"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Climate change: can there be a theology of Stewardship?

Can there be a theology of Stewardship? What do we mean by Stewardship? My pupils have an understanding that Stewardship means looking after something on someone else’s behalf. One pupil, helpfully, has a father who is the steward of a working man’s club and was immediately able to explain to the class how he looks after the club on behalf of the membership.

Christians generally accept this model for our stewardship of the planet: of course we are stewards for future generations. No one seriously denies that, but for the Theist we are also looking after the planet on God’s behalf and the injunction to do so is found in the creation myth of Genesis. We are given dominion over – put in charge of – the fruits of God’s creation. (Gen 1: 28.) “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (Gen 2:15). We are also told that God chose to make man in his own image. This generally leads to all sorts of unhelpful ideas in the teenage mind until we consider that we are talking about a moral, not physical likeness. This requires something of a jump in adolescent thought processes because it involves adeas of accountability and responsibility that teenagers aren't usually too hot on. There is also God’s comment to Noah that “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea.” (Gen 9:2) which seems to arise from the potential misuse of this responsibility for the planet.

Can anyone be in doubt that today the whole created order is experiencing the fear and dread of humanity because of our careless stewardship? What has our attitude generally been towards "dominion" over the environment (at least until recent years)? Looking back, it doesn't seem to have been a benign srewardship as we have largely (and carelessly) treated the planet as an infinite resource, only recently recognizing that the earth is showing evidence of the strain such treatment has caused. Could it actually be that we have taken the earth for granted?

The most recent IPCC Fourth Assessment Report stated that it is now very likely that most of the observed increase in globally‐averaged temperatures in the last 50 years is attributable to human activities. These figures, and the many like them, are unpopular in some quarters, disputed by big business - the oil industry in particular, and some governments and political parties around the world and there is a very effective campaign of deliberate misinformation to mislead the public. In my parent's Daily Mail I came across a piece written by Benny Peiser from the Global Warming Policy Foundation. It was vitriolic about green energy initiatives and included phrases such as ... spurred by the Government's stubborn but wrong-headed commitment to renewable energy ... so it was fairly clear which direction this was coming from. The article didn't include much about the Global Warming Policy Foundation so I did a little web-search. No surprises. The GWPF's first act was to call for a high-level, independent inquiry into the e-mails that they called "leaked" from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit. O.K. so its position becomes clearer and one which, of course, fits the approach of the Daily Mail.

According to Wikipedia Director Benny Peiser declined to reveal the sources of funding for the GWPF. Peiser said GWPF does not receive funding "from people with links to energy companies or from the companies themselves." In accounts filed at the beginning of 2011 with the Charities Commission and at Companies House, it was revealed that only £8,168 of the £503,302 the Foundation received as income up to the end of July 2010 came from membership fees. In response to the accounts the policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change Bob Ward commented ""We can now see that the campaign conducted by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which includes lobbying newspaper editors and MPs, is well-funded by money from secret donors. Its income suggests that it only has about 80 members, which means that it is a fringe group promoting the interests of a very small number of politically motivated campaigners.

According to the Guardian This month, in a letter seen by the Guardian, Bob Ward, policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science, wrote to the foundation criticising its website for being "riddled" with "multiple serious errors" about global temperature trends, citing a number of examples and inviting the foundation to urgently correct or explain them. Ward says he has yet to have received acknowledgement of his letter.

Now £503,302 is not a huge sum so it seems to me that this organisation is not a major player and yet the Daily Mail gives it acres of column space. Strange that.

Last year, the hottest on record, nineteen countries reached their highest ever recorded temperatures. Some fairly extreme weather conditions followed as a predictable consequence. We should not worry about unseasonal weather patterns leading to flooding, drought, forest fires and twisters though, although we do tend to sit up and take notice when such phenomonen hit us and our neighbours while remaining unconcerned when such events hit poor countries. "Recent figures suggest that of the 1.4m people killed directly by weather disasters around the world over the last 30 years, 83% lived in low and lower middle income countries" (The Observer "Comment" 05.06.2011) Surely these phenomena are textbook examples of the kind of impact that can be expected in a warming world. At the same time I'm starting to lose track of what constitutes "normal" weather and I suspect I am not the only one.

At the same time those of us who accept climate change need to be careful about arguing from the perspective of scientific consensus. I think there is a consensus that humanity has made a significant contribution to environmental degradation which includes climate change but at the same time we need to be clear that the science is good before we are too self congratulatory. We need to remember that there was consensus in the days of Copernicus and Galileo - but it wasn't on their side - although it is fair to say that the church has a poor history of catching up after failing to surpress what ultimately turned out to make it look foolish.

As a consequence the church is often viewed with some scepticism considering its influence over the opinions and behaviours of its massed membership, and yes there are still some whose grasp on scientific matters is akin to the notion of the flat earth. However the church, or some elements of it at least, seems to be on board this time and there are many Christian groups, congregations and individual believers at the forefront of environmental pressure groups and conservation movements.

So the recognition of the need for a moral and ethical response that goes side by side with action is growing. To those who argue that climate change is real, it is self evident that the situation we are in is a direct result of the activity of wealthy nations who were industrialised early on and that the consequences will most clearly be felt by the least wealthy and least economically developed nations. It is this deep injustice that requires an ethical response. Even so, to hear some Christians talk one might be forgiven for failing to grasp that Jesus stood in solidarity with the vulnerable and those who faced injustice: the same man who informed us that when we cared for the sick, the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers and the prisoners "...you did it to me."
(Mat 25.40)

A Biblical passage very much in my mind of late, is “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Lk 4:18‐19) This is, of course, a passage about signs of God’s Kingdom: In developing a theology of climate change, this bias for the poor and the tackling of injustice is paramount. Where is Jesus’ imperative to “Love your neighbour as yourself” in the climate change debate?

Climate change threatens to cut across - indeed is already cutting across - the success of all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These eight goals were developed in response to the world’s main development challenges and include:
Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education
Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women
Goal 4: Reduce child mortality
Goal 5: Improve maternal health
Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability
Goal 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development

And in the main what do we do? We bury our heads in the sand and pretend it isn't happening and/or we listen to the lies of others because their viewpoint is a safer one than the alternative: "It's all an illusion and a conspiracy. Don't worry. All will be fine."

It won't.

What should the Christian response be?

Presumably more than just turning the T.V. off standby.

The problem is that the Bible is little help to us in this matter. It has nothing to say directly on climate change and to many Christians, particularly those of a more literalist persuasion, that is the end of the matter unless you want to get tied into evangelical eschatology with Revelation being quoted as God's final word. Even more concerning is the attitude of those Christians who believe that climate change is itself a sign of the coming Kingdom and is to be welcomed and encouraged because it will usher in the Rapture.

I think we deserve a better theological response and one way into it may well be to stop squabbling about the "proof" or "consensus" of science, sunspot activity and cyclical changes in the climate and recognise these as side shows. This is a justice issue and it takes us back to the start of this post: if we are made in the moral likeness of God then there is an imperative.


  1. Very thoughtful - and deserving of a wider readership. Will you be developing this further?

  2. Has Sir received my email re my possible visit to Leeds next weekend?

  3. I'd like to see more of this sort of reasoning. Thanks