This is an edited version of my talk at St Andrews Psalter Lane church this morning, an joint Anglican/Methodist congregation in Sheffield. They are an eco-congregation, so it was great to be able to talk with them about climate change.
At Christian Aid, we believe that tackling climate change and caring for the environment is as integral to our faith as worship and prayer, not merely an interesting add-on, and I’m sure we’re not the only ones. But sometimes it’s good to think about why being green is an act of faith, and what it has to do with Christian Aid, an overseas development charity.
Christian Aid has a unique perspective on climate change because it works through its partners with those who are experiencing climate change now. It is really important that we listen to the voices of our sisters and brothers in the Global South, the theologians who live with climate change every day. Christian Aid describes them as modern-day prophets. For more detail , take a look at this report, ‘Song of the Prophets’. As it says (p9) , “climate change is real, [it is happening now,] and its impact is experienced by those who are least responsible and most vulnerable.”
Christians are called to act on climate change not just because we have been tasked with looking after the world, but because it is an issue of justice. “Those who will bear the brunt of predicted changes are the poorest people in the world”(p7). Nazmul Chowdhury, a Christian Aid partner in Bangladesh, put it like this, ‘Forget about making poverty history. Climate change will make poverty permanent.’ (p7) Our reading from Deuteronomy 24:14-22 shows some of the ways God, a God of justice, asked his people to take care of the vulnerable members of society – the alien (or foreigner), the orphan and the widow. Guillermo Kerber, from Uruguay, says that today, ‘victims of climate change are another face of the vulnerable ones’ (p12). If you like, we have a duty of care. To act on climate change is to act to bring justice for the vulnerable. To not act or to fob off the global poor means we are perpetuating injustice.
The reading from Deuteronomy also reveals that our relationship with the land is not one which exploits every last drop from every corner. Owning or farming the land doesn’t give us the right to extract everything – everything the land produces is much more like a generous gift. Dr Sathianathan Clarke, from the Episcopal Church of South India suggests that the poorest communities in the world seem to understand this inter-dependent relationship much better than we do, not surprisingly as the poor “mostly live in close proximity to the ebb and flow of the natural world” (p14). Have we become ‘environmentally illiterate’? Do we ‘understand the importance of nature as God’s gift for all living beings’? (p14) Even more challenging, the report suggests that “One reason why the powerful do not hear is that the very economic systems that keep some in the world rich while others are poor are implicated in causing climate change” (p15).
But all is not lost, because our faith is one of hope. We have a vision of a future where God’s justice prevails. Climate change is a spiritual crisis, bound up with our consumerism, our failure to act for justice, and we need to repent. But as we heard in our second reading (John 1:1-14), it is significant that the word of God became flesh and lived among us. “We are not being lifted out into a spiritual realm to escape the earthiness of creation, but being remade for a renewed earth.” (p20)
- Climate change is a justice issue
- The global poor who are experiencing climate change also have perspective on our relationship to the earth that we should learn from
- We are not without hope as the incarnate God will renew the earth
Work with partners
So, in the spirit of learning let me tell you about one of Christian Aid’s partners.
Christian Aid’s work to deal with the impact of climate change has many facets – disaster relief in the face of extreme weather, adapting to changing weather patterns and building resilience and self-sufficiency for poor communities, and helping communities speak out for their rights and support to their own governments.
I want to tell you about a project in Mali. Christian Aid partner Mali Folkecenter is helping the community to develop their own solar power. This part of Mali is not connected to any national grid, and to do so would be prohibitively expensive. But they have plenty energy freely available from the sun, they just need to be able to harness it. Mali Folkecenter helps the community to install solar panels and a local grid, and trains the community to be able to maintain it. Electricity means that children are able to do their homework in the evening once it is dark, which means they can keep up with their school work and stay at school, leading to long-term benefits for the individuals, families and the whole community. It also means local businesses can be more productive, and enables new business, benefitting not just from light but from refrigeration too. (you can watch this video which the people in church couldn’t see!)
This is one way that Christian Aid is helping a community to develop without adding to carbon emissions. This solar project means they can leapfrog fossil fuels altogether, just like mobile phone technology has enable communities to get connected but bypassing expensive cable laying for landline telephones.
I really like this project because it encapsulates another key facet of Christian Aid. Christian Aid works through partnerships for change. It doesn’t send so-called experts from the UK to do development to poor people. It works with grass-roots organisations already at work in the local area, who build and deliver projects which best serve the needs of the local community. And partnerships are not a one-way relationship. Dependence, learning and support should go both ways. So we have lessons to learn from the community in Mali. Think about our own energy provision and consumption in this country. In theory we have a free market, with competition to make prices cheaper and give better service to the consumer. But we all recognise that this isn’t really the case, and the big six energy companies have an effective monopoly (or oligopoly, technically). What If our energy was decentralised and produced closer to where it is needed through solar panels on homes and other local projects? Power would genuinely be in the hands of the people, the inefficiencies and lost energy when power goes through the grid would be diminished, the grip of the energy companies would be broken, and we could move on from dirty fossil fuels pumping carbon into the atmosphere. So let’s learn from this community which is breaking free from fossil fuels!
And breaking free from fossil fuels is the final thing I want to talk to you about this morning. I’ve talked about why we care about climate change, and some of the things Christian Aid is doing. So I’m going to finish by sharing something you can do about climate change, in partnership with Christian Aid.
As well as working with poor communities round the world, Christian Aid also campaigns with its supporters in the UK to challenge and change the structures that keep people poor. These are very often the economic structures we live within here in the UK, as I mentioned before. If we are serious about cutting carbon emissions and stopping global temperatures rise by more than 20C then we need to break free from fossil fuels – to make the Big Shift to renewables. I think I’m preaching to the converted here, but I hope that this campaign will give you the tools to talk to other people who are not so sure.
Does anyone here still use floppy discs, or video tapes, or dial-up internet? I still say I’m taping something off the telly, even though there’s no tape involved and it’s all digital. These things are still hanging around, but they are old-fashioned, out of date, and it would be ridiculous1 to invest in them. This is how we should feel about fossil fuels. In fact, this is how business is beginning to think about fossil fuels, and so Christian Aid wants to take this further and build up a momentum for taking finance out of fossil fuels. We are starting with coal, because this is the dirtiest, most polluting fossil fuel. We need coal to go the way of floppy discs. We believe that here in the UK we should stop burning coal to make electricity by 2023. We should stop funding businesses to look for and mine coal in other countries. And we should take our money out of coal and shift it to investment in renewable energy (including in helping those whose work currently depends on coal to be trained to find alternative employment).
There are lots of ways you can get involved in this campaign through social media, by talking to your friends about it, by writing to your MP. Please ask me about it afterwards. But today, I’m just going to ask you to sign the petition I’ve brought, with those three asks – 1. a concrete plan to stop burning coal, 2. stop supporting coal extraction abroad, and 3. shift the money out of coal and into renewables, green jobs and a low-carbon economy.
Now is the time, especially as world leaders are meeting in Paris at the end of November to talk about climate change. Don’t let the enormity of the problem put you off. Climate change is a justice issue, at the heart of our faith. But our God is a God of justice who is committed to renewing the earth and his people. His people are at work in places like Mali, making a difference to the lives of the vulnerable – the alien, the orphan and the widow. His people are at work in the UK, campaigning for the environment. St Andrews is making a difference here with its plans to install solar panels. So please keep on making a difference. Come and sign the Christian Aid petition after the service, and join in the event in Sheffield to mark the Paris talks on Saturday afternoon, November 28th.