This weekend we are being battered and flooded by storm Dennis. Last weekend it was storm Ciara. Before that there was the ongoing coverage of the Australian bush fires. Our climate is changing before our eyes. The statistics back this up: this last decade was the hottest on record. In fact, the last five decades have all been the hottest on record, each getting hotter than the last. 2020 is predicted to be a hot year again. And the coming decade hotter still.
In today’s gospel Jesus says, ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God’. Make the kingdom of God top priority. Put it at the top of your list.
I often feel that the Church treats climate change as a kind of ‘optional extra’ – something that comes pretty low on the agenda. Some churches only seem concerned about personal salvation comes, and saving the environment hardly gets a mention. But I am increasingly convinced that tackling climate change is the number one issue, not just for politicians but also for the Church. If we are to seek first the kingdom of God then this is where we have to begin. And I offer three reasons: theological; as a matter of justice; and as a moral and spiritual issue.
Our first reading from Genesis is the very beginning of the bible. Chapter 1 – page 1. And so the very first thing we are told about God is that he made the world, and he saw that it was good. It doesn’t matter whether you believe God created the world in seven days or through a process of evolution: the important thing is that the world is God’s work, and that it is good. That’s the first and foundational truth of the Bible.
At the heart of what makes this world ‘good’ is what is sometimes called the ‘Goldilocks principle’. For life to come into existence and thrive, the temperature has to be not too hot, or not too cold, but ‘just right’.
Turn to the next page of the Bible and you’ll find that God gave humans dominion over the earth and everything that lives upon it. Over the centuries people have interpreted that word dominion to mean ‘lordship’ – in other words, this is God’s permission for us to exploit the earth and all creation just as we like for our own benefit. More recently we have come to understand the word to mean something more like ‘stewardship’ – creation has been entrusted to our care, for us to look after for God’s sake, and the sake of all that lives upon the earth, as well as for the sake of future generations.
In our ignorance and self-centredness, we have upset that delicate balance which regulates the temperature of our globe, so it’s moving rapidly from being ‘just right’ to ‘too hot’. We seem ‘hell-bent’ (I use that term deliberately) on a path which is leading to the destruction of the conditions we need for our own survival. In the beginning, God looked at what he had made and saw that it was good. What does he see now, when he looks at what we have made of it?
This is not just an environmental disaster but also a matter of justice. The people who will be first and worst affected are the poor. For a while at least, the rich have the resources to stave off the increasing heat and hunger – while the rest of the world suffers. Drought, famine, flooding and the migration these things will cause, will hit the poorest nations first and hardest. As the polar caps melt, the sea levels will rise. Estimates vary. Fairly conservative estimates predict a rise of 2-3 feet by the end of this century. This rise could ‘plausibly’ be as much as 2-3 metres. The worst hit areas will be the low lying coastal areas of southern and SE Asia. Currently 13 million people are affected by flooding. A rise of 16 inches will affect 94 million. How much more, if 2 metres?
96% of all deaths from natural disasters happen in developing countries. The UN estimates that developing countries will bear 75% of the cost of the climate crisis. And yet the poorest half of the world’s population causes just 10% of the carbon dioxide emissions which drive global warming. Put that the other way around, the richest half of the population causes 90% of CO2 emissions. There are fundamental inequalities and injustices here, which have led the UN to talk about ‘climate apartheid’.
The Bible tells us God is a God of justice – and that he has a special concern for the poor. What does the Lord require of us? To act justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. Global warming is driving injustice and increasing poverty. If we truly want to do what God requires of us, we have to tackle climate change.
This is also a moral and spiritual issue for us. At the heart of all sin is an underlying attitude of selfishness. Putting ‘me’ first, before God and at the expense of others. Despite all the doom and gloom of the figures I’ve quoted, scientists tell us there is a way to stop global warming. It’s not that we don’t know what to do. It’s that we are not prepared to do it. If we worked together as individuals, as leaders, and as nations this is possible. But it will remain impossible as long as selfishness holds sway.
We can see this selfishness in the attitude of politicians, putting the short term prosperity of their own country before the needs of poorer nations and the longer term interests of the world as a whole.
But I recognise this selfishness in myself too. A part of me is tempted to think that I might avoid the worst effects of global warming before I die. In other words, I might get away with it and leave the consequences of the lifestyle of my generation for future generations to deal with. Also I often feel powerless to do anything about it. It’s tempting to think, ‘What difference can I make in the face of such a massive problem?’ It’s much easier to put my head in the sand and do nothing. Notice, I talk about temptation. I am inclined to think that this way of thinking is not just incorrect, but also sinful.
On the other hand, if we are willing to make sacrificial changes to the way we live, not for our sake but for the sake of those who follow on after us, does that not sound the kind of thing God would want of us? Do we see action on climate change as an ‘optional extra’ - or a central moral and spiritual issue? What does the Lord require of us but to do justice? ** While I was reading about the Australian bush fires, I was struck by some correspondence on social media about prayers. Apparently Scott Morrison, the Australian PM, sent out this message: ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with those who have been so directly and horribly impacted by these fires.’
To which there were various angry responses, like this, from someone whose home was burned down: ‘I don’t want prayers. I want direct climate action, and I want it now.’
And this: ‘‘Thoughts and prayers’ is the universal signal for ‘we won’t do anything concrete to improve this situation’’.
That’s a challenge to us, whose business it is to pray. When we pray about the climate crisis, what are we praying for? Are we using prayers as just another way of not doing anything?
It is evident to me that God is not going to intervene and rescue us from this crisis, unless we are prepared to do something. I think of the feeding of the 5000 as a model for how God acts and works with us in our world. The disciples could see no way to feed the crowds, and they asked Jesus to send them away. But a child offered the little he had, in hope and faith, and Jesus used that little and did something with it beyond the wildest expectations of the disciples. I think that illustrates a fundamental principle about the way God chooses to work with us in our world: without God, we cannot – so we need to pray; but without us, God will not – so we need to do something as well.
Notice that it was a child who came with hope and gave the little he had, which proved more than enough with God. I give thanks for the young people today, who are protesting in anger at the lack of action on climate change, and in hope that it is possible to make a difference.
I’d like to finish with a prayer which I first encountered in the 1980s. I have adapted it and added a verse about climate change:
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to banish war, for You have filled the world with paths to peace, if only we would take them.
We cannot merely pray to You to end starvation, for there is food enough for all, if only we would share it.
We cannot merely pray for prejudice to cease, for we might see the good in all that lies before our eyes, if only we would use them.
We cannot merely to you, O God, to rescue us from global warming, for through your scientists you have already shown us not only that we are the cause, but also that we can become the remedy; and that through changes to the way we eat and travel, the way industry works and the sources of power we use, collectively, and with your help, we can overcome this climate crisis: for the sake of the poor, for the sake of future generations, for the sake of the planet and all that lives upon it, and for your sake, who made the world and saw that it was good.
Therefore we pray to you instead, O God, for strength, determination and willpower, to become instead of merely to wish, to do instead of just to pray. ** (Adapted from a Prayer by Rabbi Jack Riemer)