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The changing climate: a burning need for action

07 November 2014

Politicians have failed to act with enough urgency, argues Joe Turner. Now it is up to ordinary people to make a difference

AS THE scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) met to discuss the final details of their latest report in Copenhagen earlier this week, several large blocks of ice, imported specially from Greenland for the event, slowly melted outside the city hall.

The IPCC report is a synthesis of the evidence accepted by the vast majority of climate scientists to indicate convincingly (most would say "prove") that the climate is being changed, largely as a result of fossil-fuel emissions. Hidden in the technical paragraphs are the worrying details: the scientists say that there is now more evidence that Greenland's ice sheet is melting quickly, that the sea level is rising, that the global temperature is increasing. They say that they have high confidence that these changes are having an impact on the planet and all the species that live on it.

Even some of the most sceptical voices are now accepting that our lifestyles are having an impact on the planet's climate. Their argument is now about the intensity of the changes rather than whether they are happening.

There are no sceptics in St Lucia, where the changing climate is already having an impact. The small Caribbean island state is experiencing tropical storms far more frequently. These regularly damage the island's infrastructure, and drain its public finances.

Sea-level rises in Bangladesh continue to threaten to inundate low-lying farmland where millions scratch out a living. Salty soils are, unsurprisingly, not good for crops, and so many are forced to join the growing number of hungry migrants. These are just two examples to show that climate change is not a future problem.

THIS is not now a debate about whether the scientific consensus is correct, but about how to avoid the devastation they are predicting for the planet.

According to the IPCC report, there are still things that can be done to avoid the most damaging changes, including a dramatic reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions over the next decades, reducing them to zero by 2100.

European leaders met recently and agreed some of the largest emissions reductions anywhere, but even these were derided by activists and climate scientists as too little and too late.

Next year in Paris, the nations of the world will meet to try to hammer out a binding climate agreement to replace the time-expired Kyoto Agreement. Last time they tried, in Copenhagen in 2009, the meeting ended in failure.

There are a few more optimistic noises about Paris. But the size of the problem cannot be overestimated, since it must encompass growing populations, aspirations towards lifestyles based on Western advertising, the shaky economic climate, and the wishes of the various blocs of developed and developing countries. 

THE leaders of the nations can do only so much with their conferences and policies. The place where solutions have to be find is generally termed "civil society" - in other words, among the people most responsible for the majority of emissions: us. How, then, are we to live?

The most popular option is now closed to us: it is impossible to live in denial, asserting that the scientists are mistaken. The technical evidence of climate change is overwhelming.

The next most popular, prevalent in the United States in particular, is to live in hope of a technical fix. There have certainly been many advances in green energy, and more are in development; but, without the political will to bring these online - and pay for them - fossil-fuel use, bolstered by fracking, will undermine these efforts. 

THERE is one word that the politicians find hard to use: sacrifice. Instead, they are locked into the language of growth. Thus the Australian PM, Tony Abbott, criticised the IPCC conclusions at the weekend: "If we are serious about raising people's living standards in less developed countries, if we are serious about maintaining and improving living standards in countries like Australia, we have to be serious about making the best use of coal. . . Coal is good for humanity; coal is good for prosperity."

This is where the non-politicians must make their contribution. The notion of sacrifice needs no explanation to Christians: "Greater love has no man that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).

The Anglican Communion has members in almost every country. Those who already struggle to cope with the damage in their own countries are not faceless and unknown, but friends, and more than that: brothers and sisters in Christ. When they are hurt, we feel the pain, not least because of the contribution Western affluence has made to the hurt they are experiencing.

An appeal on behalf of future generations has failed to carry the argument. Also, we are living at a time when sections of the electorate in affluent countries such as the UK, the US, and Australia, and the politicians who plan to represent them, choose to deny our connection with other people on the planet.

This is not an option for Christians.

We must allow God to melt our hearts like those blocks of ice, giving us the courage to make changes to our lifestyles - reducing the use of our cars, changing our diet, cutting food waste - for the benefit of our brothers and sisters: living more simply so that others can simply live.

Joe Turner writes about science for The Scientist, SciDev.net, and other publications and websites.

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