Of course I care about the environment, but don’t the world’s poorest have more urgent needs?

Tearfund Bangladesh 1Today’s guest post is by Ben Niblett. Ben is Tearfund’s Head of Campaigns and tweets @BenNiblett.


When I started working for Tearfund back in 2005, I was surprised to find climate change was so important to them. ‘Of course I care about the environment and all that, but…er…don’t the world’s poorest people have more urgent needs for you to kick up a fuss about? Or maybe just something easier?’ I wondered, probably not out loud. They put me right straight away.

From then I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard from farmers around the world that there are more floods, more droughts, and they can’t rely on the rain coming at the right time any more. Tearfund works through local churches, and we often hear the same thing from the church leaders, with stories of worse harvests and food prices suddenly rising out of reach of many – along with more hopeful stories of churches helping their communities cope, for example with flood early warning systems or new agricultural techniques (I think ‘Farming God’s Way’ in Zimbabwe is the best-named training course I’ve ever encountered.)

This week the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sets out the climate challenge. It’s a monumental piece of work with 279 lead authors, 879 reviewers, 10,000 research references, etc etc. The scientific consensus is overwhelming – climate change is really happening, remarkably quickly, and is caused by human activity. It’s a good time for Christians, politicians, and pretty much everyone to stop and take stock.

I spotted three areas for hope.

First, it’s not too late. There’s still time to avoid catastrophic levels of climate change. Two degrees Celsius is the internationally accepted limit of how much warmer we can get and still be able to handle the damage. So far we’ve got 0.85 degrees warmer since the industrial revolution, and if we cut emissions fast before 2030, we can keep it to two degrees. Rapidly reducing the amount of fossil fuel, we burn, specifically coal and oil, is the most important part of this. We don’t need to invent new technology. If we keep going as we are, we’re likely to get to between 3.7 and 4.8 degrees warmer by the end of the century, which would probably make many places uninhabitable.

Second, ‘it does not cost the earth to save the planet’ as one of the report’s co-chairs put it. We’ll have to accept slightly slower economic growth, but it really is slightly – between 0.04 and 0.14 less than we would have had, the report calculates. So poor countries can continue to develop, and the world economy as a whole can continue to grow, if we do it differently from how we do now, and start immediately.

Third, deforestation is slowing down. Forests absorb greenhouse gases; cutting them down releases them again. So this is good news. It’s particularly good news for indigenous people who need the forests to live in.

I really hope this report being in the headlines helps churches understand how urgent this is, and give a lead. There are some good reasons why Christians should care about climate.

God commands us to love our neighbours, and tells us that means everybody, not just people like us or people next door. So once we hear that people who were finding life hard already are eating one meal a day when they used to have two as climate change bites, we want to help. When we discover that things like flying and burning coal aren’t the entirely innocent activities we thought they were but are accidentally hurting other people, we want to stop doing them. That’s not just true of our neighbours in the Philippines or Tanzania, it’s also true in the Somerset levels or the Thames valley, as the floods earlier this year reminded us – my street flooded for the first time in living memory, and my children got used to seeing army lorries bringing us sandbags and dinghies. We don’t know for sure our waterlogged winter was caused by climate change, but we do know climate change makes floods like that a lot more likely.

God loves justice. At the moment, the people most likely to be suffering from the changing climate are the ones who did the least to cause it. An average Bangladeshi citizen emits 0.3 tons of carbon dioxide a year, says the World Bank, compared to 7.7 for an average UK citizen (and 17.3 for each American – I was surprised how pleased I was to find theirs is so much higher than ours). But as the sea levels rise in each ocean, Bangladeshi’s are more likely to find their livelihoods at risk than we are. That’s extremely unfair. Equally unfair, but harder to measure, is the generational justice of people alive now consuming resources and increasing emissions in a way that will affect future generations – if my five year-old has children, I’d like to be able to look them in the eye when I talk about this stuff.

God tells us to value the world he created and remember that we are the stewards, not the owners. And to see God’s glory reflected in his creation. Climate change is an environmental issue. But I don’t think we’re used to thinking about the environment as something urgent, and the more we continue to think of climate change as an environmental issue, the slower our response will probably be. We need to remember that it’s a development issue and a justice issue, as well as an environmental issue. And if I was an election candidate, I’d be thinking about climate and house prices too.

Sokhina Begum, 55, Salam Shikari, 45, and Hasima Shikari, 35. Sokhina Begum has had a skin condition for the past 29 years. With climate change making agricultural land impossible to farm, the fishing market is becoming more and more competitive meaning the money for the medicine she needs is just not there

Sokhina Begum, 55, Salam Shikari, 45, and Hasima Shikari, 35. Sokhina Begum has had a skin condition for the past 29 years. With climate change making agricultural land impossible to farm in Bangladesh, the fishing market is becoming more and more competitive meaning the money for the medicine she needs is just not there

Three planets

If everyone in the world lived like the average European, we’d need three planets to support it all. But we only have one planet and don’t know where to find two more. Christians have no monopoly on seeing the danger of that. But long before we heard about climate change, we did have have a particular insight that being greedy is bad for us. ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions’ warns Jesus in Luke 12:15. Collectively if not as individuals, we’re busily tearing down our barns and building bigger ones. Christians are familiar with the idea that having more stuff doesn’t make us happy – that we need to have enough, but after that the satisfaction of more is fleeting, and we risk being trapped in a consumerist idolatry where we put things before people and the economy directs us more than God does.

