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To avert the climate crisis, political leaders should follow the example of Jesus

11 December 2020

As the UK prepares to co-host the Climate Ambition Summit on Saturday, the world stands at a turning point, says Ruth Valerio

Chris Hoskins/Tearfund 

Members of the community gather fresh, clean water in Tirtira, a village in the state of Afar, in Ethiopia, where Tearfund is working with Friendship Support Association

Members of the community gather fresh, clean water in Tirtira, a village in the state of Afar, in Ethiopia, where Tearfund is working with Friendship ...

AND so, here we are, five years on from the momentous UN Climate Talks that resulted in the Paris agreement (News, 18 December 2015). This was the agreement that we all wanted: a worldwide consensus to limit global warming to as close to 1.5ºC as possible, reduce global emissions to net zero, and get all countries to submit national climate plans that state the actions that they will take.

I wrote in September about the important part that the Church can play in helping to tackle the climate emergency (Online Comment, 30 September). People of faith have a critical part to play, and I see, week in, week out, the tireless enthusiasm of climate activists the world over. During the past five years, I have seen the Eco Church movement grow to more than 3000 churches around the UK, and about 5500 churches and cathedrals have made the switch to renewable energy, partly through the Big Church Switch scheme that Tearfund helped to run.

Both the Church of England and the Church of Scotland have made a formal commitment to reach net zero by 2030 (News, 14 February). This year, I had the privilege of writing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book, Saying Yes to Life (Books, 17 January), which focused on issues of global poverty and environmental care. The Church of England linked its Lent reflections to the book and estimated that, despite Covid-19, about a million actions for the environment were taken as a result.


AS MUCH as faith groups are a key part of the answer, however, if we are to avert the worst of the climate crisis we need political leadership that reflects the type of leadership and power that Jesus demonstrated. This compels me to act boldly and urgently on climate change, and I call on our political leaders to act similarly.

Regardless of your beliefs, we have much to learn from Jesus:


  • Leading from a place of love. Being compelled by love enables us to play our part in tackling climate change and speaking out. This is a key part of what it means to love our neighbours and signpost the good news that Jesus proclaimed to the poor.
  • Leading from conviction and speaking the truth. Jesus took on the powerful Pharisees, not shying away from speaking the truth on justice, fairness, and what God asks of us. Our leaders cannot shy away from the truth that we need to face and the actions needed on climate.
  • Leading as a servant. Jesus ultimately paid with his life, so that we can have abundant life. Leadership is sacrificial, and Jesus put the least first. From Zacchaeus to Nicodemus to the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus showed that he valued the least and the lost, and inspired people to make a difference with their lives.

We cannot limit warming to 1.5ºC without good political leadership and courageous action. The current pandemic has reminded us of the fragility of life, exposed the gap between rich and poor (all too often along race lines), and revealed the damage that we have done to the wider natural world. But it has also demonstrated our dependence on God, and the strength of community when we tackle challenges together — and it has given us the chance to reimagine what life could be like.

We are feeling the effects of climate change in the UK. But, as with Covid-19, it is the poorest communities across the world, which Tearfund serves, who have done the least to cause climate change and yet who are most harshly affected. As global temperatures rise, rains are becoming less reliable, and droughts, floods, and storms are becoming more frequent and extreme.


THE progress during the past five years has been encouraging, but it is also devastatingly clear that it has not been enough. The predictions that I was reading about 20 years ago are coming to fruition, and it grieves me deeply that more people are going thirsty and hungry, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe, and communities are being displaced.

As we stand at a turning point in history, the decisions we make now will affect our economy, society, and climate for decades. Boris Johnson has delivered some inspiring words and taken some initial positive steps towards a green industrial revolution for the UK, including plans to reduce overall emissions by 68 per cent by 2030, and to phase out new petrol and diesel cars by the same date.

As the Prime Minister encourages other countries to make their own ambitious commitments at the Climate Ambition Summit that the UK is co-hosting on Saturday (12 December), we also need the UK to stop being inconsistent by supporting the renewable industrial revolution at home while spending billions of taxpayers’ money — both aid and non-aid — supporting oil and gas projects overseas. The Government should, instead, direct that investment towards renewable energy overseas.

As the UK prepares to host the UN climate talks in Glasgow next year, we should do all we can to ensure that it is a global leader. Every fraction of a degree of warming matters, and we do not have another five years to wait.

Tearfund is calling on Boris Johnson to use the post-Covid-19 recovery to close the gap between current policy and our climate targets, creating a healthier, greener, fairer future. The public can add their name to The Climate Coalition’s Declaration by visiting www.tearfund.org/declaration.


Dr Ruth Valerio is director of global advocacy and influencing at Tearfund.

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