Thursday, March 3, 2011

'Climate Change and the Communion of Saints'

Professor Michael Northcott, of Edinburgh University, School of Divinity gave a public lecture, which I attended, entitled 'Climate Change and the Communion of Saints', at the church where I work, St George's Battery Point.  It was organized by the Diocese of Tasmania and ISCAST.   I have to confess I am a global warming skeptic was looking forward to hearing his talk, he had a lively manner and I enjoyed seeing a wide variety of people attend.  This post is a reflection on his talk and the issues it raises.

Positive Points

Environmental activism as Northcott observed has a long recent history. Clearly with more people consuming more things, ensuring there is fresh food, clean water and shade for everyone is becoming very difficult and discouraging. As I remarked several weeks ago we have a biblical responsibility to care for the environment, it's created by God and we are commanded to manage it responsibly, anticipating it's full restoration in the new heavens and the new earth.  Northcott correctly noted this trajectory, although he raced through his talk and the nuances were difficult to catch.  I agree with his assessment that the harvesting of fossil fuels isn't undertaken in a strategic manner, we're gobbling it up without thinking about future needs.  I also liked his assessment of carbon trading as a form of indulgences, burn a forest in one place and plant some trees elsewhere.

Negative Points

Northcott's two greatest errors lay at the beginning and end of his talk. Firstly, he presented the science of climate change as obvious and settled.  This is difficult because on the one hand the majority of scientists recognize a pattern of global warming, in other words increasing temperature.  For example our own Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) produced this graph:

It's difficult as a layman to evaluate this data, with all the factors of collection and analysis to consider.  However I'm aware that correlation does not necessarily equate to causation.  Increased carbon and methane may be part of larger trends well beyond the scope of human industrialization.  Also science is primarily about measurement and prediction.  Pattern recognition is perfectly legitimate but it's not prediction to say after the fact this or that event was caused by global warming.  Interestingly when predictions have been made on the assumption global warming will effect our climate negatively they've sometimes proved to been dramatically wrong, here BOM (on the left) predicted less rain and higher temperatures but as we know the results were different (on the right).

If we are faced with larger power bills on the basis of these predictions, they need to be accurate.  But the stakes are higher, Northcott wants a fundamental change to our civilization, far less flying, far less car travel, phasing out of fossil fuels etc. These are dramatic changes, worthwhile if the theory is true, but we can't make them just based on pattern recognition alone or vague predictions about our grandchildren. That's why I didn't like the way Northcott made it seem the science was settled, I was thinking about causation and correlation, about historical data and about the importance of accurate predictions but these lines of argument weren't addressed.  Neither did I think that 'climate change' was obvious.  There have been worse floods, droughts, cyclones and bush-fires than the ones in recent years, granted we now follow them in graphic real time detail but have they really increased in ferocity because of human industrial activity? 

Secondly, Northcott, towards the end of his talk said that radical changes to our lifestyle, perhaps even civilization were needed because of human caused climate change.  This is wrong, radical changes in our life style and civilization are needed because of the good-news about Jesus. Human greed and self-indulgence is the true cause of our lack of environmental stewardship and only the gospel will fix that.  Northcott, while clearly well meaning and motivated by a godly concern for biblical stewardship, seems to have become disproportionately consumed by the issue, he opened with a strange comparison with zealous climate change skeptic Viscount Monckton. There is a strange irony to the way Northcott flies around the world advocating radical changes to civilization, perhaps it's the latent rebellious Marxist in me but I resent the being told "what's good for me is not necessarily good for you."  The science may be proved right and Northcott's argument may be vindicated but I found this implication unsettling.

Current Political Implications

Norhcotte's talk came at an important time, just as Prime Minister Gillard announces the introduction of a new carbon tax.  (Itself a disappointing reinforcement of the idea that politics is a game of deceit with a sort of Orwellian double speak, although it seems few Politicians are immune to it.)  I also wonder how the committee that Flannery heads up will explain the science of climate change and then make the case for a carbon tax.

