“Ellen, Ellen!” My mum was calling me through the smog as I left my nursery school in West London. Children were trying to reunite with parents at the end of a school day in December 1962. Visibility was so poor I couldn’t see my outstretched hand! No masks, but my scarf was up over my mouth and nose. I’m old enough to remember the smog of that year which killed 700 people.
The killing of thousands by multiple London smogs over decades led to the passing of the 1956 Clean Air Act. It restricted the burning of domestic fuels in urban areas with the introduction of smokeless zones. We stopped seeing the coalman with his horse and cart, delivering to the coal bunker under our stairs. And we stopped choking on air smelling of sulphur. Battersea Power Station was eventually closed.
It was structural change which ended the London smogs. And nothing less than structural change – this time on a vaster global scale – is needed to address today’s environmental crises. We are more aware of this after the devastating August report from scientists of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It said warming to date has already made changes to many of our planetary support systems and the consequences will continue to worsen. The report said efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, a key target of the 2015 Paris Agreement, will certainly fail unless drastic action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and over the coming decade. We are already at a global average level of heating of 1.1 degrees.
In this year of UK leadership of COP26 in Glasgow, the UK must indeed take the lead. A huge discussion is going on regarding Individual Lifestyle Change versus System Change. Both are important and linked, but we must particularly address System Change at this time. It is a popular call at young people’s climate strikes. But what does ‘System Change’ mean?
Structural change is needed to drastically transition away from fossil fuels. In the political world the UK is better on aspirational noises than action. Many UK government policies are taking us in the wrong direction – dithering over a new coal mine, scrapping over a billion in funding for energy efficiency, building the £120bn rail project HS2 with all its energy-intensive concrete and destruction of trees, letting our banks fuel climate destruction across the world, slashing overseas aid. Boris Johnson’s recently announced ‘Net Zero’ plans accept that the costs of inaction on climate change outweigh the costs of action, but it is still unclear how a green revolution would be funded. And are the new policies tough enough to seriously tackle climate change?
Action by the corporate world is crucial too. Just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, according to the Carbon Majors Report of 2017. Top of the list are fossil fuel producers. Despite all their “greenwash” they seem to be continuing with business as usual. In July, Channel 4 revealed that fossil fuel companies – including BP, Shell and ExxonMobil – have lobbied the UK government ahead of COP26 for “greater recognition of the role of fossil gas” so that fossil fuels continue to be a “vital part of the solution”! Despite its net zero ‘ambitions’, BP has also lobbied the EU to support fossil gas. Another key issue picked up by Global Justice Now is corporate courts giving fossil fuel companies the power to sue governments for taking action on climate!
The Conference of the Parties (COP26) UN Climate Summit to be held in Glasgow 31st October – 12th November cannot afford to fail. Collective problems need collective solutions. I was part of a Columban Missionaries delegation in Paris in 2015 where there was a binding agreement to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and, crucially, adapt to its effects. The Glasgow COP will review developments and Columbans will be part of a strong faith lobby there again through myself and James Trewby, A successful COP26 will be a success for the poor. The Church amplifies the demands of the poorest nations where climate impacts are most devastating, seeing it as our moral duty to do this. Moreover, what may first become apparent amongst the most vulnerable will, in time, impact everyone.
It was life-affirming to see faith communities handing in a petition to Downing Street on Monday calling on the Prime Minister to keep the 1.5C warming limit agreement alive, ensure rich countries meet commitments to meet and exceed $100bn in climate finance each year to countries hardest hit by the crisis, and end further support for fossil fuels everywhere. And let’s take inspiration from the Young Christian Climate Network’s Relay to COP and the Camino to COP, both of which have reached Scotland. Look out for Operation Noah announcing the next tranche of divestment by religious groups on 25 October. The Laudato Si’ Action Platform – a decade-long journey towards the Catholic Church responding to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor – will be launched immediately after COP26 and Columbans will promote in every way we can.
People of faith have been gearing up for months to support serious climate action in Glasgow. The ICN ‘Countdown to COP26’ – which Columban JPIC updates – highlights major events, websites and campaigns. Anyone can join in wherever they are. The day of action on 6th November will be marked not only in Glasgow but in London and other cities in UK and around the world. Many events will be live streamed, such as the ’24 hours for the climate’ vigil in a Glasgow parish on 5th/6th November, which James Trewby has helped to organise. Of course, there will be a high-powered Vatican delegation at the summit itself, promoting the agenda highlighted in ‘Laudato Si’, just as it did very influentially in Paris in 2015.
We must encourage governments to work towards System Change, to accept that their concept of national security, sustained by the military–industrial complex, is anachronistic and irrelevant to the current crisis. Indigenous people look around eight generations ahead. Let’s start looking longer term too, being more hopeful, acting for climate justice for our young people, living more sustainably and praying for serious action at COP26!