This morning I will focus on what many believe is the biggest challenge facing the future of humanity and indeed of the planet itself. I refer of course to climate change and our response to it. At the end of last year it was very topical with protests and demonstrations leading up to the climate change conference in Copenhagen. Unfortunately that rather flopped and we haven’t heard much during the current election campaign. However, the biggest box-office film of all time, Avatar, had at its main story the threat to the balance of nature which shows how mainstream the subject is. Now, some of you will be thinking, I know what he’s going to say and in 20 minutes I’m going to feel guilty so I’ll just switch off now! Some will maybe think, climate change, it’s all baloney. Some may be thinking, I’ve heard it all before. And some will be thinking, why has this got anything to do with church? So here’s what I’m going to try and do. I am going to try and help us understand why we, as Christians and as the Christian church have something to say about this. So bear with me.
This church has a strong commitment to climate issues. There is an eco-group in the church, led by Jo Laynesmith, and last year we were given the status of an ‘eco-congregation’. There are quite a few of us who cycle when we can, we have recycling bins in church, we have a green energy provider for the church and one member of our congregation – Jeremy – is an engineer involved in developing alternative energy supplies. The question is this: how did we get here? Why are we involved? After all, it’s not as if Jesus said anything about it, or Paul, or anybody else for that matter until about the last 30 years. We don’t read the Bible and conclude that we’re to turn the heating down or change our lightbulbs. When we say the Creed in a little while, we don’t say ‘I believe in climate change’. It’s not an article of faith. When some of our young people were baptised and confirmed at the end of last year, Vince and Bishop Stephen did not ask them about their position on climate change. So why are we talking about it?
Before I try and answer that, I want to state that I take it as read that the science behind climate change is as solid as it can be. Climate change is happening, and pretty much without doubt it is caused by human activity, principally by the burning of fossil fuels which is releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere: carbon that has been locked up for millions of years. The greenhouse effect of the excess carbon dioxide then traps heat in the atmosphere and the planet is slowly warming. In addition, the cutting down of forests is reducing the ability of the planet to cope with carbon dioxide. I am not going to give a science lecture this morning but here are some of the effects of global warming coming our way: rise in sea levels threatening populations who live in coastal regions; climate variability leading to flooding and drought; decrease in food security; mass migration of populations to escape climate change effects; increase in infectious diseases including malaria, and loss of biodiversity. And most of this will disproportionately affect the poorer nations on earth who have least ability to cope with it. Here is the Nobel prizewinner Sir John Houghton’s take on it: “As a climate scientist who has worked on this issue for several decades, first as head of the Met Office and then as co-chair of scientific assessment for the UN intergovernmental panel on climate change, the impacts of global warming are such that I have no hesitation in describing it as a ‘weapon of mass destruction’” All of the major development agencies such as Tearfund, Christian Aid, Cafod, and Oxfam have tackling climate change as a key aim; as does the UN. I’m going to leave the science of climate change now but if you want to know more you can go to Tearfund’s or Christian Aid’s website. I have also got some copies of a paper, ‘Two degrees, one chance’ which you can take away if you like.
I would like to introduce a concept called ‘theological reflection’. Theological reflection is s process where we take an issue – like climate change – and then think about it with God in mind. I’m going to suggest three biblical themes that lead us to engage with climate change and to fruitful theological reflection. I’m sure there are many more and perhaps we can talk about them over coffee after the service.
The first is the biblical theme of stewardship. This is the idea, developed from the first two chapters of Genesis, that God’s intention for humanity is that we, as the pinnacle of his creative acts, are to care for the earth. We are stewards of creation. The first point here is that we did not make the earth: God did. It is his, not ours. Secondly, God grants us dominion over the earth (Gn 1:26) but that does not mean we have the right to destroy it. The first thing we learn about God is that he creates; and the first thing we learn about humanity is that we are made in his image (Gn 1:27). Creativity, not destructiveness is therefore at the root of humanity, however much it may look like the opposite. In addition, the first job God gives Adam is as a gardener, one who looks after what has been made: ‘The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Gn 2:15). The concept of stewardship captures the responsibility of humanity to care for the created order, taking into account that it is God’s not ours; that we will have to give an account to the owner; that our responsibility is to tend, not to destroy; to create and not to ruin. If climate change is the fault of humanity, and if it is the biggest crisis the planet is facing, then the idea that we are stewards of creation leads us to the conclusion that we have responsibility to take it seriously.
