Climate change: a Christian response in theology and action. Part 1: The threat

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I’ve been doing some reading on climate change and a Christian response in theology and action. Here are some thoughts, in five parts.

  • Part 1 takes note of the urgent threat of harmful climate change.
  • Part 2 surveys causes of climate change denial and inaction.
  • In Part 3, I propose some ways for theology to respond and to be effective in offering insights on climate change.
  • Part 4 looks at some ways in which theology can offer moral and ethical insight on climate change, especially in the dimensions of justice, equity, freedom and peace. It can offer theological perspectives, not only to advocate action but also to contribute meaning and explanation. Some of this meaning comes from an exploration of cosmic worldviews.
  • Part 5 has a summation and bibliography.

The first step is to sum up the climate change threat itself.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) uses ‘climate change’ as shorthand for anthropogenic climate change, that is “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.”[1] For simplicity, I use the same definition.

The science of climate change is not new; its beginnings are commonly attributed to work by Joseph Fourier in 1824.[2]

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) established the IPCC in 1998 to assess scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to the understanding of climate change, its potential impacts, and options for adaptation and mitigation.[3] Over recent months the IPCC has released the three main volumes of its Fifth Assessment Report on climate change, dealing with the physical science,[4] impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability,[5] and mitigation.[6] Summaries for policy makers have also been agreed by participating governments and published. A synthesis volume is due in October 2014.

In sum, the IPCC finds that climate change is already having serious effects on every continent and throughout the world’s oceans[7] and will grow substantially and rapidly worse unless greenhouse gas emissions are stringently controlled. The IPCC says that governments are not doing enough to avert profound risks; there is just enough time to avoid the worst, but only if there is an intensive effort over the next fifteen years. The IPCC finds that the financial and economic costs of emission-limiting measures are declining and that the costs of renewable energy are falling rapidly so that it is becoming practical on a large scale.[8]

Concerning costs, the International Energy Agency recently estimated the global cost of sufficient conversion to green electricity to limit global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees to be US$44 trillion, which would be more than offset by fossil fuel savings of up to $155 trillion. However this 2014 estimated outlay is $8 trillion higher than the 2012 estimate. In other words, the longer we wait to take action on climate change, the more it will cost.[9]

An argument against action on climate change has been that the predictions are too uncertain and too alarmist to justify taking costly measures. However, the available evidence suggests that scientists have been conservative in their projections and biased not toward alarmism but toward cautious underestimation of the impact of climate change.[10] The WMO [11] and the national science bodies of numerous countries including Australia [12] agree that climate change is a threatening reality. In May 2014, the United States government published its Third National Climate Assessment, [13] which found that “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.”[14] In February 2014, Australia’s Climate Change Authority had reached similar conclusions.[15]

Recent research shows that irreversible climate change has contributed substantially to—but is not the sole cause of—nearly certain collapse of the West Antarctic ice shield, with consequent rise in sea levels of more than three metres—although that may take centuries.[16] Stefan Rahmstorf, Head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, commented that, “One of the feared tipping points of the climate system appears to have been crossed.”[17] Related mechanisms, particularly the warming and consequent expansion in volume of the oceans, are contributing to smaller but more rapid sea level rises.

Climate change is already slowing the increases in food production required to meet population growth. The IPCC [18] and the UK Institute for Development Studies [19] each predict consequent large rises in food prices. The head of the World Bank is concerned that climate change will ‘lead to battles for food’, and has called for a plan “that will convince anyone who asks us that we’re really serious about climate change.” [20] The World Health Organization estimates that climate change is already responsible for 140,000 additional deaths from disease annually, with further deaths expected to number in the millions. [21]

