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.
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.