The second, and perhaps the most important and convincing area of theological reflection is this: God is concerned for the poor and expects his people to be as well. You don’t have to look very hard to find that this is a strong biblical theme. Of the many, many verses we could look at here are just two, the first from Isaiah, speaking about fasting: ‘Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice…to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house…if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday’ (Is 58:6,7,10). In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus actually tells us that he is the poor: ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink,…I was sick, and you took care of me’ (Mt 25:34-36). If we can bring ourselves to reflect on God’s concern for the poor, and consider that runaway climate change is by far the biggest threat to poor people in the developing world, then it is not difficult to make a link. We, as Christians and as a church should take climate change seriously because of the huge effect it is having and will have on the poor of the world. And God is concerned for the poor.
The third area for theological reflection I want to suggest is a favourite theme of mine, that of wisdom. I actually preached on this last year and I don’t want to repeat myself too much! The idea here is this: firstly God created the world – and indeed the universe – with wisdom. Proverbs 3: ‘The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew’ (Pr 3:19,20) There was method and order in the way he made things. Secondly, the wisdom books of the Bible – especially Proverb – tells us that if we want to live our lives well, we should live them with wisdom – this is a sort of reflection of the wisdom, the order, in creation. The opposite of being wise is to be a fool – and we are foolish indeed if we ignore the peril of climate change. ‘Get wisdom; get insight’ (Pr 4:5) the book of Proverbs tells us. Think! Use your common sense! This idea of being wise and thoughtful is of course what scientific research is all about. We should therefore take heed of what scientists are telling us – their wisdom flows from the wisdom that it is stamped on all of creation, flowing ultimately from God himself.
I have selected three themes to reflect on but there are more. Here are some other themes that we could use in our theological reflection: Love, greed, oppression, the fall of humanity, justice, the life of Francis if Assisi, and so on.
The threat of climate change has a sort of end-of-the-world, apocalyptic feel to it. It’s very negative. It is so negative and bleak that probably most of us don’t choose to think about it too much. It’s easier to just carry on. The trouble is, it won’t go away. Unlike the recent economic crisis, there are not loans we can take out to make it alright because there is no bank to bail us out. Most of you will know that I’m a doctor, a GP. One of my interests is diabetes, and I look after a number of young men and women with this condition – teens, early twenties. I work hard with this group because most of them are almost in denial about it. They won’t take their insulin properly, they want to drink and party like everyone else their age and diabetes is so in the way. My job is to help them take it seriously – because unfortunately it won’t go away – so that they can have fun and enjoy, but look after themselves as well. That’s a pretty good picture of what our relationship needs to be with climate change. It won’t go away, we need to take it seriously but once we come to terms with it there is a way through. It’s not all bad news.
The gospel means good news. All this stuff is pretty bad news. If we’re not to become doom-mongers, what do we do? Where is the positive? Theological reflection here might be based on the ideas of hope and simplicity of life. Both of these have a solid biblical foundation. Without hope we really are doomed. The scientists tell us that there is a way forward and it is by drastically reducing our use of the earth’s resources, especially fossil fuels. We are going to need to live more simply and more carefully. But that’s not all bad! We live in an amazingly rich country with many, many advantages and we’re still going to be left with plenty. A couple of weeks ago I and 6 others had a fantastic week together at Taizé in France. It was a very simple week! We took everything in rucksacks and slept under canvas – admittedly it was a tad cold though – ate simply but adequately, attended church where we sat on the floor and perhaps more than anything enjoyed one another’s company and the company of thousands of others from other countries. Travel by Eurostar meant our carbon footprint was small. It’s a tiny example I know, but it shows that there is another way. In addition to steps we can take personally, there is a great need to lobby and pressure our leaders. I guess the reason why Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg talk about it so little is because it’s simply not a vote-winner: most people are in denial. But it isn’t going to go away.
So to end. We don’t get automatically to being climate change activists by sitting down and reading the Bible from cover to cover. It’s not an article of faith. We’re still Christians even if it doesn’t mean much to us. But if we take the issue as important, it’s easy to see how our Christian faith takes it on board as we reflect on biblical themes of stewardship, God’s concern for the poor, and wisdom. We have a message of hope – another biblical theme – and another message based on the theme and tradition of simplicity of life. Last year when I preached on wisdom I brought the sermon to an end with two words: travel light. I do the same today. Travel light!