Hope for the Future A Presidential Address to the Sheffield Diocesan Synod 8th March, 2014

In the 1940’s, William Beveridge and William Temple spoke of five giants.  They were referring to the evils which would have to be fought by the generation which led the reconstruction of Europe following the Second World War.  They named the giants: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease.  It’s a graphic picture.  Temple and Beveridge were issuing a clear call to a new kind of battle.  That fight led to the construction of the National Health Service, the welfare state, a massive expansion of education and the building of much that remains good and strong in British society.  Much of that rebuilding was on solid Christian principles.

What giants would we name today in summoning the world to battle in the next generation?  Beveridge’s five giants are still with us on a global scale.  Want, ignorance, disease, squalor and idleness remain the enemies of human flourishing.  There are disturbing cracks now in that post war settlement in British life and much that needs to be defended.

But there is sixth giant to be named and to be fought: the giant of climate change which threatens the stability of life on this beautiful earth for our children and for our grandchildren.  The damage this sixth Goliath will do to this beautiful earth if unchecked is beyond our imagination.

This giant of climate change is stealthy and invisible.  It’s power rests on the accumulation of a gas in the atmosphere which cannot be seen but can be measured, a gas which is increasing year by year. It’s strength is manifested through the slow but steady rise of global temperature;in rising sea levels, through alterations in the atmosphere and loading the dice towards new weather extremes.  This giant wreaks havoc through immense power of our weather systems.  Whilst those weather systems are unpredictable in terms of detail, the effect of climate change in to the future is all too apparent and clear long into the future.  The giant’s power to change the future of our world grows ever stronger.

The science behind climate change is at the same time both very simple and very complex. Life on earth depends on a hospitable and stable climate.  Our climate is determined by the composition of different gases in the atmosphere.  The atmosphere wraps the earth like a blanket, welcoming energy from the sun and  [1] emitting back exactly the right amount to produce that stable climate.

But for the last one hundred years the global temperature has been rising.  It has become increasingly clear that the cause is man made: more and more greenhouse gases are being pumped into the atmosphere, changing the delicate balance and causing global temperatures to rise.

Ecologists have demonstrated that the systems of the earth are interdependent.  More carbon emissions leads to global warming.  Global warming leads to the melting of the arctic ice.  The ice melting leads to rising sea levels. Rising sea levels leads to a shift in the oceans currents and greater rainfall.  These shifts in turn lead to different and more extreme weather patterns. Deforestation leads to less carbon dioxide being taken from the atmosphere.  Species of plants and animals and fish migrate or become extinct. The earth begins to change.

The science is clear and accepted by the overwhelming majority of scientists Global temperatures have risen and are rising.  According to the International Panel on Climate Change Report of September 2013, depending on whether we take action, the global average temperature seems likely to rise by from as little as 0.9 degrees centigrade to as much as 5.4 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century – probably within the lifetime of my children and certainly within the lifetime of my grandchildren.  That does not sound much to you and I. However, the IPCC estimates the effect of a 2 degree change to be really major.  A 3 or 4 degree change would be catastrophic for life on earth.

The reason for this wide temperature range is not uncertainty in the science.  The uncertainty represents the range of scenarios before us.  How much fossil fuel will we choose to burn?  How much greenhouse gas will be released?  What choices will we make.  The scientists have shown that if we take immediate action we might be able to keep the temperature below 2C, if we keep with business as usual we are headed for 4C or more by 2100.

A few degrees change in temperature make a huge difference.  The scientists tell us that in the depths of the last ice age when there where kilometer thick ice sheets over much of Europe the average temperature of the globe was only approx. 5 degrees C cooler then the preindustrial level.

The consequences of global warming are significant for human life on the planet but, of course, they fall disproportionately on the some of the poorest people on the earth: Pacific Islanders whose homes will literally disappear as sea levels rise; African farmers near to the equator who face ever more devastating and frequent droughts; those who live in the coastal regions of Bangladesh subject to still greater flooding; those who cannot afford flood defenses; those at risk of tropical storms and tsunamis.  There is increased risk of infectious disease, water and food shortages, and mass migration with the consequent threat to international security.

What does of all this have to do with us, in this Synod, in this Diocese, in our parish churches across South and East Yorkshire?

Christians have a responsibility to speak out and take action on climate change along with everyone else on the planet.  Christians have a unique contribution to make because of our faith.

We believe in a creator God who has entrusted to humankind the care and stewardship of the earth (Genesis 1.28).  We are committed to justice and the effects of climate change will fall unfairly on the poorest nations.  We are committed to wisdom: to thoughtful reflection and careful action on the evidence before us.  We believe in restraint: that sacrifice today is worth making for a better future.  We are committed to safeguarding the integrity of creation and to sustain and renew the life of the earth, in the words of the five marks of mission of the Anglican Communion.  We are committed to our brothers and sisters in Christ across this Communion and the worldwide church, many of whom stand to lose their homes or livelihoods or secure environment.

Above all we are committed to the precious theological virtue of hope, without which no lasting change in this world is possible.  We are committed to daring to believe that the world can take action together on matters of great importance, that ignorance and selfishness can be overcome, that ordinary people acting in good faith can make a difference and change the world, that it is possible, even now, to halt the growth of this great demon which threatens to wreak havoc across our beautiful world.   Our grandchildren will reap what we sow in this generation.  If we sow blindness and greed and apathy, they will reap the whirlwind of enormous climate change, beyond our imagining. If we sow good science and hope, restraint and the right investment, they will reap peace and prosperity.

