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Facing up to climate change

Throughout history societies have had an impact on their local environment, sometimes to good effect. However, we have reached a time when the impact we are having on the global environment is greater and potentially more damaging than ever before. We are causing such major changes in our climate that the Polar Regions are melting and sea levels are rising, so that parts of the world are becoming uninhabitable and millions of people are forced to migrate.

There are many other problems facing us today. A billion people are struggling to survive at or below subsistence levels. There are civil wars in Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan South, the Central African Republic, and the Congo. There are millions of people being persecuted for their religious faiths.  Many more are trapped in ignorance and poverty by a lack of even a basic education. The difference is that all of these problems could be addressed by responsible government action. What differentiates global climate change is that it might be too late for responsible government action to do enough to stop it.

A large majority of the scientific community agree that climate change is happening, measurable, accelerating and attributable to human activity. Our use of fossil fuels to drive our vehicles, heat our homes and fuel our factories, together with the deforestation of the Amazon forests and temperate woodlands are seen as the causes of global warming.

Inevitably there are those who deny that global warming and climate change are happening. Most of these sceptics are not scientists but effectively use social media to persuade the uninformed to ignore the majority of scientists who accept that the wealthy industrial nations are responsible for global warming and its consequences. The minority of scientists who deny this attribute the evidence of global warming to natural causes.

At the heart of the debate about global warming are different views about the planet. Those who are concerned about it think we are damaging the Earth’s eco-systems whilst the sceptics view the planet as sufficiently robust to cope with whatever we humans do and expect it to adjust without our initiatives to prevent climate change.

Even assuming that a majority accept the need to for action to tackle this issue, its global, long term nature make appropriate political action difficult to agree and implement.  The United Nations have held a succession of conferences seeking to agree positive actions. The Rio conference of 1992 launched a 20 year plan but further meetings in Kyoto 1997, Copenhagen 2009, Cancun 2010 and Paris 2015 have struggled to achieve this. The Paris Agreement was the most potentially successful, concluding with an agreement to pursue efforts to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Whether or not this happens will depend on how conscientiously governments and politicians take the need for action to achieve this.

There are at least three reasons why that might not happen. First, it could take 30-40 years to limit climate change and politics usually has short horizons. It will include replacing gas guzzling cars with clean electric ones and replacing gas, coal, and oil to heat and light our homes with solar panels. That will be beyond those struggling to make ends meet on low incomes unless the state helps them.

Second, this is not a left/right issue so it is unlikely to capture the headlines in party manifestos and legislative programmes. Currently, British party politics is becoming increasingly polarised as the far right grows in influence in the Conservative party and the far left in the Labour party. What priority will climate change have in their policy thinking?

Third, climate change is not a personal issue for most people in the advanced economies so it could lack popular support and encourage citizens to listen to the sceptics rather than accept the personal costs that reversing climate change will involve. Christians have an important part to play in relation to care for the earth because we know its Creator (Genesis 1; Psalm 24:1-2) whilst it is not for us to use Revelation 21:1 as an excuse for doing nothing.

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