There are diverse and complex linkages between climate change and security, and a need for robust theories that explain these connections and address “asymmetric power relations”. [22] The US Centre for Strategic and International Studies says that with a 2.6 degree rise, now very likely, “nations around the world will be overwhelmed by the scale of change and pernicious challenges,” with consequent serious threats to security: “The internal cohesion of nations will be under great stress … Armed conflict between nations over resources … is likely and nuclear war is possible. The social consequences range from increased religious fervour to outright chaos.” [23] A report prepared for the US Government by a large panel of senior retired military leaders reached similar conclusions and said that they were “dismayed that discussions of climate change have become so polarizing and have receded from the arena of informed public discourse and debate.” [24]

Some commentators are very pessimistic, others more sanguine. Clive Hamilton argues persuasively that even if there is immediate action, catastrophic climate change is already certain; it is now too late to prevent it. [25] James Lovelock speaks for those highly sceptical of human ability to bring about change: “I would sooner expect a goat to succeed as a gardener than expect humans to become responsible stewards of the Earth.” [26] Yet we have no choice; as Peter Sloterdijk says: “It’s no longer just politics, climate policy is destiny.” [27]

Futurologist Ray Kurzweil is optimistic—at least as far as mitigation is concerned. His ‘law of accelerating returns’, essentially a version of Moore’s Law, [28] suggests that information technologies progress exponentially. Kurzweil believes this can also apply to solar energy, and that it will expand sufficiently to meet energy needs in competition with fossil fuels by around 2028. [29] We shall see.

