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Interview: Kate Chesterman, climate-change activist

10 March 2023

‘The climate crisis is driven by evil: greed, self-interest, and love of power’

Life at home as a child — I was one of four children — was unremarkable, as the rest of my life has been. I’m wife to my retired husband and adopted mother of a cat: solidly white middle-class.

Some feel I’m disqualified from activism because of my privilege. Yes, I am privileged — but what, then, should I do? Sit back while the world plunges increasingly into crisis?

I was brought up an atheist, and first experienced God at 17, when, to my great surprise, I had something of a Damascene conversion after conversations with Christians friends. I made a poor start, bogged down for years in a legalistic approach to scripture and church life. It took some pain and undoing before the magnificence of grace visited itself on me in my thirties. Twenty years later, I still haven’t got over the joy of it.

I worked for more than 25 years in Higher Education administration. The 2019 Extinction Rebellion protests really brought home to me the scale of the climate crisis, and, soon after, I joined Christian Climate Action [CCA] to focus on that. I’ve been working on temporary contracts providing support to CCA and another climate activist group.

I believe that civil societies face impending collapse from the pressures of climate change — unsurvivable heat, devastating weather, drought, famine, war, and mass migration. Billions could die prematurely. At worst, mankind faces extinction. Last summer, 33 million people were washed out of their homes, jobs, schools, and the fields that fed them by unprecedented rains. It didn’t happen in the UK, and perhaps we want to stay shielded from the consequences of our lifestyles, but we owe it to our flooded Pakistani neighbours to face reality and to act.

It’s an awesome responsibility to live at such a time, as a Christian called to follow Christ wherever he leads and whatever that means. In that context, questions about risks and sacrifice take on a whole new perspective. I’m wondering whether I’m responding anywhere near seriously enough.

The Church should be a leader in demanding change. We’re nothing less than the body of Christ, endowed with the power of his Spirit. We’ve been given a great commission: revolutionise the world through the gospel message of love, forgiveness, and redemption, which offers hope in the face of death, and freedom to live without being ruled by self-interest, greed, materialism, and love of status and power. This offers a solid basis for sustainable and equitable societal structures.

Why, then, are so few Christian leaders calling out climate injustice and the rape of our world? How does the Church of England justify its multi-million pound investments in the fossil-fuel companies that are bleeding our planet dry, and whose obscene profits are driving many into hardship? Our Christian witness could be transformatory if we modelled lifestyles that were perceptibly different from those of mainstream society around us.

I’ve been in a lot of actions now, and they’re all different. There are common threads: long periods sitting in a road, often in the rain, the process of arrest and custody and being grateful to get some sleep in the cell.

Action can be profoundly spiritual, scary, or mundane, uncomfortable, and apparently pointless. There’s being arrested, maybe taken to court, being verbally and physically abused, the attrition of waiting months to hear if you’ll be charged, and wondering what’ll happen if you are. The upside is meeting people who are passionate about our world, and experiencing deep love and community.

As I say to any policeman who asks me if I’ll continue: I couldn’t possibly comment.

Direct action inconveniences people, and some of the abuse we get is heated reaction to that. And, as it is so difficult to get to grips with the enormous scale of what’s coming, climate activists’ actions might seem disproportionate.

But it goes a lot deeper. It’s a profoundly spiritual conflict. The climate crisis is driven by evil: greed, self-interest, and love of power. It’s well documented that large fossil-fuel companies have sustained their profits by deceit and misinformation about the damage that carbon emissions cause. Nations have exploited the global South for resources to support their own economic growth and progress. Global media companies with vested interests publish inflammatory articles characterising us as the eco-mob and eco-extremists. This collective power is evil, vast, and extremely effective in controlling public perception, but we must, and can, push back.

I’ve exhausted the usual democratic channels for effecting change: voting, consultation, petitions, writing to elected representatives, and acts of protest within the law. So, now, given what’s at stake, I’m compelled to express my opposition through acts of civil disobedience.

Only love creates positive transformation; so non-violence is crucial. I also act in community, because God has made us relational, and there’s safety in walking, sharing, and learning with others. Being part of CCA embeds me in a community of Christians who share grief for our planet and commitment to taking action.

Governments and corporations must change their behaviours, because individuals are limited in how much impact they can make; but governments will only change when we demand it. Probably nearly all of us could be doing more than we are; our problem isn’t lack of courage as much as perception. Courage comes when we really accept that everything we cherish, and normal day-to-day living, is going to collapse if we continue living destructively. There’s hope if we act jointly, motivated by love for others, for our own children and grandchildren.

Our political and economic situation is unstable because it’s built on the wrong values: obsession with economic prosperity, complacency about inequality, and a lust for unlimited consumption. I can’t see how to tweak it. We need radical system change built on equality, equity, justice, honesty, and humanity — the revolutionary values of God’s Kingdom. Think I’m an idealist? I suggest Jesus was, too.

I’m deeply angry about COP27. How else should I feel when COP26’s half-mast efforts on emissions reductions were further diluted by COP27? When 600 lobbyists from the industry tearing our environment apart have a place at the table, while climate activists are pilloried in the press, arrested, and, in some countries, murdered? And long-overdue agreements on reparations for poorer nations impacted by climate change are so lacking in solid detail that there’s every reason to doubt they’ll ever be implemented.

Revelation 21.1-5 gives me hope for the future. What we see isn’t the full picture: God’s amazing redemptive story is being played out behind the scenes. Our future is absolutely assured in God’s promise that what we know now will pass away, and that everything will be renewed. I love the closing words: “Write, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

I pray for lots of things: often, that God will help me live up to being “born into the Kingdom for such a time as this”. I so value being part of the prayer community of CCA. Unless God inhabits what we do, we’re useless.

I’m fascinated by geophysical hazards like volcanoes and tsunamis. I’m trying to learn the oboe, doubtless to the pain of my neighbours. I also knit and crochet. I’d like to try painting and textile art.

Our traumatised rescue cat spent two months hiding behind our sofa. She didn’t purr for a long time, and, when she did, it was so quiet I thought she was wheezing. Now, her purr, rich and rolling, reassures me that, whatever else is going to pieces, all is right in her world at last.

I’d like to be locked in a church with my dad. We were just getting past the tussle of the child/parent relationship, and beginning to appreciate each other as people, when he died suddenly. He was a complex man, a biochemist researching DNA at King’s College in the 1950s — exciting stuff! — and had a searching spirituality that I wasn’t mature enough to comprehend when he was alive.

Kate Chesterman was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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