The 2016 Ecumenical World Development Conference took place on Friday 15 and Saturday 16 April 2016 in Coventry at The Central Hall.
Climate change and faith were the theme of this year’s Ecumenical World Development Conference (EWDC), of which CCOW was one of the sponsoring organisations, and which took place in Coventry. Theologians, church leaders, climate scientists, negotiators and communicators contributed to the conversation under the heading Hope in a Changing Climate, looking back at the Paris Agreement and forwards to how the Church needs to respond. Below are some of the key points made during the two days.
Leading climate scientist Myles Allen, Professor of Geosystem Science at Oxford University, started the conference by clarifying the seriousness of the current situation. The first four months of 2016 have been extraordinarily warm; this is in part due to El Niño, but it is more a result of underlying rises in temperature. Overall global temperature rises seen to date are very much in line with the original forecasts made in the 1980s, he said, and in line with IPCC predictions. Professor Allen particularly highlighted the correlation between cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions since 1870 and temperature change (page 9 of the Fifth IPCC report – lower graph), saying this was the most important image in the report. The graph indicates the urgent necessity of reaching net zero emissions of CO2 and Professor Allen stated clearly that stopping the output of CO2 is “the only way to stabilize the climate”.
Reaching net zero emissions will require a change away from our dependency on fossil fuels (currently 85% of all fuels used). Whilst this will be very expensive, it is likely to be in the range of “one or two financial crises worth of money”, and spread over a period of 35 years, which offers some sense of perspective on its real affordability. Professor Allen stressed the importance of taking action early and not “pushing the hard yards too far down the road”. The action has to be taken at some point – the longer it is delayed the more drastic it will need to be to achieve net zero emissions. Short-term policy is very costly in the long term, he said.
In terms of the influence we can have, Professor Allen encouraged us to ask the Government and companies what their strategies for achieving net zero emissions are, and when they expect to achieve net zero emissions. As food for thought, Professor Allen reflected that when a company pollutes the sea with fossil fuel they have to pay for the clean up – but when they pump fossil fuel-derived CO2 into the atmosphere they don’t – a scenario that doesn’t really make sense.
Mohamed Adow, Senior Climate Adviser at Christian Aid, has seen the effects of climate change in northeast Kenya, from which he originally comes: he noted in particular the increased frequency of droughts in recent years. He has also been part of the UN climate negotiations for a number of years, and he talked about what he regards as the many remarkable achievements of the Paris agreement, his perspective having added weight because he has first hand experience of how fraught and unproductive such negotiations can be.
His view was that the Paris Agreement was seminal in several ways. It provides a framework that commits the world to a low carbon future; it is a transformational change as it is no longer possible, at least in theory, to have an energy policy or development that is not compatible with it; and, for the first time in the history of the UN's climate process, it is a global agreement which applies to rich and poor alike, although the lead on emissions reductions and climate finance must come from richer countries.
Adow also noted several victories on particular issues within the agreement, including the fact that five yearly cycles of action to scale up ambition are built into it, and that the issue of "loss and damage" due to climate change has been recognized as separate from adaptation. This is a vital distinction which recognises that there are climate impacts to which vulnerable countries cannot adapt - for example the damage caused by disasters like Supertyphoon Haiyan - and that mechanisms are needed to help people cope with them. In addition, the Paris Agreement went beyond Copenhagen in calling for countries to keep global warming well below two-degrees, while pursuing efforts to keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. This change had been championed by small island states and, as he noted, "in Paris, the voices of those most impacted by climate change won out”.
He saw further cause for hope in the way the world came together in 2015 to agree the Sustainable Development Goals, in increased investment in renewable energy (and falling prices) and a turning against dirty fuel sources.
Paul Cook, Advocacy Director of Tearfund, echoed Mohamed Adow’s positive assessment, describing the Paris Agreement as “a major psychological turning point”, with everyone now on the same side and recognizing the need for net zero emissions as the long-term policy.