Can climate change be stopped?  Is there still time?  Dr. Anna Thomas Betts reminded the General Synod a few weeks ago, that the world has already taken action together when our climate is threatened with significant effect.  In the 1980’s the world was alerted to the effects of both lead in petrol and to the threat to the ozone layer of chorofluocarbons or CFC’s commonly found in aerosols the world over.  Action was taken on both counts on the basis of scientific research.  In 1987, the world agreed the Montreal protocol, banning the use of CFC gases.  Twenty-five years later the damage to the ozone layer has leveled off.  The IPCC expect the ozone layer to be rebuilt in the next decades[1].  Concerted, global action makes a difference.

What then should we do?  Clearly personal choice and reducing our carbon footprint is important.  Wise investment is important.  That was the primary focus of the recent General Synod debate.  Prayer should undergird all we do.

However at this key moment in time, I want to focus on the importance of Christians and others taking action to raise this agenda once again in the political life of this country.  Here is a mystery.  The world grows warmer.  Yet climate change has disappeared from the political agenda since 2010 in this country and around the world.  The longer term threats to the earth have been drowned out by the more imminent pressures of the global economic downturn.

This is in contrast to two earlier periods in British political life.  According to a recent article in the New Statesman, from 1988-1992 under a Conservative government and from 2006-7 under Labour, concern for the environment as the number one issue for the United Kingdom rose dramatically[2].  On both occasions, leadership provided by British politicians and by Britain led to significant international movement on climate change at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and in the world’s first Climate Change Act.  Heightened public awareness and public debate led to real leadership and clear international progress.

We know there will be a General Election in this country in 2015.  This is therefore a key moment in the electoral cycle of our nation to raise the profile of climate change in public debate, in the manifestos of the main parties and in the national and international policies which will follow.  It is a kairos moment.

Last July this Synod watched a short film made by the Diocesan Environmental Officers in Yorkshire and the North East.  The same group of officers, led by our own DEO Michael Bayley have now developed a specific campaign, Hope for the Future (www.hftf.org.uk).

The aim of Hope for the Future is very simple.  It is to encourage as many people as possible to write to their MP and prospective parliamentary candidates asking them to raise the issue of climate change as part of their manifesto commitment for 2015, for the sake of the earth and for our children and grandchildren.  The campaign is based very straightforwardly on hope not despair.

We are asking for each party to be committed in their manifesto to the recommendations already agreed by the Committee on Climate change for an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050.  We are asking for recognition that this is an issue which is much bigger than party politics. We need a cross party consensus, an alliance between industry, investors and entrepreneurs and a cast iron determination that Britain should lead globally on this issue.

Hope for the Future has attracted very significant national support: from the Church of England nationally, from other churches, from Christian Aid and Tear Fund, from Operation Noah and other significant climate change groups.  The Diocese of Sheffield has been asked to lead on this issue on behalf of this coalition of other agencies.

In a few moments time, as the final act of this Synod, I will be commissioning Climate Ambassadors for churches across this Diocese.  Their task will be to go wherever they are invited to meet with clergy and PCC’s and congregations and with other groups to discuss how they can become involved in this campaign and to ask as many people as possible write to their MP’s over the next six months, before the party conference season begins. We have full details of the campaign for every member of the Synod today.

I hope you will feel able to support the campaign by writing letters yourself and by encouraging others to do so.  Please invite one of these Climate Ambassadors to your church.  I hope some here will volunteer to be Ambassadors themselves and spread the word about the campaign within this Diocese and beyond this Diocese.  Please contact Michael Bayley for further details.  We are aiming for every MP to receive at least ten letters on this subject by the end of July.  You will all be aware that two of the three party leaders represent constituencies in this Diocese.

There is a sense of catching the moment here.  Last week a You Gov Poll found that 23% of those questioned named the environment as the number one issue for the country currently after the recent floods[3].  This was up dramatically from the six percent who chose it the previous week and ahead of health, crime and education.  Party leaders and other significant figures are speaking out on the issue.  We may find we are pushing at an open door in the next few months.

But action is needed.  We need to be very clear.  Left unchecked, global warming will wreak havoc in the earth.  If we take action together, climate change can be reduced and, God willing, reversed for the sake of future generations.

We are committed as a diocese to growing a sustainable network of Christ like communities in every place.  We pray that those communities will be effective in making disciples and in seeking to transform our society and God’s world.

Hope for the Future is part of that desire to transform God’s world so that it remains good and safe and beautiful for future generations.

All real change in this world begins with just a handful of like minded people taking action together.  Will you join us, will you work with us, will you raise this issue and fight this giant together.

For further reading:

Robert Henson, The Rough Guide to Climate Change, Rough Guides, 2011 Mark Maslin, Global Warming, A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, 2009 John Houghton, Global Warming, The Complete Briefing, 4th Edition, Cambridge, 2009.

The Hope for the Future Campaign:  www.hftf.org.uk

[1] For a detailed exposition see the Rough Guide to Climate Change, p.32

[2] Guy Shrubshole, New Statesman, 19th February, 2014: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/02/climate-change-has-finally-returned-mainstream-issue

[3] See the New Statesman article cited above

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We should remember that it's not only political leaders who can lead public awareness and debate. When religious leaders (particularly in groups) say things, the media notice. So why not have group of bishops (or better yet, denominational leaders) release a joint statement saying that every Christian has an obligation to vote for a party that will tackle climate change seriously. Have this released 19th May this year, and see what happens in the European/local elections later in the week (it could easily be kept in the media for a few days). This can then be used as a platform… Read more »