure our world. The world’s poorest people are those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The urgency of this task for our day which she conveys reminds me of the Kairos Document’s challenge to apartheid at a pivotal moment in South Africa. For Naomi Klein, the climate change crisis is an opportunity to transform and reinvent our cultural values, and so our world; to embrace a worldview of ‘interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy’ (p.462). An inspiring vision, and a tall order to achieve. For me, that will take grace, courage and perseverance which we need God to nurture within us and draw out of us.

Bill Goodman, August 2016

Food insecurity – Britain or Burkina Faso?

Screen Shot 2017-06-30 at 16.54.20It might disappear from the headlines, but the food bank story is not going away. A new report has come out about food banks – this one is a survey carried out by Oxford University to find out some of the circumstances of people who go to food banks.

Among other things, the research found that:

78% of households were classified as severely food insecure – that is to say they had missed meals, or not eaten at all (sometimes for days at a time) because they did not have enough money for food, and this was an experience repeated every month or nearly every month in the last year.

50% of households experienced other forms of destitution, such as not being able to afford essential toiletries or not having enough money to heat their homes for at least four days in one month.

These circumstances are shocking to read. But what really struck me was the language used to describe them. People are going to food banks because they are destitute. Just pause for a moment. What does that word conjure up for you? To me it feels like a word we should have left behind with Dickens, paupers in Victorian London about to be cast into the workhouse. But in Britain today, there are families who are that close to the edge that we describe them as destitute.

And then there’s the phrase food insecurity. Usually I encounter that phrase when I’m at work at Christian Aid, talking about farmers in Burkina Faso, or those caught up in the famine in East Africa right now. Communities who don’t have enough margin of resilience to be sure they will always have enough to eat. And yet households in the UK are food insecure. Because of chronically low incomes, or unpredictable incomes, they do not have the resources to ensure that they have enough food. A feature of the developing world can be found in the fifth richest country in the world.

The use of food banks continues to rise. In the last year, the Trussell Trust gave out 1.18 million food parcels, and they are just one of many providers. Meanwhile, calls to implement policies that might address the problem and reduce food bank use are ignored. The people I know running food banks all say they are a sticking plaster measure. They do not provide a long-term solution, just a stop gap in an emergency. But the longer they exist, they more they feel normal, and the more they unintentionally collude with government policies that have created the need in the first place.

So are food banks here to stay? Are we happy with that? Is food charity part of the welfare state now? What has happened to our social contract where we expect to be caught by the safety net in times of need because we have pooled our resources through our tax and national insurance? Churches and other groups have seen the need and responded with compassion, but you are out of luck if that compassion hasn’t extended to your town or local community. Is that fair or equitable?

Before we decide that charity and food hand-outs are a legitimate solution for the UK, it’s worth going back to places that have long-term experience of food insecurity. What are the solutions in Burkina Faso or to famine in East Africa? Food hand-outs are absolutely only an emergency response. In the long-term, sustainable solutions are needed so that those experiencing food insecurity become food secure. Solutions that include making sure people have an adequate income, and a reliable income. Income might be unpredictable because of climate change in Burkina Faso and because of benefit delays in the UK, but food hand-outs are not the adequate response to either.

Food banks are one big, obvious symptom of life in austerity Britain, where there are jobs, but they are low-paid and insecure, there are benefits, but they are deliberately delayed, where support for the disabled is rationed and where debt is on the rise. This is why people are destitute and food insecure, and a food parcel is not going to change that.

Environment and the election

voteHere is a very simple, very quick, discourse analysis on the Labour and Conservative manifestos, with regards to their position on the environment and climate change. It is not in depth, because contrary to appearance, I do have a life and I don’t have time to do more!

Basically I searched for the word ‘environment’ and the phrase ‘climate change’ in each manifesto. This is a pretty crude measure and inevitably misses stuff. But you do get a flavour of the importance of this issue to each party relative to the other. It tells you more about principles and priorities than policy detail. But that in itself is insightful.

One more proviso. When you search for ‘environment’ you get other stuff like ‘the business environment’ or ‘the school environment’ so I discounted those. But that’s also way I haven’t done a word count on ‘environment’.

The first thing that appears in the Conservative manifesto when you search ‘environment’ is support for fracking, or shale gas extraction, as they call it. Then there is some discussion about the landscape and environment in the UK countryside, looking at agri-business and environment, hedges and dry stone walls. The Conservatives give their support for SDGs (sustainable development goals) with regard to sustainability and and preventing environmental degradation.

The phrase ‘climate change’ comes up 5 times. The Conservatives are leading the way in international action, though there’s no detail about how. There is discussion about what they have done in the past – the Climate Change Act and the Paris Agreement but no detail plans for the future.

The first thing that appears in the Labour manifesto when you search ‘environment’ is its own chapter heading. It is a key point that the Labour manifesto has a whole section devoted to the environment, signifying its importance. Then the manifesto moves onto plans to incorporate environmental protections in business, introducing a duty to environment not just share holders. It talks about clean energy, securing environmental protection when we leave EU, investment in a low-carbon economy, getting people out of their cars, sustainable farming and fishing, a policy based on science, and support for the SDGs.

