Why Can't We Just Cut Back and Save the Planet?

By Terry Young 18 Oct 2021

Leading up to the COP26 summit in November 2021, Jubilee Centre published a series of blog posts on various aspects of climate change. The different authors were on a panel together at our online Facing the Climate Crisis event in October 2021. This is the third of a series of Blogs by Terry Young: The previous two are entitled “Climate Change, Science and Uncertainty" and  "Climate Change: Seeking a Christian Perspective".

 

Today’s main tension is between economic growth and ecological renewal, where nobody has yet demonstrated sustained progress in one direction without regressing in the other. Moreover, the proliferation of protest movements and the rising stridency of public discourse is polarising the debate. Christians tend to divide along the same lines as everyone else – can we change that?

The three big challenges around climate are:

  • Political economy: any green revolution will be expensive, so the economic infrastructure must bear the challenge. We take the view that capitalism is the best system we have, although it is badly flawed, and reject Marxism as lacking a track record of sustained success and as being hostile to Christianity. Libertarian economists point to the unprecedented prosperity unleashed by capitalism and prescribe more of it. Other economists argue that capitalism must be restrained through regulation or more representative governance. Meanwhile, Weber’s protestant work ethic, an historically relevant and distinctively Christian contribution, is generally ignored. 
  • Energy and Natural Resources: Cheap energy has fuelled three centuries of global growth, and after using renewables for millennia, we spent 200 years moving to fossil fuels. We must now wean ourselves off our dependency in a fraction of that time, while having vastly more people on the planet who consume much more on average. Climate Summits usually call for consumption cuts, rapid adoption of renewable energy, and more waste recycling. An alternative is to take reasonable measures now – energy savings, modest recycling – while delivering strong economic growth so that we can afford expensive adaptation and infrastructural renewal as emergencies arise. Each position faces problems. Scientific and economic models are untested at this scale and lack particularly reliable track records. For instance, many predicted ecological disasters have simply failed to materialise: global cooling never came; we have not run out of food nor fuel. However, we simply don’t know how long we can take our track record of innovation for granted. 
  • National policies. A single global government might (just!) finesse a policy for ecological sustainability without pitching millions into poverty. However, the world has many national governments with different records for setting policies for the greater good and sticking to them. Western democracies can struggle with the long term (in the UK, we have recently reversed decades of greening by hopping off public transport and into single-use plastics). Totalitarian regimes may manage strategic policy better, but with mixed results (China lifted 800 million people out of poverty but created a difficult legacy with its one-child policy). 

With today’s technology, high levels of growth are inextricably linked to higher carbon footprints, which is likely to be the case for some time without radically new instruments of investment and innovation. Because of this, the world’s de facto climate policy depends on the fastest-growing economies – some of which are clearly prepared to downgrade climate concerns. Moreover, the larger an economy grows, the more its ecological decisions will affect others. As a result, nations seeking greener goals are not just competing with the planet but also with peers who have made economic growth their dominating objective. 

This is not a council of despair, but it challenges the ‘all-or-nothing’ breathlessness of today’s debate. Nixon’s 1970 National Environmental Policy Act has cleaned rivers and cities. In 2019, less than half the UK’s electricity came from fossil fuels (down from nearly 80% in 1990) and in the first half of 2021, 17% of new cars were plug-ins. Progress is being made!

This raises questions that are not currently centre stage, such as what percentage of GDP should technologically advanced countries be investing in innovation to prepare for both globally-agreed and globally-contested approaches to climate change? Are there more positive ways to harness the energy of those too young to vote or work beyond stimulating anxiety or fomenting protest?

While this does not provide a distinctively Christian angle, it broadens the options for Christians joining the debate. For instance, asking your MP about investment in innovation is as valid as discussing climate targets. Parents may decide that encouraging their children into careers in engineering may be as green an option as life sciences or international development. We may even want to thank those responsible each time we see something good happening or achieved.

Whatever we can do in faith, let us also do so in love for one another and in hope of the Glory of God at the end. That is distinctively Christian! 

 

This is a post by a guest contributor, and the views expressed do not necessarily represent the Jubilee Centre's perspective.

Terry 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.

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