So I’m optimistic about Christians’ ability to give a lead on climate. We did it on Fairtrade. I remember the Fairtrade Mark starting out 20 years ago, with a lone bar of chocolate, and now we buy £1.8 billion worth of Fairtrade goods a year and they’re in the supermarkets. 200 years ago (I don’t remember that) the churches were the backbone of the campaign to end the slave trade. There are a lot of parallels between the slave trade and climate change. The UK was the first industrial nation on earth, and a leading player in the Atlantic slave trade, but we were also the first to outlaw the slave trade and the first to pass a strong climate law, with the 2008 Climate Act. Others followed suit in both cases.

Both required strong campaigns, but when ordinary people spoke out, governments eventually listened, particularly when they saw people changing their own behaviour as well as asking politicians for action. The slave trade campaigners bought slave-free sugar. There are many things we need to do, and A Rocha’s Living Lightly is a good more detailed guide, but probably the most useful three actions for individuals are:

  • Switching to 100% renewable electricity. I particularly recommend Ecotricity, who make a donation to Tearfund if you sign up, and Good Energy.
  • Flying less. Flying is one of the most high-carbon activities available to most of us, unless you can afford your own coal mine.
  • Eating less meat (especially beef).

Tearfund has a video about climate and Christianity, stories from people affected by climate change, and a climate picture gallery.

Wilberforce, Equiano and the slave trade campaign had to show that slavery was wrong and that it was possible to change it – both that black people were as human as white people, and that the economy wouldn’t collapse if sugar cane and cotton plantation owners started paying wages. The IPCC report helps us do that now, as it sets out the main things we need to do differently to avoid major climate damage – starting with using less electricity and phasing out fossil fuels from our energy sector, particularly coal and oil, with a little bit of leeway to use gas for longer as it’s less damaging. We need to increase the amount of electricity we get from renewables (wind, solar and hydro) and probably also from nuclear. The share of low-carbon electricity needs to rise from 30% now to 80% of the world’s fuel mix by 2050. We’ll also need to try and make carbon capture and storage (removing carbon dioxide from power stations and burying it in the ground) work economically for full-scale power stations. These are long term decisions and it’s urgent to start now. We’d better design our work, consumption and living patterns to travel less, as while planes, trains and road vehicles are getting more efficient, we’re making more journeys and moving more freight which more than cancels out the efficiency gains. And we need to consume less and be more efficient with what we do use, to reduce emissions from industry. Making our buildings more energy-efficient will be vital too, as well as being good news for people struggling to heat draughty homes.

There’s a great quote from Gus Speth, a former US presidential climate advisor, ‘I used to think that if we threw enough good science at the environmental problems, we could solve them. I was wrong. The main threats to the environment are not biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change as I once thought. They are selfishness and greed and pride. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, something we scientists don’t know much about.’ But I think this report partly proves him wrong, because the scientists are showing us the way. I hope our political leaders listen, and our churches show them they need to.

Categories: Christian organisations, Environment, Justice, Poverty

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9 replies

  1. An excellent article. Thanks.

    It’s hard enough to persuade 2 and 3-planet-living, Torygraph reading Christians in the UK to even consider the environment mush less reduce their impact on it – I know some who are in full support and even investing in Fracking, while in virulent opposition to renewable energy and wind energy in particular.

    A medical missionary writes,

    “But what can be done if the destroyers of our earth know what they are doing and do it still? What can be done if people really believe that free enterprise has to mean absolute lack of restraint on those who have no care for the future?”


    Steady state Economics, as pioneered by Herman Daly – a Methodist Economics Professor at Steadystate.org – goes some way to disproving the need for economic growth at all (Limits to Growth) – which is part of the answer to the ecological disaster our current BAU model must inflict on us all for their profit.

    But, as you say, there’s hope still, though time, as the IPCC points out, is short.

    PS. I’m also an Ecotricity customer too 🙂

    • That’s a very interesting article you link to! It’s a great reminder that it was natural for Christians to see how important good stewardship of the earth was, long before we became aware of climate change

      • I think the key will be for groups like Tearfund to find ways in which churches/Christians can get actively involved in doing something on this issue – it’s very hard when the message just get reduced to a) reduce your footprint on your own, and b) hassle politicians. I wish we could develop a more programmatic, active model for groups (supported and promoted in churches) to really generate momentum.

  2. Thanks for mentioning the report, I didn’t know about it.
    I can relate to what you are saying a lot.
    When I interviewed for my ICS placement I brought to the table the struggle about flying to another continent with a sustainable development charity as in a way it feels like adding to the problem more than helping to solve it, but at the same time I’m doing it with a purpose that isn’t just going to a tropical paradise to be on a beach like I could do closer to home. I’m still surprised that I got a place on the programme after doing that.

  3. This has been an interesting read and good to see it in a “Chritian context” (expected to find at least one reference to stewardship). Having been involved with climate/poverty campaigning for years intrigued that there is no mention of western consumer habits, the Oxfam doughnut model, the current SDG negotiations and the “green” economic models being worked on (Germany for example)

    The climate change agenda affects everyone – everywhere but is not being dealt with responsibly by developed world governments. Private sector is taking it very seriously and making adjustments to the way they do business (especially carbon reduction) BUT I do believe we can all do our bit to mitigate against further damage – especially in the way we consume, burn petrol, dispose of waste, reduce carbon leakage, share, plant up as much as possible etc etc.

  4. Good point Joy – the idea of a safe and fair operating space for humanity, in the shape of a doughnut, is a great one, and worth a look here http://www.kateraworth.com/

  5. Kind of depressing. There isn’t any way we can reduce our carbon footprint. We fly for work, not holidays and family are fat away 😦 We try to buy local meat and veg and use washable handkerchiefs, nappies etc. (not because I’m a martyr for the environment, but real materials just do a better job). Then it’s all cancelled out in one flight 😦

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