The Revd Dr Edward Dowler compares two authors’ views on the causes and consequences of global warming, and concludes that, despite differences of opinion, there is a clear and necessary course of action to be taken
Global warming, or, to give it its more emotive title, climate change, features greatly in the news at the moment. Some branches of the media seem positively obsessed with it. Warming is caused when gases such as water vapour and carbon dioxide in the earths atmosphere trap in the suns heat, and stop it from being reflected back into space. This is known as the greenhouse effect, and thank God for it: if it didn’t exist, we would all die of cold. The consensus of opinion, however, is that carbon dioxide emissions caused by human activity, principally the burning of fossil fuels, has significantly warmed the earth in recent years, causing a variety of unpredictable consequences, and that further warming should be expected.
The prophetic approach
Two recent books can help to inform us further on the nature of this process, and the attitude that we might take to it. The first is A Moral Climate: the Ethics of Global Warming [DLT, 2007] by Michael Northcott, an Anglican priest and professor at Edinburgh University. Northcott gives what he clearly intends to be a prophetic account of global warming. He draws on an encyclopedic knowledge of geographical and scientific data, and brings our current problems into dialogue with those of the Bible, in particular the Psalms and the prophet Jeremiah. Both of these books, he convincingly argues, have an intrinsic sense that the true worship of God, justice towards the poor and care for the land are intertwined threads. To remove any one of them will mean that the others also become disentangled, and disaster will ensue.
My sceptical first reaction to reading the book was to ask whether a prophetic approach to global warming was necessary, or indeed possible, since this is the currently favoured cause of the liberal western intelligentsia. However, Northcott believes that liberalism is in fact the cause of the crisis. Global warming is a symptom of many different problems caused by the way that, in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, we have come to understand ourselves and our relationship to the rest of creation. As Northcott writes, ‘at the heart of the pathology of ecological crisis is the refusal of modern humans to see themselves as creatures, contingently embedded in networks of relationships with other creatures, and with the Creator. This refusal is the quintessential root of what theologians call sin’. Thus, the challenge is not to find a technological fix or top-down solution, but to re-envision our relationship with God and the rest of the created order, so as to find a new way to live.
Northcott identifies a knot of interconnected issues, all of which relate to his central rejection of modern Enlightenment liberalism. Among these are: the view that human beings are autonomous
and sovereign; the loss of a sense that there is a given order in the biophysical world, and that human beings should be humble before it, and not just seek to control it; the way in which globalization has eroded our sense of local identity; and the assumption that economic growth is always good.
To tackle climate change successfully, human beings will need to learn to live in new (in fact old) ways: increasingly local, slower-moving, more rooted in their particular locations and natural habitats, more engaged with one another.
A sceptic’s view
A very different reading of the situation is offered by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, in An Appeal to Reason: a Cool Look at Global Warming [Duckworth Overlook, 2008], a much more concise volume than Northcott’s. Lawson lambasts much of the received wisdom of climate change, pointing out that the small amount of global warming in the last quarter of the twentieth century has been followed by a standstill so far in the twenty-first. Climate change science has become big business, with huge numbers of articles constantly being generated by ‘peer-reviewed’ scientists. These tend to rely not so much on observable facts as on predictions that emerge from astound-ingly complex computer models. He quotes Sir John Houghton with approval: ‘when you put models together which are climate models added to impact models added to economic models, then you have to be very wary indeed of the answers you are getting’.
Unlike the somewhat angular and angry Northcott, Lawson comes over as a cheerful bourgeois technocrat. With an economist’s grasp of figures, the key issue for him is the financial bottom line: whether the cost of mitigating climate change would outweigh the cost of adapting to it. In Lawson’s view, it would not. Faced with the possible repercussions of global warming, he is confident that something will turn up, trusting in the power of human ingenuity to meet new circumstances when they arise.
Some common ground
In stark contrast to Northcott, Lawson believes that economic growth is always good, and he confidently expects the living standards of everyone in the world to rise. He predicts, basing his figures on the gloomiest of the IPCC’s scenarios, ‘that the disaster facing the planet is that our great-grandchildren in the developed world would, in a hundred years time, be only 2.6 times as well off as we are today, instead of 2.7 times’. I have to admit that I do not understand what account of human flourishing underlies these figures. Clearly, however, Lawson would see Northcott as naively trying to take us back to a supposedly idyllic pastoral age which would in fact bring high infant mortality, short life-spans, poverty and disease.
Given the stark disagreement between the approach of the two books, I was interested to note three things that they seem to have in common. Lhey are both sceptical about whether the current trading of carbon emissions can produce any benefit. Secondly, their practical programmes for the UK are in some respects similar: they would both shift the tax burden towards carbon emissions, while, taxing other things more lightly to compensate.
The theological dimension
Finally, both writers perhaps underestimate the possibility that we may have reached an oil peak and thus that we may soon run up against severe limits to the energy source that, for Northcott, most fuels environmental disaster, or, for Lawson, propels us towards ever-increasing living standards. Towards the end of his book, Lawson gets theological:
I suspect that it is no accident that it is in Europe that eco-fundamentalism in general, and global warming in particular, has found its most fertile soil; for it is Europe that has become the most secular society in the world… Yet people still feel the need for the comfort and higher values that religion can provide, and it is the quasi-religion of green alarmism… which has filled the vacuum…
Throughout the ages, something deep in man’s psyche has made him receptive to apocalyptic warnings: ‘the end of the world is nigh’. And almost all of us are imbued with a sense of guilt and a sense of sin. How much less uncomfortable it is, how much more convenient, to divert our attention away from our individual sins and reasons for guilt, arising from how we have treated our neighbours, and to sublimate it in collective guilt and collective sin.
Whilst these words contain a whole host of misconceptions about Christian theology, they are nonetheless instructive. They suggest that Christians should be careful about the imposition of new orthodoxies, such as the dire consequences of being a climate change denier’. It is remarkable
that even a secular commentator such as Lawson should so clearly understand that these questions inescapably have a theological dimension. What repercussions might this have for readers of New Directions? I will suggest two.
Local and sacramental
First of all, as Northcott suggests, we need an increased respect for the local. God has created us to be contingent creatures, locally situated in particular environments and communities, able to respond to these, and to our neighbours who live in them; able to nurture their ecologies and built environments; able to participate in their small-scale, often fragile, but nonetheless crucial economies. Fortunately, we already have in the Church of England a local network of enormous scope and reach. It is called the parish system, and we need to value and care for it as the precious and enduring thing it is, and resist any claim that people now primarily relate to each other in different ways. They don’t. They never have, and environmental factors mean that they probably never will.
Secondly, we need an increased sense of the environmental dimensions of celebrating the sacraments. The Offertory Prayers in the Eucharist remind us that God’s creation is a gift to us, not something that we simply harness or commandeer. They further remind us of our ability to cooperate with God, so that what we make with our hands goes with the grain of his original creating act and is able powerfully to disclose his presence.
It seems providential that in celebrating the sacraments we use bread, water, wine, oil and precious metals: all things that in the modern world raise political, economic and environmental questions. Sacramental worship has the ability to remind us with force and immediacy of our responsibility to the creation, and we need to be more conscious and more explicit about the way in which every celebration of the sacraments makes an ecological statement.
The local and the sacramental come together in the Parish Mass. It is here that our concern for all that God has made begins, but hopefully does not end.