Notes

  1. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (New York: United Nations 1992), Article 1.2. The IPCC, on the other hand, refers to ‘climate change’ as “a change in the state of the climate that can be identified … by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer … whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity.” —International Panel on Climate Change. Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report (Geneva: IPCC, 2007), 30.
  2. IPCC membership is open to all UN and WMO members. Its assessment work is completed through three working groups (WGs): WG I on the physical scientific aspects of the climate system and climate change, WG II on the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems to climate change, negative and positive consequences of climate change, and options for adapting to it—including the inter-relationship between vulnerability, adaptation and sustainable development—and WG III on solution-oriented options for mitigating climate change.
  3. International Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, edited by T.F. Stocker, D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). See: http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/.
  4. International Panel on Climate Change, Final Draft Report of the Working Group II contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, 28 October 2013. This document was approved by the IPCC in March 2014, has been published online and will be formally published following final technical editing. See: http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/.
  5. International Panel on Climate Change, Final Draft Report of the Working Group III contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. 17 December 2013 This document was approved by the IPCC in April 2014, published online and will be formally published following final editing. See: http://www.ipcc.ch/ report/ar5/wg3/.
  6. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, “IPCC Preview: Deep Trouble Brewing in Our Oceans,” The Conversation (website) 26 March 2014. http://theconversation.com/ipcc-preview-deep-trouble-brewing-in-our-oceans-24721.
  7. Justin Gillis, “Climate Efforts Falling Short, U.N. Panel Says,” New York Times, 13 April 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/ 2014/04/01/science/earth/climate.html. See also: Justin Gillis, “Panel’s Warning on Climate Risk: Worst Is Yet to Come,” New York Times, 31 March 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/01/science/ earth/climate.html.
  8. International Energy Agency, Energy Technology Perspectives 2014: Harnessing Electricity’s Potential. Factsheet: The Global Outlook: An Active Transformation of the Energy System is Essential to Meet Long-Term Goals (Paris: IEA, 2014) http://iea/media/ETP14_factsheets.pdf.
  9. Keynyn Brysse, Naomi Oreskes, Jessica O’Reilly, and Michael Oppenheimer, “Climate change prediction: Erring on the side of least drama?” Global Environmental Change 23, no. 1 (2013): 327–8.
  10. World Meteorological Organisation. WMO statement on the status of the global climate in 2013 (Geneva, World Meteorological Organisation, 2014).
  11. Australian Academy of Science, The Science of Climate Change: Questions and Answers (Canberra: AAS, 2010). See: http://www.science.org.au/policy/climatechange.html.
  12. Jerry M. Mellilo, Terese Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, editors, Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment (Washington: U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2014).
  13. Mellilo, Climate Change, 1.
  14. Climate Change Authority, Reducing Australia’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions—Targets and Progress Review: Final Report (Melbourne: Climate Change Authority, 2014), 7.
  15. E. Rignot, J. Mouginot, M. Morlighem, H. Seroussi and B. Scheuchl, “Widespread, rapid grounding line retreat of Pine Island, Thwaites, Smith and Kohler glaciers, West Antarctica from 1992 to 2011,” Geophysical Research Letters, online pre-publication 16 May 2014, doi: 10.1002/2014GL060140. See: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2014GL060140
  16. Ian Joughin, Benjamin E. Smith and Brooke Medley, “Marine Ice Sheet Collapse Potentially Underway for the Thwaites Glacier Basin, West Antarctica,” Science, online pre-publication, 12 May 2014, doi: 10.1126/science.1249055.
    See: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2014/05/12/science.1249055.
    See also: Thomas Sumner, “West Antarctic Ice Sheet Is Collapsing,” Science (website) 12 May 2014, http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2014/05/west-antarctic-ice-sheet-collapsing.
  17. Stephan Rhamstorf, Twitter post (@rhamstorf), 13 May 2014, 5.04am, https://twitter.com/rahmstorf/.
  18. Suzanne Goldenberg, “Climate Change ‘already affecting food supply’,” The Guardian, 31 March 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/mar/31/climate-change-food-supply-un.
  19. Institute for Development Studies, “Declining Crop Yields and Increasing Food Prices? Modelling the Effects of Climate Change on Agriculture,” (webpage) 17 December 2013, http://www.ids.ac.uk/news/declining-crop-yields-and-increasing-food-prices-modelling-the-effects-of-climate-change-on-agriculture.
  20. Larry Elliot, “Climate Change Will ‘lead to battles for food’, Says Head of World Bank,” The Guardian, 4 April 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/apr/03/climate-change-battle-food-head-world-bank.
  21. World Health Organisation, Climate change and health. Fact sheet no. 266, November 2013, http://www.who.int/ mediacentre/factsheets/fs266/en/.
  22. François Gemenne, Jon Barnett, W. Neil Adger and Geoffrey D. Dabelko, “Climate and Security: Evidence, Emerging Risks, and a New Agenda,” Climatic Change 123 (2014): 1-9.
  23. Kurt M. Campbell, Jay Gulledge, J.R. McNeill, John Podesta, Peter Ogden, Leon Fuerth, R. James Woolsey, Alexander T.J. Lennon, Julianne Smith, Richard Weitz, and Derek Mix, The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change (Washington: Centre for Strategic and International Studies 2007), 7. See: csis.org/files/media/pubs/071105_ageofconsequences.pdf. See also: Eric Holthaus, “‘Climate Change War’ Is Not a Metaphor,” Future Tense (website) 18 April 2014, http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/04/ david_titley_climate_change_war_an_interview_with_the_retired_rear_admiral.html.
  24. CNA Military Advisory Board, National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change (Alexandria: CNA Corporation, 2014), 1.
  25. Clive Hamilton, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change (Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2010), particularly chapter 1.
  26. James Lovelock, Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 186.
  27. Peter Sloterdijk, Globes (Paris: Hachette Pluriel, 2011), 312 (my translation).
  28. Gordon E. Moore, “Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits,” Electronics (19 April 1965): 114-117. ‘Moore’s Law’ has correctly predicted a doubling of computer processing power every two or three years for nearly half a century. See: International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, ITRS Executive summary 2013 edition (ITRS, 2014), 9. See: http://www.itrs.net/Links/2013ITRS/Summary2013.htm.
  29. Robin Lloyd, “Solar Power to Rule in 20 Years, Futurists Say,” Live Science (website). (19 February 2008) http://www.livescience.com/4824-solar-power-rule-20-years-futurists.html.