The UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen has begun. The negotiations over the next two weeks, involving around 15,000 delegates from almost 200 countries, are attempting to address a bewildering array of issues. The stakes are high and the level of complexity is immense. It has been described by Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern Review, a report into the global impact of climate change, as “the most important gathering since the Second World War, given what is at stake”. And what is at stake, according to most experts, is the stability of our climate, and with it, perhaps the long-term stability of society as we know it. Without a speedy and significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the best science predicts a bumpy ride in the decades ahead. I doubt I need to rehearse the litany: more extreme weather events, reduction in arable land and agricultural yields, increasing pressures on water supply, more extinctions, loss of unique ecosystems, loss of livelihoods, sea level rises and increases in refugee numbers are just some of the factors associated with a more chaotic climate.
With so much in danger, the required action may seem obvious. The problem is global in its effects; the response needs to be global. But the sticking point is likely to be who should do (and pay) what. Never before has an agreement of this scale been attempted. Due to these complexities, many participants and observers have been playing down hopes of a final and binding treaty being signed this fortnight. Yet that doesn’t make this meeting irrelevant.
What does the message of Christianity have to offer at a time like this? I’d like to suggest two false paths and two significant contributions.
If we trust that God is with us in even the darkest hours, we can take the scientific warnings seriously and soberly
Some Christians appear to assume that belief in salvation means that God has to save us from climate catastrophe. On this view, God acts as a kind of cosmic safety net, ensuring that we don’t cause ourselves too much damage. God guarantees a happy ending. Whether this is taken on a personal or a societal level, it is a profound misunderstanding of the Christian Gospel. God does not promise a rescue from the consequences of our misdeeds, or even from the misdeeds of others. Followers of Jesus should not expect their lives to be any safer than that of Jesus. He was vulnerable to suffering and death and so are all of us. However, God does promise strength to face all situations and the possibility of a new start every time we genuinely turn away from our mistakes.
This promise enables those who believe it to have the courage to face the truth, about humanity and our situation. If we trust that God is with us in even the darkest hours, we can take the scientific warnings seriously and soberly. If we are confident that God accepts us despite all our faults, we can be honest about the deep imperfections in our lives. We can examine our lives without needing to offer excuses and can own up to the patterns of blatant greed or unthinking consumption that have helped to get us into this mess
Copenhagen will not provide a quick and decisive solution to our climate crisis, but it will be a test of how honest we are willing to be and how genuine our desire for change really is. Personally, I am not very optimistic about the likelihood of a fair, ambitious and binding deal being concluded anytime soon. I hope that I’m wrong.
A second common error is thinking that the beauty and profundity of the Christian hope for salvation means everything else, including climate change, is now irrelevant
A second common error is thinking that the beauty and profundity of the Christian hope for salvation means everything else, including climate change, is now irrelevant. Some Christians are guilty of this. They get so excited about God’s forgiveness and the restoration of a trusting and open relationship with God that they forget they are also given the task and privilege of loving our neighbour as ourselves, and caring for creation (in this case they may be one and the same thing). The Christian good news does not relieve people of their obligations to care for those around them, but sends them out to do so without fear or the need to prove themselves. The gift of new life is not an excuse to ignore personal and collective problems, but is an invitation to face them afresh with new eyes. God in Jesus does indeed proclaim forgiveness for our selfish patterns of behaviour, but he also proclaims liberation from those destructive habits. We are free to discover the joy of seeking the common good and serving others rather than simply pursuing our own interests. We are free to take a unilateral first step towards a better world, even if no one else joins us on the path.
In short, the Christian message has a lot to say to a planet in climate crisis, to the delegates at Copenhagen, and to a watching world. It says, we can handle the truth, even the truth about our frequent failure to face the truth. And the truth will indeed set us free. Freed from fear or guilt or helplessness, we are to do what we can to love and serve those around us. In the midst of the heated debates at and around Copenhagen, honesty and love may not turn out to be popular notions. We all want to hear that avoiding climate crisis can be done easily and at low cost. But if the road ahead proves difficult and expensive, how will we continue to walk it without honesty and love?
Byron Smith is a CPX fellow and is currently pursuing a PhD in Christian Ethics at the University of Edinburgh.