Ellen tracked growing awareness of Climate Change as issue, with illustrations from her life and work. Climate has no borders, and the effects of climate change are felt all over the world. Ellen was a teacher in the city of Kaduna, in northern Nigeria, in 1981. Local people reported that the region had been a rainforest within living memory but that had been cleared and much of the wildlife too. Former nomadic peoples and farmers were often wandering in the streets looking for jobs. Next, in her work with CAFOD, the Ethiopian famine of 1984 highlighted that environmental degradation and poverty are linked. She was part of the Education team that ran the ‘Renewing the Earth’ campaign in the late 1980s which focused on environment and development. She gave the example of Lake Chad gradually reducing in size over a period of 35 years (1972 – 2007), affecting fisherfolk and livelihoods in four countries.
Climate Change and the Churches
“Climate Change is the most important issue facing the planet and humanity” said Ellen; “therefore, it should be the most important issue for all religions.” While attending a Columban climate conference in the Philippines in 2007, the Archdiocese of Manila had its own ‘Global Warming and Climate Change event’. Around 3,000 people attended and their bishops encouraged every Manila parish to have an environment contact. There was concern that if more severe weather was on the way it would affect the half of the parishes in the archdiocese that lay below or at sea level. In fact, many of these parishes have been flooded several times since then.
At the Columban conference, with representatives from 16 countries, Ellen heard that the Pacific region was the worst affected by flooding due to rising sea levels. In Latin America, Lima’s water came from glacial melt and the retreat of glaciers in Peru was already affecting large urban areas and communities’ access to water. Water, equivalent to 10 years consumption, was being lost annually at that time. We saw images of flooding in Fiji in 2014 after a typhoon.
A chart from the Ice Age period to today illustrated the ups and downs of global temperature, but the last 100 years has seen a sharp increase in global temperature, with an exponential increase over recent decades.
In 2015, Laudato Si’ was published – a ground-breaking encyclical bringing together environment, spirituality, poverty, economics, security and peace issues. It highlighted climate change, but also the huge loss of Biodiversity today. Many people wonder why it matters to us that species are becoming extinct – as if they are there to serve us – but increasingly we are recognising the interconnectedness of the whole web of God’s creation and that other species also have a right to exist. The encyclical introduced the concept of ‘Integral Ecology’. This concept is derived from the observation of the interconnectedness between humans and the natural world, which touches every aspect of human life, from political and economic to cultural, social and theological. Values and decisions based on these different aspects therefore have direct consequences on how humans live with each other and share the planet’s resources.
The Catholic Church had a significant input into COP15 in Paris, which resulted in the Paris Agreement – a benchmark of countries’ commitment to stabilising the climate. The day before the conference started a faiths petition of nearly two million signatures was presented to Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and she told us she was very moved because the faiths lobby might make a difference. Speaking at the event, Cardinal Claudio Hummes from Brazil pushed for a 1.5 degree increase cap, rather than 2 degrees of warming and this was taken up by the conference. Today, we are at 1.2 degree rise above normal so we’re not doing very well. Bangladesh, for example, is increasingly vulnerable to sea rise and it is causing conflict between farmers and fishermen as land becomes unusable due to salt water flooding.
Hopes for COP26 1-12 November:
COP26 in Glasgow in November will be a review of what has been achieved since the Paris Agreement. It should have happened last year – 5 years on from the Paris COP21 – but, following postponement due to Covid, this year offers a chance to accelerate climate action. Greta Thunberg has shown that young people are passionate about the environment and are a powerful lobby to the politicians.
At the moment there are plenty of good intentions but not enough decisive action by governments. There is too much short-termism from politicians. Indigenous peoples take into account more than eight generations ahead when making decisions. We could learn a lot from their values and outlook on life.
Large fossil fuel companies are putting out green (greenwash) documents and trying to sponsor educational events, but they are still mining. Carbon needs to stay in the ground or we could face runaway global warming. In the 1980s people were hoping for technical fixes – vacuums to hoover CO2 out of the sky or geoengineering involving clouds, but many see this as risky, with unknown outcomes. There was controversy recently over the UK government permitting the opening of a new coal mine in Cumbria. Why is this still happening when we know we face a climate crisis?
Why are the military not publicly accountable for their emissions? We need to confront banks about investments that support fossil fuel extraction. We need to protect existing forests – the HS2 project, for example, is a huge destroyer of woodland.
What can we do?
• Reverse cuts to the UK Aid budget. Expenditure on Trident nuclear weapons has increased as the Aid budget has decreased.
• Advocacy to stop fossil fuel projects
• Create green homes, jobs, transport
• 6 November is a day of action at COP26
• 7 November will see a people’s summit in Glasgow – an alternative COP 26
• Divest from fossil fuels – why haven’t all the dioceses divested already?
• Live Simply award for parishes – a good way to motivate the parish community.
• Support the Vatican’s Laudato Si’ Action Platform, which will launch on 4 October.
• Seek out allies locally wherever you can find them – they may be other Christian churches, other faiths or secular justice and environment organisations.
• Support refugees, for the refugee situation is worsening internationally.
The energy transition
Opting for a simpler lifestyle is important, however too often we want to use technology to continue enjoying our current lifestyle with a reduced carbon footprint. There is a dilemma over electric cars, which use Lithium from communities in Chile and elsewhere who don’t want to be ‘sacrifice communities’ to the energy transition. Our mobile phones use Coltan, often mined in DR Congo and very often by child labourers. We cannot resource our greener lifestyles at the expense of the dignity and human rights of other peoples.
Why has the Church taken a long time to go green?
Eco theologians like Thomas Berry and Sean McDonagh have been prophetically speaking out for years to a Church more focused on preparing us for heaven. This world was not valued, often being seen as a ‘veil of tears’. There has been a failure of science and religion to dialogue and widespread ignorance of Catholic Social Teaching which incorporates care for creation. Church leadership in Britain has been slow to take up the challenges of Laudato Si’ but at least positive initiatives are happening now.
We are called to ‘ecological conversion’ but what holds us back?
We like our current lifestyles and resist radical change. We neglect justice for future generations and we tolerate conflict and weapons. Perhaps urbanised peoples – more than half the world’s population – are too detached from natural world to appreciate it. But perhaps too there is despair over the scale of the problem. Gender discrimination and patriarchy prevent women’s insights influencing decision-making. And there is a lack of awareness of creation-centred theology.
We need to:
Keep green spaces
Maintain regular contact with local politicians and local leaders
Regular contact with Bishops and clergy
Listen to those at the cutting edge, repent and seek justice.
Love our flooded out neighbour.
Act with hope – faith can give hope.