The phrase ‘climate change’ comes up 11 times. The first mention is to introduce a ban on fracking. The manifesto talks about how there needs to be a transition, to move to clean fuel and renewable fuel. There is still, however, a commitment to off shore oil/gas.

Finally a search on the phrase ‘low-carbon’ reveals 5 uses in the Labour manifesto and 0 in the Conservatives’. Likewise a search for ‘renewable’ has the same result. You can try your own searches on the issues important to you.

Download the Conservative Party Manifesto.

Download the Labour Party Manifesto.

Why I’m voting Labour

vote labour

Jesus told a story about a group of people on zero-hours contracts. Well, not exactly, I’m paraphrasing, but I think this captures it.

Anyway, this group of people would turn up at their Agency first thing in the morning, hoping there would be work for them. One morning, very early, Mrs Merlot from the fruit farm also came into the Agency, looking for workers. She arranged for 10 of them to come and work for her. “It’ll be hard work,” she said, “and a long day, 8 ‘til 6, with an hour for lunch. But I’ll pay you a proper wage for the day, £8.45 an hour is the Living Wage, so that’s £76.05 for the day.”

The workers agreed, and went off in her mini-bus to work. The rest of the workers stayed at the office. They didn’t dare go home, in case someone else came in looking for workers, but they didn’t know how long they would be hanging around waiting.

At 9 o’clock, Mrs Merlot came back. “Everything is coming ripe at the same time,” she said. “I need another bus-full of workers. Same deal as before.” “You mean £8.45 an hour,” asked one of the people waiting. “No, £76.05 for the day, until 6pm, enough to live on,” she replied.

So 10 more people agreed to the terms and were driven off in the minibus.

At noon, and again at 3pm, Mrs Merlot came back again, in need of another 10 workers to come and work in the fields until 6pm, again offering £76.05 for the day’s work. Finally, she returned just before 5pm.

“Are you lot still here,” she said to the raggle-taggle bunch of dejected workers who had waited all day in vain for some hours work. “Have you had nothing better to do? Never mind, I’ve still got work to be done. Get in, and you can work the last hour for me, just like the others.”

The last 8 people climbed aboard the minibus and soon arrived at the field, which was full of people picking fruit.

When the rest of the workers learned that the last 8 people would be getting paid the same amount for working an hour as those who had worked all day, there was outrage. At 6pm, when the workers came to be paid, someone who had been there since 8am made his point.

“This is totally unfair. We’ve been slaving away all day in the field, and now we discover that we’re not getting any more than this lot, who only turned up for an hour!”

“Have you got a problem with that?” asked Mrs Merlot. “You agreed terms, and came to work on that basis. I’ll pay you everything we agreed. The worker deserves a decent wage for her or his time. It’s up to me what I choose to pay, it’s my business.”

Perhaps this is really a story about eternal life, a gift whether you are reconciled to God near the beginning or near the end of your life. But it is told as a picture of the kingdom of heaven, and I believe we should be in the business of bringing kingdom values to bear in this world and not just the next. After all, we do pray, ‘your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven’.

It was important to the owner of the farm that the workers were paid what was just and right for a day’s work. Without a proper wage, workers cannot pay for their homes, food, and family responsibilities. Wages today don’t seem to be right or just. That’s why I’m an advocate for the Living Wage, so people have enough to live on. And that’s also why we need to stop casual labour becoming standard practice. Zero-hours contracts for people who are looking for regular work; counting people as self-employed to avoid holiday and sick pay; the gig economy, where income is unpredictable; and care workers not paid for their travel time. All these things make work insecure, and therefore make life insecure.

And the owner of the farm was also very clear that she would decide what to do with her money. In the kingdom of heaven, she decided to pay it to her workers. Meanwhile on earth, less and less money is being paid in wages, and more and more is being paid out to the holders of capital. In the US, since the mid 70s, wages as a percentage of national income have fallen 7%, while corporate profits have risen 7% (see this article).  Across the world, the same pattern is seen, the ‘labour share’ of national income has been falling. A falling labour share implies that even though workers are more productive and make more money for the businesses they work for, these gains no longer get returned to workers in the form of rises in pay. Instead, an ever larger share of the benefits of growth is given to owners of capital. Even among wage-earners the rich have done vastly better than the rest: the share of income earned by the top 1% of workers has increased since the 1990s even as the overall labour share has fallen (more here).

It’s not always easy to articulate the relationship between faith and politics. When I read the Bible, it’s easy to see God’s concern for the poor and the values of justice shining out. But it’s less obvious whether this translates into a right-wing or left-wing approach to achieving those aims. It’s also possible to look at earthly versions of these approaches, that is, to see whether the actual political parties are concerned for the poor and for justice. To me, this also demonstrates an obvious answer, but others see it differently . So I was looking for a more fundamental expression of what feels incontestable in my core, but isn’t always easy to express. So here it is, for me, a Biblical model of why, as a Christian, I am and could only be a Labour voter. Check out the Labour Party manifesto on a fair deal at work.

