Leading up to the COP26 summit in November 2021, Jubilee Centre is publishing a series of blog posts on various aspects of climate change. The different authors will be on a panel together at our online Facing the Climate Crisis event on October 20th, where they will seek to model a generous conversation around climate action, which is often portrayed in divisive terms. This is the second of two posts by Terry Young, thinking through some of the challenges of climate change from a Christian perspective, the first of which was entitled “Climate Change, Science and Uncertainty”.
So far, we have thought about how science works and the many benefits it has conferred upon us. We have identified climate change as a ‘wicked problem’ that is not easy to address purely through scientifically designed intervention.
We have noted that models are good with complexity and interdependency, but precision is tricky, as is picking out what will actually happen from all that could happen. George Box is sometimes credited with stating, ‘All models are wrong, but some are useful.’ Add in Feynman’s question – ‘How do we know we are not fooling ourselves? – and we have the ingredients for a discussion.
Many argue that the best use of models is to inform such discussions as different (even competing) stakeholders argue for the factors they feel should really go into the model and who end up with a deeper understating of the problem as a result. Also, by running variations on the model afterwards, you can see how different factors can affect the outcome. As Proverbs 15:22 advises, ‘Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.’
Let’s think of five imaginary advisors, each of whom has a narrow interest. Your response would be to mix their advice, agreeing with some and distrusting others. Other stakeholders might trust and distrust these advisors in different ways, but at least you can have a discussion.
- The resource optimiser, Ro, sees physical resources as key. They are limited (or recover slowly from overuse), so Ro wants to preserve them for future generations. Ro usually wants to limit or backtrack on population, consumption, and so forth. Ro sees the future as an extension of the past, so you can’t have in future what earlier generations do not leave behind.
- The bio optimiser, Bo, sees the biodiverse forms of life, including humans, as the key asset. Bo may put plants and animals on an equal footing, which is tricky when only one form of life can articulate and process such a value-system. Since new species are always emerging, conservation in Bo’s world is much more complicated than in Ro’s.
- The wealth optimiser, Wo, is an economist who believes that wealth is key and that other goods can be expressed in economic terms. However, consumption is not a one-way street and wealthier societies can pay for better technology than poorer societies. For instance, a society that might drown under rising sea levels can, with enough wealth, build sea defences. Since we are getting steadily richer, our best response to climate change is to get as wealthy as we can, now, and solve climate problems when they become inescapable in the future.
- The Innovation channeler, Ic, believes that intelligence is the most important thing. Ic believes that there is no resource problem facing humanity that could not be addressed with sufficient intelligence and time, although Ic still needs a budget.
- The Spiritual Individual, Si, believes in a Creator and the eternal value of the human soul, so lives outside the purely materialistic box that most advisors inhabit. If Si has a Christian world view, then Si will also believe in a creation scarred by the Fall, and then redeemed.
The discussions between Ro, Bo, Wo and Ic would put the climate debate on a very different footing from its present, polarised form, although Christians have a problem because they may believe things that Ro, Bo, Wo or Ic don’t - and don’t believe things that they do.
Is there a Christian perspective?
By including Si as a fifth advisor, we can introduce a spiritual dimension. How much you listen to Si will vary: materialists would switch off completely, while Christians will differ in how they tune into or out of Si’s advice.
We may also need – perhaps – Pa, a political advisor, since countries targeting economic growth can out-pollute those with greener agendas.
Clearly, we cannot build our own models to support or undermine the views of our advisors, but Christians could take a greater interest in the models that are being used – by economists, epidemiologists, industrialists, planners, policy-makers, and scientists – and ask some of those critical questions that Feynman advocated (see earlier blog). To my mind, Christians have not yet been sufficiently interested in any of the models nor asked difficult questions of them.
We are not short of theologies of creation. In terms of that Jane Austen science-faith dance, scientists and Christians currently both believe in a starting point for creation, but then diverge from there. Christians recognise a fallen humanity, a creation that is not as it was, and look forward to a new heaven and earth.
What does a Christian Si believe?
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
(Psalm 19:1-4 )
For the Psalmist (and borrowing from elsewhere in the Bible), there are three perspectives on Creation, representing a range of Christian positions:
- A message from the Creator:
The Bible does not prove the existence of God but proclaims the God who exists, which cuts across modern thinking. We agree with Ro that resources are important but it’s not all about them; we buy Bo’s love of diversity, but it’s not all about that, either. It is about the one who sent and keeps resending the message. Part of any Christian response, then, is to listen, enjoy, reflect, and to work it back in prayer. Less work; more worship.
- A gift from the Creator
Our reaction to receiving gifts today is self-centred – we keep them, regift them, or carelessly trash them – but the ancient reaction was different: a gift you received was yours, but how you used it reflected what you thought of the giver. St Paul’s view of this can be summarised as:
[Those who use the things of this world should behave] as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)
This is a clear call to use, but not to abuse; to engage with, but not to be engrossed in. Some Christians will identify with Ro and Bo here, but for wildly different reasons.
- A responsibility from the Creator
Si takes responsibility for managing the planet; not on behalf of anyone or anything, but for the Creator. In the past, Christians have majored on ‘subduing’ creation, but now recognise a much trickier commission if they are to steer towards sustainable ecology without driving millions into abject poverty. Christian entrepreneurs would add a strong creative mandate to Si’s advice and will sympathise heavily with Wo and Ic – but, again, for wildly different reasons.
How Christians hear the message, accept the gift, and face this responsibility, varies. Those of us more persuaded by Bo and Ro will cut back dramatically and urge others to do so (but must beware of legalism). Those of us persuaded by Wo and Ic may feel freer to seek innovation as the way ahead (but must beware of greed). Some who believe in being engaged but not engrossed may believe that the problem is too complicated for simple belt-tightening, but may still take modest measures (e.g. buying a hybrid car) and consciously focus extra effort on worship, evangelism and other good things.
And you? That’s your call. But watch how your judge your Christian sisters and brothers!
Young has a PhD in laser spectroscopy, and spent the first half of his career in industrial R&D. He moved into academia and was professor of healthcare systems at Brunel University before becoming an independent consultant, focusing on the design and modelling of systems for health organisations. Terry writes regularly for the Baptist Times and the Integrated Care Journal; he and his wife Dani have three sons, a daughter-in-law and two grandsons.