WHEN we were gathered in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, last month for a “Multi-faith Service of Wonder and Commitment”, it seemed natural, and urgent, to pray alongside Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and many others for God’s creation.
Our service, held on the eve of the Global Climate Action Summit, took place during the world’s hottest year on record, as Super Typhoon Mangkhut battered the Philippines and Hurricane Florence swept across the United States. There is a theological consensus — beyond Christianity — that we must act.
It is a consensus that reflects a scientific one. It is now 30 years since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to assess the scientific basis of climate change, its impact and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation.
A scientific, political, and economic consensus has emerged: we human beings are a significant cause of global warming and climate change. We find ourselves at a new stage in human history — what some have called the “anthropocene” era — in which our use of fossil fuels that took a billion years to lay down in the earth is having a major impact on the “natural” world.
Our Churches’ leaders have responded unequivocally. At Grace Cathedral, we heard greetings from both Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch, emphasising the part played by faith groups in the care of our common home.
Patriarch Bartholomew described how this ecological crisis had revealed our world as a seamless whole: that our problems were universally shared. A model of co-operation, not competition, is required, he has concluded. We must work in a collaborative and complementary way.
There are signs that politicians are heeding this message. Despite President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement (with the jab that he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris”), Republican-controlled states and cities have announced their commitment to honouring it. The rate of decarbonisation in the United States has slowed, but the country is already halfway to meeting the targets set for 2025.
The Governor of California, Gerry Brown, who convened the summit, said that the issue had to be above party politics. He argued that what would make America great again was keeping to its international agreements, listening to science, and acting for the good of the world.
WHILE in no way diminishing the scale of the challenge, the summit evinced a good deal of optimism about the unstoppable momentum towards a future of prosperity, growth, and clean energy, achieved through climate leadership, market forces, and the digital revolution.
Michael Bloomberg spoke about the need for optimism: without it, we become paralysed. Repeatedly, it was said that decarbonisation would happen faster than many had predicted.
Around the world, cities, states, and companies are committing themselves to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, or sooner. China is adding 9500 electric buses — equivalent to London’s entire fleet — every five weeks. In the US, half the coal-fired power-stations have closed, and the rate of closure has not changed despite President Trump’s support for them. The Netherlands is committed to becoming a no-waste “circular economy” by 2050.
It fell to Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space, to remind us that science alone wouldn’t solve the problem. Quoting Helen Keller, she observed: “If we listen to the best men and women everywhere . . . they will say that science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all — the apathy of human beings.”
In a barnstorming speech, Al Gore warned that we were using the sky like an open sewer: a phrase reminiscent of Pope Francis’s claim in his encyclical, that we are turning the earth into a “polluted wasteland full of debris, desolation, and filth”.
THIS apathy threatens the most vulnerable in our world. At the moment, it is the poor who carry the burden of climate change. In 2006, the British economist Nicholas Stern estimated that the impact of climate change would reduce gross domestic product globally by between five and 20 per cent a year.
He was much criticised for overstating the problem, but now he thinks he underestimated it. We will not make progress with the Sustainable Development Goals unless we also make progress with climate change. That is why the development agencies, including Christian Aid, Tearfund, and CAFOD, make climate justice a priority.
Faith has a distinctive and crucial contribution to make. At Grace Cathedral, representative commitments were read from each of the faith groups as a way of getting us to think globally, organise locally, and act personally. The Bishop of California, the Rt Revd Marc Andrus, held a conversation in front of the altar with Christiana Figueres, a former UN climate lead. When he suggested that, as chair of the Paris talks, she had delivered a remarkable agreement, she pointed upwards and said that it was not her, but God.
For Christians, it is not optimism but hope that will give us what we need to make huge changes. Optimism is about the glass being half full rather half empty. Hope is certain even with the cross in view, or when a seed is buried in the earth and yet sprouts and grows.
We live in a world of alternative facts and fake news. It might be difficult to say exactly what is true, but we Christians are committed to embodying the truth, and to being judged by it. Many people feel that the problem of climate change and the destruction of nature is so great that they cannot make a difference. Biblical apocalyptic reveals the extent of the crisis and creates the opportunity to turn ourselves around.
That is what churches up and down the UK are doing. More than 1000 have registered as eco-churches. Many are finding ways to generate renewable energy (that it saves them money is a powerful incentive). More than 1400 have made the “big shift” to purchasing renewable energy. More than 6000 have “living churchyards” that support biodiversity in places that witness to the resurrection.
This week, the chairs and secretaries of diocesan advisory committees and diocesan environmental officers are meeting in Salisbury. We know that the care of creation as reflected in the stewardship of our buildings is an evangelical and missionary imperative.
Martin Luther said that, if the world were falling to pieces, he would plant an apple tree. At the end of the season of Creationtide, that is exactly what we should be doing, through acts that will build hope and teach us and our communities how to live sustainably in this wonderful creation.
The Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam is the Bishop of Salisbury, and the C of E’s lead bishop on environmental affairs.