The Season of Creation – (Faith) responses to (rapid) climate change

rapid climate chnage

There are clear signs e.g. herehere and here that rapid climate change is no longer a possibility that can be dismissed. Indeed, if the analogy of a boiling kettle being a tipping point that is preceded by fizzing as an indicator that the water is about to boil is relevant, current indications might mean that rapid and even runaway climate change is upon us.

rapid climate chnage

How might humans respond to that situation? Even without considering rapid climate change, though acknowledging poorly understood tipping points, the recent UN stocktake report called for more rapid action than we have seen so far. The academic community has had little to say on policy responses to rapid climate change – exceptions include here and here; however, responses that there have been both inside academia and outside do the following:

  • Draw on wider ethical ideas than is typical in academia
  • Include advocating stewardship over management (e.g. relevant literature discussed p36)
  • Are critical of consumerism and
  • Assert that people are more important than money.

Perhaps one key source for this question is a book published by the World Bank in 2003 with a key quotation being:

Imagine you are busy planting a tree, and someone rushes up to say that the Messiah has come and the end of the world is nigh. What do you do? The advice given by the rabbis in a traditional Jewish story is that you first finish planting the tree, and only then do you go and see whether the news is true. The Islamic tradition has a similar story, which reminds followers that if they happen to be carrying a palm cutting in their hand when the Day of Judgment takes place, they should not forget to plant the cutting.

As rapid climate change suggests that science cannot tell how far humans can push the planet before catastrophe is inevitable, this perhaps suggests less use of economics in making policy and more consideration of what citizens globally believe…

This book tells of conservation efforts by world religions and includes statements of environmental ethical principles by each. This and more recent interventions are clear that the earth system is more important than the economic system. As with all organisations, how best to care for the planet is not straightforward and arguably more should be done. Nonetheless, in a context of rapid climate change, significantly, none of the ethical statements in this 2003 book call for the use of cost-benefit analysis or integrated assessment models as is typical of the IPCC reports. Thus, less importance is given to predicting cost or modelling details of climate impacts in making decisions and the focus is on doing the right thing because it is the right thing with much less consideration of financial cost. This is important where there is rapid climate change which is difficult or impossible to model and when the arguably infinite costs of the extinction of the human species need to be considered. Broadly the response by the world religions can be described as environmental ‘global virtue tradition’ (p30-32) as illustrated in the quotation above[1].

Is there something more practical that can be said? Some of the following are more provisional than what has already been said. These are also necessarily broad brush with details often to be considered with care but also being careful to avoid ecological puritanism and judgementalism. Ecological science and virtue both secular and religious would suggest[2]:

  1. Reduced meat and dairy consumption.
  2. Thoroughly considered ways to care for land such as permaculture which will typically include households growing more food themselves.
  3. Other food choices using the LOAF principles: Local, Organic, Animal-friendly and Fairtrade.
  4. Much reduced flying.
  5. More walking, cycling and public transport. Reduced use of private vehicles and where necessary use of electric vehicles with ‘vehicle to grid’ allowing car batteries to help balance the electricity grid allowing more renewable electricity.
  6. Increased production of renewable energy e.g., solar panels.
  7. More efficient buildings using more natural and lower carbon materials where possible e.g., timber and natural insulation.
  8. The environmental three Rs – Reduce, Re-use, Recycle – reducing consumption where possible, repairing and re-using when necessary, recycling rather than landfill or incineration.

Does rapid climate change mean that these existing ideas should be applied differently? Yes – principally in relation to the urgency with which they should be applied. So, for example, fill all suitable roofs with solar panels as quickly as possible, install over car parks, playgrounds, etc. and, where wider benefits accrue, install over marginal land and don’t wait for possible better panels in the future. Where roofs have particular aesthetic merit, accelerate the adoption of solar tiles – faith groups might play a key role in collectively taking a lead in this area. The payback on solar PV is about ten years now in the UK with a 10 per cent return on investment likely after that. A similar example is accelerating the adoption of heat pumps which typically produce a third or less of the CO2 of other heating systems. These are well-proven if installed and operated correctly in homes and offices with a variety of examples in other buildings. Thus, adoption can accelerate even in more unusual buildings with sensible pilot installations of more unusual installations, sharing details of problems and benefits widely with similar buildings. Payback on heat pumps is poorer but seen in the round alongside solar and possibly having public vehicle chargers, for many homes and organisations in the long term there will be a financial benefit assuming that our economic systems persist.

