Global warming and the church – the way ahead?

The scriptural imperative

In recent sermons and workshops in my local church, St Michael’s Lichfield, I suggested that there was a strong theological / scriptural imperative for taking action to counter the effects of global warming. These can be described under three headings.

  • Care for creation – the message throughout scripture that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” and that men and women have been given “dominion” over that creation.  Dominion in this context speaks of the rule of God, and humanity, created in the image of God, needs to exercise a dominion that mirrors that of God. Some would prefer to use the word stewardship for this.  However the nature of dominion is expressed, the divine harmony of creation has been marred by the actions of humanity, and it is thus the responsibility on God’s people to take action to restore the created order.
  • Creation and new creation – the overarching story arc of scripture that God’s creation has been marred by sin, that Jesus’ death and resurrection were to redeem both humanity and the wider creation through the establishment of God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven”; and culminates in the picture of the new creation, where heaven and earth come together. This is well set out in the writings of Tom Wright of course, and again leads to the conclusion that, as members of God’s kingdom, Christians have both a hope for the future, a responsibility to work for the restoration of his creation. 
  • Neighbour love – the words of the two great commandments set the basis of the Christian ethic – to love God and to love one’s neighbour. The parable of the Good Samaritan carries the clear implication that the word neighbour carries a universal meaning, and applies to those “who are near and those who are far off”. To love one’s neighbour in the context of Global Warming is to take action to protect the particularly vulnerable communities  – in, for example, the low lying islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans who are at an existential risk from sea level rise. 

The way ahead

Having thus established that action to combat the effects of global warming is scripturally justified and indeed can be considered important in the mission and witness of the church, the next question that arises is ”What can be done about it?”  The importance of this question has been recognized in wider Anglican circles and the last of the five “marks of mission” addresses this issue.

To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

 As in any emergency response there are two ways forward, which are not mutually exclusive.

  • Mitigation – taking action to limit the increase in global temperature, mainly through limiting the emissions of greenhouse gases – primarily carbon dioxide.
  • Adaptation – developing ways to help communities that are, or will be affected by global warming to alleviate the issues that they are facing.

Although these ways forward might appear straightforward and simple, they are anything but. The reduction of carbon emissions in one place (such as increased use of IT systems instead of travel) can actually result in an increase in carbon emissions in another (in this case, in the areas that host the power-hungry cloud servers). Similarly very necessary short-term adaptation to flooding or drought can result in the necessity to provide large amounts of power or transport from carbon-based sources.  The issues are complex with many interacting social and infrastructure systems, and the decisions that need to be made are often pragmatic and, against some measures, not at all optimal. Whilst this basic complexity needs to be understood and to some degree embraced, in what follows we use this simple mitigation / adaptation framework to discuss how the church (and in particular the Church of England) and its members might act in the coming years.

Mitigation

The basic requirement for mitigation is to reduce the carbon emissions. The Church of England Synod documentof February 2020, talks mainly in terms of the power consumption of church buildings. This is a very narrow focus, and neglects the carbon production by its own members in their non-church activities, as well as another major emission source – the transport used in the church’s activities. The original proposal was that, in the terms of the document, the church should be carbon neutral by 2045, but this was brought forward to 2030 by a vote on the floor of Synod, despite the conclusion of the background document that this was not practical. This is both laudable, but also quite frankly ridiculous. There is little point in bowing to the demands of pressure groups in setting targets, as appears to have happened, if there is no plan or method to achieve these targets in a widely dispersed community such as the Church of England. It might give some synod members a warm feeling inside, but unless a firm plan exists, it is of no practical importance, and quite possibly is a distraction.

That rant having been delivered, the thrust of the Synod document is to change all church power systems to electricity, with this electricity being provided by renewable means. This is again laudable, but there are again issues, even leaving aside the huge potential cost to parishes. Firstly, the proportion of UK electricity produced by renewables is of the order of 30% (leaving aside nuclear power, which of course has its own set of environmental issues). Switching to electricity, if renewable power is not available, actually increases carbon production. The use of gas, which is a primary power source, produces 0.185 kg CO2 per kWh of energy, whilst the use of non-renewable electricity (a secondary product from fossil fuels with energy losses due to low process efficiency) produces 0.309 kg CO2 per kWh. Any commitment to renewable energy must thus come with a commitment to supporting new renewable sources, and in particular land and offshore wind farms and solar farms. This may well lead to some conflict with communities affected by such developments. Is the Church prepared to be on the side of the developer in such situations, over and against the wishes of the local community?  In addition the church could adapt its own resources (i.e. its buildings) to conserve energy through better insulation and to become energy producers, through the increased use of solar panels on church roofs, wherever the structure can be made to be strong enough to support these.  This again will raise a host of community and planning issues that need to be faced, and gifts other than the enthusiasm of climate advocates will be required. 