The theme of hope was explored further from a theological standpoint. Rosalind Selby, Principal of the URC's Northern College, examined the Biblical basis for “hope for creation,” reflecting on the complexity of both creation and the Biblical picture. Martin Poulsom, SDB, Head of Theology at Heythrop College, spoke of being “called to joy” and reflected on the ways in which hope and optimism, while distinct, are linked and can reinforce each other. "Our action and God's action can go hand in hand," he further commented, "and that's the basis of my hope.”
Ruth Valerio, Churches and Theology Director for A Rocha UK, spoke of the practical actions we need to take to maintain our hope: practising the spiritual disciplines, spending time with God in prayer and being rooted in God, and spending time in nature and with other people. The emphasis on prayer was echoed by Michael Northcott, Professor of Ethics at Edinburgh University, who urged Christians to pray prayers of blessing on the soil, on the land and on those who provide renewable forms of energy. He also spoke of the immense capacity of individuals to bring about change, citing the work of Tony Rinaudo re-greening parts of Africa through Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR).
Rachel Lampard, Vice-President Designate of Methodist Conference and Team Leader of the Joint Public Issues Team (which speaks for the Baptists, Methodists, URC and Church of Scotland) reflected that people in churches being overloaded is “the biggest obstacle” getting in the way of churches responding to climate change. However, she described the need to take action as a “holy challenge” facing the church and reflected on what the church had to offer. As a worshipping community, she noted, we bring a sense of awe and thanksgiving about the natural world; as a global community, we bring challenges from brothers and sisters experiencing climate impacts in other regions, as well as inspiration from their efforts to tackle climate issues. And as a community of transformation, we are able to see lives transformed and to challenge structural sin.
Jo Herbert, Youth and Emerging Generation Coordinator at Tearfund, spoke encouragingly about “the army of young people coming up behind” the older generation to take on the mantle of campaigning on climate change and thanked those present for their pioneering work. She reflected on the importance of shifting the Church's narrative on climate: “The story we live as a church matters,"she said, noting that a shift in the Church's attitude could only be done by engaging with theology. Jesus came to restore all things, but "we don't see [climate] yet as a deeply theological issue," she argued. "When we do, we'll take it seriously."
Herbert also reflected on how “we become what we celebrate" and called on us as churches to celebrate people's small acts and achievements. Touching on the power of personal testimony, she noted: "Talking about your journey and how we live our lives to God makes a difference. It's about a personal invitation to live life unto God." This is part of people’s discipleship, relationship and journey with God. Our little acts might not be vastly significant in the grand scheme of things, but they are acts of resistance against a consumerist culture … and acts of worship.
Examples of practical action and reason for hope "on the ground" were provided by Godfrey Armitage, who described the genesis and impact of the Reconciling a Wounded Planet conference in Coventry last Autumn, and by Jo Lakeland of Sustainable Blewbury, who described the numerous imaginative activities it has undertaken – such as thermal imaging of homes, holding a garden market and hosting a living churchyard event - to engage the community with climate change and environmental issues.
Finally, a session led by George Marshall, the coordinator and founder of Climate Outreach and author of Don't Even Think About It: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change, explored how best to communicate with others about climate change. For many delegates, this session was a real eye-opener, and we would strongly encourage everyone to look at the materials on the Climate Outreach website. George Marshall spoke about the imperative of engaging people with climate change, not talking to them about it. Research shows that people are generally not motivated by facts and figures, and communication based on disasters, negativity and distant impacts have little effect on attitudes. In contrast, people are motivated by shared values and identity, and the joy of belonging. Thus communication based on speaking to what others care about, finding shared values, and helping people to feel that action on climate will make them more part of their own group is likely to be far more effective in engaging people with climate change.
One other intriguing point in George Marshall’s talk was his finding (from an exploration of the literature) that “there is no narrative of forgiveness around climate change at all.... no narrative of forgiveness for ourselves, of future generations towards us, for those destroying the world around us now”. Given the guilt I (Elizabeth – and I suspect many others) carry concerning climate change, I find this a fascinating insight, especially coming from a self-declared agnostic.
Thanks to Elizabeth Perry (CCOW) for this report.
This Report and the resources from the conference may be accessed on our Conference page