Thinking Theologically

Basic environmental stewardship isn't up for grabs, there's no moral reason to hurt people or God's creation in order to make a profit.  However the use of resources seems to be more of an opinion. Managing them seems more subjective, I might want to visit an overseas country or sleep in an air-conditioned room. Northcotte wasn't clear at this point but the implication seemed present that the only moral/godly choice was to radically change our civilization.  There was the insinuation that not to do so was "a sin".  For example a slide flashed up at one point quoting Bp Chartes [sp?] saying that "flying was a sin."  I agree that not being good stewards is a sin but Northcotte seems to be shifting the boundaries and that seems unwarranted. 


Northcott was by no means offensive, definitely amusing and very easy going.  It's just that I expected a more careful analysis taking into account common counter-arguments and a suggested change that was more grounded in the good news about Jesus rather than the good news about saving the planet. Lionel Windsor over at the Sola Panel sets out a great biblical primer for approaching this issue, I recommend that. 


Marion said...

Always amuses me when the prophets of doom intone "You should not fly in planes" as they jet about the world.

Stephen Brown said...

I wonder Luke, do you think that a Christian climate change 'skeptic', for won't of a a better word, would ever be invited to give a lecture in your church? Or have we already made up our minds? We Anglicans pride ourselves on our balanced approach don't we?!

Donners said...

Thanks heaps for this Luke for helping me understand the issues a bit more and for your review of the lecture.

@Marion - yes, the do as I say not as I do still looks hypocritical if they really believe in their message.

Luke Isham said...

Yes, your right mum.

Thanks Amy.

Steve, I suspect your right. Christians always seem to jump on the bandwagon just as the wheels are about to come off.

Marion said...

I remember during high-school and university the science people all said the Ice Age was coming, there'd be no food left by 2000, and there'd be mass extinctions.
Obambi's science czar wrote about it too.

Emily Isham said...

A good review Bro, considering your 'skeptic' stance.

I like your emphasis on 'the importance of stewardship and preparing the Kingdom for His return' as a good attitude towards how we engage with environmental/climate related issues.

The school of thought (often Right Wing Fundamentalism) that says 'its all about souls screw the world it's going to die anyway' is one I am very uncomfortable with and negates the importance of Stewardship and what that is REALLY about; which I think is ACTIVE care for the environment.

Basically whether 'they' are right or not shouldn't we just be doing ALL we can to restore our planet (people and places, saving souls and recycling!)?

Luke Isham said...

Hey Bro (did you sign in as Em by the way?),

I agree that the screw the forest it'll all burn on judgement day attitude is misguided. The world was created good and we should look after it in anticipation of it's full restoration.

I want to try and keep stewardship separate from global warming.

Interestingly it's an all or nothing for people who take global warming seriously because they see the stakes as very high. If you doubt and hesitate about taking drastic steps then your considered badly wrong and dangerous to the environment. I don't like that direction of thought.

Anonymous said...

(yes, oops Em was still logged in)

Why do you think you need some distinction between stewardship and climate change? I believe climate change has come about due to poor stewardship. Now I'm not a fan of some of the solutions, e.g. carbon tax (big fat lie, thanks Julia) which I agree is like indulgences. But I think while it is important to weigh up the various issues we engage with as Christians, I think there should be no second guessing the need to look after our planet. But we can choose the best way to do that (like recycling, encouraging green energy, driving cleaner cars, etc).

As an aside, I actually prefer 'Climate Change' over 'Global Warming as it is a misnomer. For example our extreme flooding etc and weird cold summer.


Jon said...

Thanks for this Luke - I don't share your skepticism and believe the science is clear but I know as little about it as you do so no-one should believe me. However, I really like the post by Lionel Windsor that you linked to, which provides a good common ground. Climate change is the highest profile environmental issue we are facing at the moment but by no means the only one (loss of biodiversity, rise in polution levels, peak oil, etc etc) and all of them come down to reckless consumption.

Incidentally, I do think that the remarks about Northcott's travel are a little below the belt. The challenge is to reduce consumption, not eliminate it.