As rapid climate change suggests that science cannot tell how far humans can push the planet before catastrophe is inevitable, this perhaps suggests less use of economics in making policy and more consideration of what citizens globally believe; with environmental statements by faith groups, such as those already mentioned, being a helpful initial starting point as they ‘represent’ perhaps over 80 per cent of the global population along with the Earth Charter. Given that large economic actors e.g., fossil fuel companies have driven much of the stress to the earth system their voices might be limited to practical suggestions in policy rather than setting the policy, social and ethical context.

This leads to the consideration of changes that might fit more naturally with faith groups. Perhaps central is that many of these groups have been key critics of consumerism for many years. Why consumerism rather than capitalism? Some thoughts:

  • Critics of consumerism argue and can provide multiple examples that alternatives to consumerism lead to greater happiness with philosophical precedents that go back at least as far as Ancient Greece e.g., Aristotle associates happiness with virtue more than possessions.
  • Forms of capitalism existed before the accelerated stress on the earth system that started in the 1950s. The 1950s is when consumerism started to take off, so appears the more focused social cause of rapid climate change.
  • It is quite possible for consumerism and wanton destruction of nature to occur in other political systems such as socialism and communism.
  • Ending consumerism would radically alter capitalism so questions of political ideology can be separated out and addressed more when humans are living within the limits of the earth system.
  • Consumerism implies a lifestyle aimed at satisfaction through consumer goods and is an ethical choice, whereas capitalism is an economic system that can perhaps be distilled to freedom of contract and private property. Though some people might say that capitalism leads to consumerism, there is a perfectly respectable argument that consumerism is a disordered form of capitalism (regardless of whether there is an environmental crisis).
  • Consumerism can outstrip improvements in technology with the ‘rebound effect’ being well documented and of no surprise to those who understand ecological vices such as greed and despair.

Perhaps the key short-term practical policy response that governments and advertising platforms could take in order to reduce the harm of consumerism would be to screen out advertising that attempts to manipulate citizens, e.g., by creating insecurities, rather than simply inform. As well as screening by advertising platforms, one further way to do this would be for complaints by citizens about advertising on this basis to be a legitimate reason for review.

A related important lesson, that a range of faith groups can offer, as a response to rapid climate change, with secular examples as well, is that living in communities with shared possessions and responsibilities will often lead to much greater contentment and happiness than our frantic individualistic consumerist lifestyles. Even without formal communal living, fewer single-person households and more multi-person households should reduce the environmental impacts of housing including reducing the need to build homes. Faith groups have thoughts that can help make multi-person households happy.

Are there ways in which faith groups can provide leadership?

  • Making the case for action and change – as indicated most faith groups already have.
  • Taking the lead on action beyond legal requirements, using the long-term perspectives and making (short-term?) self-sacrifice many faith groups are renowned for.  These examples should help inspire both people of faith and all those of goodwill, potentially helping to heal divisions and inspiring common purpose across many groups in many countries.
  • As many faith groups already work with those in poverty, giving some focus to those in ‘fuel poverty’ is a natural extension of that, including helping citizens access help available to them e.g., from government.

In summary, it is not clear that responses to rapid climate change can ‘solve’ the problem. However, the reality can still be approached with maturity and some hope, to inspire societies and citizens to do what all along we likely knew in our hearts we needed to do anyway. This should lead to greater happiness according to philosophers such as Aristotle and many faith groups.

Photo by William Bossen on Unsplash

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Author: Mark Charlesworth

Published: 13th September 2023

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© Catholic Social Thought 2020