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We have the knowledge but we lack the will

27 February 2015

The real problem facing the environment is a spiritual one, writes Nicholas Holtam, from the meeting of eco-bishops in South Africa

THIS WEEK, 16 bishops from the Anglican Communion Environmental Network are meeting in Cape Town to exchange ideas and concerns about the impact of climate change. We have done some of the preparatory work by Skype, and we all recognise the impact of air travel, but we also know that there is no substitute to our meeting in person, face to face.

The scientific collective that is the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's assessment is 95 per cent certain that human activity is the main cause of current climate change. The burning of fossil fuels is the biggest source of the problem: as carbon dioxide increases, so does temperature. Although the increase has flattened, this century has begun with 14 of the 15 hottest years on record. The warming of the oceans has caused average humidity to increase by four per cent in fifty years, with greater floods and 50 in consequence.

AT DAVOS a few weeks ago, Al Gore was asked not only, "Do we have to change our current course?" but also, "If we do, can we?" He was hopeful about our capacity to change at the speed that is needed, pointing out that we are making better progress towards renewable energy than was thought possible: ten times better with wind power than was predicted 14 years ago; 17 times better with solar energy. Germany is the European leader, producing 35 per cent renewable energy.

He could also have pointed out that, in the more developed world, we are becoming much more efficient in our use of fossil fuels. My Church Commissioners' Skoda Greenline does an impressive 60 mpg. The new hybrid BMW claims 124 mpg. Yet, at the same time, another 1200 coal-fired power stations are planned, about three-quarters of them in China and India, chasing the dream of economic growth through consumption.

It doesn't make sense. The science, economics, and politics all point in the same direction, but we lack global agreement about the way forward. Clearly that is a political problem, but its roots are deeper. It is a spiritual problem.

THE Jesuit priest Gerry Hughes, in a book published just before he died last November (Cry of Wonder, Books, 20 February) identified the nature of the crisis: "We have seen wonderful technical development, but we have become unhinged. We have lost the link between the words we use and what we actually do . . . It faces us with annihilation." St Paul said much the same in the Epistle to the Romans: "For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do."

We all know it, personally and corporately. Fr Hughes encourages us to explore the mystery of our own human experience. Attending to our inner conflict can, he suggests, reveal to us a vision of the transformation into which we are all being invited, in all that we are experiencing, in every moment of our existence. This is like Carl Jung, who said that the person who looks outside dreams, while the person who looks inside awakens.

BETWEEN Epiphany and Easter I am asking every deanery in the diocese of Salisbury what has renewed their hope. Some of it is predictable - attendance at Christmas services, significant family and community events, and so on - but at every meeting hope has been renewed by something really difficult having been handled honestly and well: the response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings; the Archbishops raising the inequality of wealth and the needs of the poorest in this country; the handling of a death, and a good funeral.

This shouldn't be surprising when the Christian gospel began at an empty tomb. This is the place where we find hope in response to the enormous environmental challenge that faces us. Christian spirituality is our deepest resource.

WHAT do we really believe about ourselves and our place in the world, and, so far as we have meaningful choices, how do we want to live? Change is difficult. If that is true individually, how much harder is it for our country, or for Europe; or for us to change globally. The footer at the bottom of a friend's emails currently reads: "If you go on doing what you've always done, you will go on getting what you have always got." It couldn't be more true about our care of the earth.

Our hope will be renewed by the practice of what we believe. There is a growing movement to "pray and fast for the climate" on the first day of every month. All churches have committed themselves to shrinking their carbon footprint. Last week, Wimborne Minster became the latest to become an "eco-congregation", a parallel movement to that for "eco-schools".

Effort is going into energy efficiency, and the development of renewable energy - heat pumps; solar panels; setting up a community energy company; using glebe land to generate biomass. Added together, the thousands of Living Churchyards across the country which are being managed for ecological diversity are the size of a national park.

The Anglican Franciscans at Hilfield in Dorset, who, a few years ago, were facing their demise, went back to their roots, and established a Franciscan place for peace and the environment. An unexpected consequence has been the renewal of hope, and the attraction of young people, some of whom are now testing their vocation to be Franciscans and priests.

The UK produces 1.5 per cent of the world's carbon emissions. For the sake of the poor, and for the care of God's creation, we must act internationally to build the political climate for tough decisions to be taken at the UN's Climate Change conference in Paris in December. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and to sustain and renew the life of the earth, is the fifth Anglican mark of mission. It cannot, for Christians, be an optional extra. The care of the earth is core business.

The Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam is Bishop of Salisbury and Lead Bishop for the Environment.


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