A climate election?

By Andrew Phillips 09 Dec 2019

For the UK, 2019 will be a year that draws to a close with a general election. But, regardless of what happens
on December 12, the year 2019 will also be remembered as a hugely significant one for the issues of climate, nature and the environment.

This year we have seen school strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg, and mass protests led by Extinction Rebellion, which have brought the issue of climate change into the political mainstream. Reports such as the UN’s assessment of global biodiversity have highlighted the unprecedented scale and pace of change in the natural world caused by human activity. The UK Parliament declared a climate emergency (as did Scotland, Wales, and many councils across the country). Forest fires in the Amazon highlighted the need for international co-operation to address interconnected environmental issues. Oxford Dictionaries chose ‘climate emergency’ as the word of the year for 2019.

Unsurprisingly, all this has had a significant effect on UK politics, and has influenced the general election
campaign. For the first time ever, there was a specific debated focused on climate and nature, hosted by Channel 4. According to YouGov polling, comparing voters’ priorities in the run-up to the 2017 election compared to 2019, the environment was one of two issues (along with crime) that had seen a significant increase in importance. Another poll found that over half of voters said the issue of climate change would affect how they vote.

Of course when talking about environmental issues, there are a number of key interrelated concerns to think about. Four of the most important are:

  • Climate change
  • Nature and biodiversity
  • Air pollution
  • Plastic pollution

All of these are huge issues and will need to be addressed whichever Government is formed after the election.

Christian principles

How should Christians think about some of these environmental issues?

Firstly, as Christians we can accept that government has an important and legitimate role to play. Individuals and businesses must be involved in working toward positive changes, but the role of government is also vital. In the key New Testament passages on Government, the authors describe government as having a role both in restraining evil and in promoting good (e.g. 1 Peter 2:14). Both of these aspects of government are important with respect to environmental issues – for example, enforcing
legislation to prevent air pollution (restraining evil), or planting trees (promoting good).

Secondly, caring for God’s creation is one way in which we can express our love for God. As many authors
have said (such as Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen in The Drama of Scripture), the overarching story of the Bible describes God’s creation and redemption of the whole world, both human and non-human. According to Genesis 1-2, it is part of humanity’s original vocation to ‘rule over’ and to ‘take
care of’ the non-human creation. The image of the ‘steward’ or ‘servant’, entrusted to look after something that does not belong to them, is often used to describe humanity’s relationship to the non-human creation.

The biblical authors regularly describe God’s creation as praising God and displaying his glory (e.g. Psalms 8, 98, 104). Jesus gives us the perfect model of what it means to ‘rule’ – to serve, to protect, to heal, and to restore. At the moment, however, humanity is not fulfilling this vocation in a way that reflects love of God.
Rather, we are collectively destroying natural habitats, contributing to mass extinction, and polluting our land, rivers and oceans. Climate change is already causing major problems for nature – the world’s remaining coral reefs could disappear in the next few decades, for example. So Christians should look
for well-designed policies that can help us collectively care for God’s creation.

Thirdly, environmental issues have a major impact on people. The principles of social justice are found
throughout the Bible, summed up by Jesus in the priority he placed on ‘love of neighbour’ – and as the parable of the Good Samaritan shows, the definition of ‘neighbour’ is an expansive and inclusive one. Here we might think of two especially vulnerable groups: the global poor, and future generations. These
two groups make little contribution to the problems the world faces, especially with respect to climate change. They also have very little power. Yet it is they who will face the worst consequences of global heating and increased frequency and severity of extreme weather. Air pollution – at levels dangerous to people in more than 40 UK towns and cities – is also related to injustice: a 2019 academic study found that young children, adults, and households in poverty have the highest levels of exposure to air pollution.

Taking action to address the climate emergency and reduce air pollution are some of the ways in which
government can contribute to social justice, upholding the cause of the poor and vulnerable in the UK and internationally, as well as future generations.

Policy analysis

Focusing on climate change, under Theresa May, the UK Government legislated to make reaching net zero emissions by 2050 a legally binding target. This follows the recommendation of the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) – their report Net Zero was published in May 2019. (The CCC recommended a date of 2045 for Scotland, and that too has been adopted by the SNP.) However, as the CCC emphasised in their report, current policy is insufficient to achieve this: ‘many current plans are insufficiently ambitious; others are proceeding too slowly’ (p. 11). It is therefore vital for the incoming Government to commit to policies to address environmental issues, especially that of climate change: ‘Policies must be fully funded and implemented coherently across all sectors of the economy to drive the necessary innovation, market development and consumer take-up of low-carbon technologies, and to positively influence societal change.’ (CCC, p. 12)

All the main parties have made pledges on some key issues, such as increasing renewable energy production and investing in energy efficiency for buildings. On other issues, such as the question of the speed of change, there are differences: the Green party unsurprisingly has the most ambitious commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2030.

For those interested in reading more, several websites have put together manifesto comparisons. The Institute for Government give the basic details for climate change policy. Campaigning organisations Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have both analysed the parties’ manifestos on environmental
issues: the Green party and Labour, respectively, top their ‘league tables’.

At a general election there are, of course, many different issues to consider, and it is hard to know how to
weight the issues appropriately. But environmental issues have a very direct impact on both God’s creation and our neighbours – and so for Christians this is an important policy area to consider when casting our votes.

Next year the UK will host COP26, the UN’s annual climate change conference, in Glasgow. So the challenge before then for the incoming Prime Minister and Government will be to match rhetoric with serious, purposeful and workable policies that can contribute to both ecological restoration and social justice.

Andrew Phillips is the co-author of our latest publication Thoughtful Eating: a biblical perspective on food, relationships and the environment.

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