As well as thinking about its own buildings, church members also need to be challenged on their own use of energy and production of carbon in their daily lives, as a part of their discipleship and witness. This will require a year on year teaching and communication strategy for all levels of the church, bringing together a solid scriptural base, reflecting the priorities in the five marks of mission, with practical ways forward for individuals and families.  There are already a number of excellent resources available for this.

As was remarked earlier, there is however an elephant in the room – the carbon emissions from transport. Indeed the February 2020 synod document has only two mention of transport, one of which rather dismisses the effect with a single mention that electric cars will solve the problem; and the other suggest limiting air transport. Emissions from all forms of transport can be very significant – see the graphic below. Figures shown are grams of carbon emitted per passenger kilometre for an average loaded vehicle. Clearly public transport emissions (particularly electric trains) are significantly lower than those for private vehicles. Air transport emissions are very high indeed. Electric cars may be part of the solution, but until there has been a major decarbonisation of electrical supply their use is not without issues. In any case, electric cars are, just like conventional vehicles, major producers of particulate matter that it is becoming increasingly appreciated is responsible for respiratory problems, child development issues and early deaths.  It is generally agreed by at least the younger generation of transport engineers and planners, that the only way forward to achieve carbon neutrality and minimise other environmental effects is through the encouragement of walking and cycling and public transport use, and the restriction of personal transport.

Transport emissions

Thus in the first instance, a practical measure that churches and dioceses could take would to carry out transport audits to calculate the carbon emissions due to church activities – driving to church, diocesan meetings etc. Sample calculations for a variety of types of church suggest that these values will be between 30 and 50% of the overall carbon emissions. for an one church community  Clearly something needs to be done in this regard if emissions targets are really going to be met across all activities. And this will be painful. It may require changes to church activities to times and places where public transport, cycling or walking will be the main means of getting there, both at parish and diocese level.  At the local level, it may require a rethink of where congregations meet, moving away from the centralized large church model to the more local small church model. Indeed it may require a complete restructuring of church structures so that central functions take place in cities well served by public transport rather than in picturesque medieval cities that are difficult to get to by anything but car (yes, Lichfield diocese, I am thinking about you here).  Obviously again church members need to be challenged on their own transport use – particularly in terms of car and plane use – simply as part of their witness and discipleship. It is my experience that to talk in these terms actually challenges people on a very deep level – such is the overall societal dependence on (and indeed one might say addiction to) personal car use.

Adaptation

Hazards, Vulnerability and disasters

When considering adaptations the concepts of hazard, vulnerability and disaster are important (see the graphic above). Natural hazards will always occur, although they will become more frequent as climate change progresses. These however only lead to disasters where they impinge on a vulnerable, non-resilient community. Thus the primary thrust must be to help vulnerable communities be come more resilient.

The church’s “adaptation” response can be considered to have both international and national aspects. With regard to the former, this could involve supporting those overseas agencies that work to help vulnerable communities prepare for extreme events and to help them to recover from such events . These can be both short-term incidents such as cyclones or longer-term incident such as prolonged drought. The various aid agencies are usually quite responsive to need and will make their needs known via the internet as required. A flexible giving response for emergencies by churches and dioceses would be helpful here. 

Nationally, it is generally accepted that the effect of global warming will result in warmer wetter winters, hotter drier summers and more extreme conditions. Depending upon the locality many church buildings are well placed to act as emergency shelters for those displaced by storms, and also perhaps to offer a cool place of refuge to the vulnerable during heat waves. Careful emergency planning is of course required before these events actually occur, and it may be that churches could play a useful role in national and local resilience fora. And of course, the individual caring ministry of church members for each other and those around them will continue to be of importance. 

February 2020 Floods in Ironbridge

Advocacy 

One major role that could be played by the Church of England in relation to global warming is that of advocacy. Its very significant political and social influence could be used to argue for both mitigation and adaptation measures. For the former, it could argue for greater provision of renewable supplies, enhanced house insulation, more electric car charging points and the development of public transport routes and services (both electric buses and trains). For the latter, support could be given to overseas aid projects that both help to build resilient societies in vulnerable areas and to respond quickly to emergencies. Within the UK, the relevant authorities should be urged to consider better flood defenses, and funding for the maintenance of the built environment and transport networks to withstand extreme storms.  The church, at all levels from parochial to national, would need to work with a range of other official and voluntary groups as it seeks to influence policies in these ways.

On an individual level, the importance of individual church members taking small actions to reduce carbon emissions and build societal resilience should not be underestimated. Such actions, as well as being a witness to their faith, could also serve as local advocacy, in influencing friends and neighbours to adopt similar measures. Both the institutional church and its members need to take seriously Jesus’ command to be “lights of the world” in this regard.  

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