The Democratic Deficit

westminster.jpgWe’re proud of our democracy in this country. We’re so proud of it, we like to march round the globe implementing it in other countries, and standing in judgement making sure other elections are free and fair. But we need to talk about our own democratic deficit.

First of all, we need to talk about Tory election fraud. Following the 2015 General Election, the Electoral Commission found the Conservative Party guilty of election fraud and fined it the maximum penalty available for the offences – £70,000. Currently, 14 police forces are investigation 30 individuals for criminal offences relating to the last election. Up to two dozen Tory MPs face criminal charges, and if found guilty could face a year in prison, and the results in their constituency declared invalid. Before parliament was dissolved, the Tories had a working majority of 17, which would have been wiped out if 24 seats were overturned. How convenient that another election has been called, ruling out that eventuality. And how many of those MPs who are under investigation are running for their seats again? As the police have not released names, we don’t know.

I’ve written before about the proposed boundary changes, which I’ve dared to label gerrymandering. These changes have been given the gloss of ‘saving money’ by reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600, and a further sheen of ‘fairness’ and ‘better representation’ by equalising the size of constituencies. But a population represented by fewer people is not going to be better represented. And the process of the boundary changes has not been fair by any means. Instead of counting the number of people in an area, the changes are based on the number of electors, even though MPs represent everyone, not just voters. Despite best efforts, the electoral role is never complete. People move, other people hide, and transient or wary populations are higher in deprived urban areas, and amongst the young and minority ethnic communities. All more likely to be Labour voters.

And, lets face it, the government hasn’t made the ‘best effort’ to make sure the electoral roll is complete. In fact, it has made it harder for people to register, changing the system so that households or institutions cannot register people en masse. Universities can no longer register students, each student has to register her- or himself. And while universities like those in Sheffield, have worked hard to get students to register, this isn’t universal.

So the new boundaries have been drawn up on inaccurate electoral numbers, disenfranchising the urban poor by reducing their representation, further discouraging them from the ballot box and the register, making any future revisions of the boundary likely to go against these same communities. These changes haven’t come in yet, they are out for consultation. But when I went to the website to raise my objections, none of my objections above were deemed valid, because I wasn’t allowed to object to the process of decision making, only the technicalities of where the lines were drawn on the map.

This nicely sets the scene for the General Election. The election that Theresa May told us would never happen. But one that she has seen fit to call as exam season begins, to take place at the end of term. By the time the election comes, the student population will have dispersed, leaving concentrated urban areas and becoming spread out throughout the country, diluting the power of the student vote. Yes, this matters to me, because I live in a constituency with the highest population of students in the country, whose vote really matters for the party I want to elect. But actually, this timing makes it tricky for everyone, and removes more people from the electoral process. How can any party successfully canvass when lots of the people who will vote in an area are not there, but are away at university? And come the end of term, even if students don’t go home, they will still move to next year’s digs or halls. They will live where they are not registered, and be registered where they no longer live. How many will make the effort to go back and vote, or find out whether they can re-register in time? The democratic deficit grows again.

Because, yes, people should take responsibility to register, and use their vote wisely. But they don’t – the local council by-election in Sheffield last week had a turn-out of 24%. This matters to society, because 76% of that population didn’t think their vote mattered. Are we happy to have created a society where 76% of people think it is ok not to have a voice, or at least, not one that anyone will listen to?

If we want a fair and democratic society, we should be doing all we can to help people participate, removing barriers, not creating them. Not everyone is fully up to speed with the process. Certainly not the group of students I met on the doorstep who thought the election didn’t apply to them because they were under 21. Or the voters who are worried about getting the answer wrong, believing that there can be a wrong answer in an election. Or the people who believe their vote doesn’t count because no-one listens to them anyway. (See the views expressed here.)

We shouldn’t just dismiss these concerns. Participation is more important than sneering or writing people off. There are so many people who don’t know who to vote for because there is no medium to access the information they need in a straightforward, unbiased way. Newspapers and TV put their own spin on the stories, only telling the stories that they choose to share, with comment and analysis that fits their own world view. Witness the local election, where UKIP’s losses have been reported everywhere, while the Green party’s gains are an after-thought at best and totally absent in most places, even though neither party runs any of the councils in question and the one with the least coverage has the most MPs. Getting beyond the sound bites to the truth requires commitment and dedication. But we want everyone to be informed and to vote accordingly, not just the tedious political activists like me.

Democracy isn’t just about holding regular elections and being able to vote in secret without a gun to your head. It means transparency and accountability. It requires free and independent media that call governments to account and speak truth to power instead of being the powerful. It means democratic processes are run independently of those in power, and those who break the rules are held to account. We should be doing all we can to include as many people as possible to play their part in democracy, making it easy, not difficult, sharing responsibility and not just shrugging our shoulders when people don’t engage. Our democracy has a long way to go.