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Interview: Andy Atkins, A Rocha UK CEO, chair of the Climate Sunday Coalition

21 January 2022

‘We have no choice, if we wish to leave an inhabitable planet for the under-40s, other than to cut carbon very fast’

John Cairns

A Rocha UK is a Christian environment charity, with a mission to mobilise Christians and churches to care for the environment generally. It’s part of the worldwide A Rocha family of organisations, which was founded in Portugal in the mid-1980s by a pioneering, bird-watching-crazy Anglican minister and his wife from the Wirral. A Rocha means “the Rock” in Portuguese.

We’re the only Christian environmental charity doing both practical nature conservation and education,
and facilitating others — local churches, dioceses and denominations, Christian managers and individuals — to do it for themselves.

We have a little bit of land:
one urban site leased from a council, and one we own on the Essex-Suffolk border; and we partner with a network of Christian landowning organisations — religious communities, conference centres, organisations — to create and restore wildlife habitats. One is on 11 acres of woodland and wetland in Essex, where we’ve managed the land for threatened species of damsel flies and dragonflies, and now we have half the species in Britain. We have a programme called Target 25: listing 25 vulnerable species and habitats in Britain, like swifts, adders, and red squirrels; and every partner is working to protect one of these.

I founded the climate-change programme at Tearfund over 15 years ago,
when I was advocacy director, but then wanted to work full-time campaigning on environmental issues. I always admired Friends of the Earth. When Tony Juniper, now chair of Natural England, stood down as CEO, I just couldn’t resist.

After seven years leading Friends of the Earth,
being much more aware of the scale of the environmental crisis and so many potential solutions, I increasingly felt that Christians and churches could make a critical contribution — if only we knew how and worked together. At the same time, A Rocha UK trustees wanted to develop their charity from an essentially local one to have more national impact. It was an ideal fit.

In about 2003, I was one of a small group of peers
— senior advocacy staff —from international aid and development charities who identified that 2005 would provide a golden opportunity to make major progress on key issues we’d been working on: the UK would be hosting the G8 and holding the EU presidency in the same year.

We founded what became Make Poverty History,
to try to persuade rich countries’ governments to move on the deeply unjust issues of unfair debt, trade rules, and miserly aid levels. It was very successful at securing debt-cancellation, reasonably successful at getting aid levels up, and got virtually nowhere on trade. Seventeen years on, the UK has reneged on its aid commitments that MPH helped secure. No campaign is ever won for ever.

We have no choice, if we wish to leave an inhabitable planet for the under-40s, other than to cut carbon very fast.
As the Stern report established as long ago as 2006, it will also be cheaper to do it than deal with the consequences of not doing it. But the poorest shouldn’t and can’t pay.

By far the simplest, fairest, and most practicable solution
is to finance what needs to be done through a combination of general taxation which is broadly progressive — not add it to bills, which is regressive. It’s also fairer to put the onus of things like energy efficiency in the rental sector firmly on owners, not occupants.

Embedding principles of social justice is not just right:
pragmatically, it’s the only way we are going to be able to move at the speed and scale we need to.

The Climate Sunday Campaign encouraged all churches to pray, act, and speak up
on the issue of climate change in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow last November. It’s an initiative of the environmental-issues network of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, which I co-chair.

In terms of motivating thousands of churches to act at the right time and together, it’s been very successful.
Many churches registered for the service which hadn’t taken action on climate before. It was important that churches spoke up together before COP26, but it was never our intention to stop there. We want churches to make a long-term commitment to acting through Eco-Church, Eco-Congregation Ireland, and Eco-Congregation Scotland.

Every sector of society needs to look at what we can do as a group, not just as individuals,
if we’re going to turn climate change around. Denominations have huge assets, land, and investments with which to address this existential threat to God’s creation. I see many more people waking up to the need to act, and the potential we have if we can act together in the right way.

There’s been a massive change.
Until people experience these things for themselves, it feels a long way away. But now there’s extreme weather and floods, it’s changed public perceptions. Also, more scientists are increasingly activists, and, because they’re frustrated that governments are not responding, they’re getting much better at communicating with the public just how serious this is. We’re utterly reliant on the health of the environment, and, if that goes wrong, we go with it.

Within Churches, we’re re-evaluating our own faith and theology,
and what that means on how we relate to God, our neighbour, and the rest of creation.

The first home I remember was on a remote Pacific island with a population of 400,
where my parents were missionaries. We then lived in two other places in Queensland, before returning to Britain, where my Dad became vicar of a lovely village in Worcestershire, before moving again to Hackney, in the East End, which impressed me less. Perhaps it’s no surprise that my wife and I haven’t moved more than three miles in the last 30 years.

Home is part-refuge, part-workshop.
It’s a place to recharge after a crazy week and a place full of the means to creativity: books, music, art materials; but it also remains oddly churchy, as in my childhood, because my wife’s a curate.

I first experienced God as a sense of awe and presence at communion time,
in the Sunday services on the island. Now, I can say my own prayers. A regular quiet time — prayer and Bible-reading — is critical to trying to keep in tune with God. But I experience God in in so many other ways, too, especially in nature, art, and other people.

I’d like to paint better,
learn to play lead guitar, and play a part in all governments’ finally taking sufficient action on climate change — so that today’s 20-year-olds, when they’re 60, can believe that the worst is behind us.

I’m angry when governments, businesses, and organisations utterly ignore the scientific evidence
that we need to act very urgently and at scale on climate change and biodiversity loss, to avoid catastrophe.

Time with my family makes me happiest
— we have three young adult children and our first grandchild — or three hours in a splendid art gallery.

The sound of Classic FM on in the background while I paint on a Saturday afternoon is great.
Also, the sound of a bubbling stream in a wood.

I’ve learned again, in the last few months, how a few committed people working well together can achieve so much.
It’s been inspiring to work with others on the Climate Sunday steering group. It’s what gives me hope for the future: what people can achieve if they work together — and the fact that, within the churches, a focus on caring for creation is growing fast, and a desire to collaborate together to do so. I’ve also been given a Fender Telecaster, about which I am ridiculously pleased.

I pray most for my family members
and a just government.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with a fluffy cat.
I grew up with cats, but we can’t have them at home, because my wife is badly allergic to them, and I miss them. A cat would provide warmth and company, but is independent enough to amuse itself while I make use of some time for contemplation.

Andy Atkins was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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