Are scientists the prophets of today when it comes to climate change ?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fifth annual report makes for grim reading indeed. Among its conclusions released to the world on Monday from the city of Yokohama, Japan, is the thoroughly researched prediction that climate change will be "severe, pervasive and irreversible" in the coming years.
This report has not been without controversy. One scientist, Dutch climate change expert Richard Tol, has stepped down from the panel because, according to Reuters, he felt the report was too "alarmist".
Others have noted that unlike previous reports, this one focuses far more on adapting how we live to climate change – by doing things like building sea walls, dredging rivers and changing farming techniques – rather than mitigating the change in the first place by lessening our reliance on fossil fuels.
Christian Today spoke to Dr Isabel Carter, chair of church environmental group Operation Noah, and Christian Aid's Joe Ware to find out what they make of the report.
CT: Do you welcome the 5th IPCC report and its conclusions?
IC: Yes, we welcome the content and the scientific certainties it provides that climate change is happening and that it is largely driven by humans (anthropogenic) is welcome, even though for us in Operation Noah it contains few if any surprises.
JW: The IPCC scientists have given us a stark and sobering warning about what will happen to our planet if we continue on our current trajectory of burning fossil fuels.
The IPCC is the gold standard of climate science, hundreds of the world's leading scientists have reviewed the thousands of studies from across the globe. Like the prophets in the Bible their warnings need to be heeded.
CT: What is your response to those who call this report too alarmist and too dire in its predictions for the future of our climate?
IC: No – not at all. This confirmation by thousands of the world's top scientists is very welcome in the face of the British media's determination to convince the general public that climate change is something they can 'choose' whether or not to believe in. It's perhaps the biggest and most rigorous process of peer review conducted in any scientific field, at any point in human history.
JW: It's appropriate to be alarmed, but the good news is there is still time for us to avoid causing further suffering to millions. I'm hopeful that we can respond to this challenge.
The US and China are starting to move in the right direction on this issue and with pressure from countries like the UK and others we can get an ambitious climate deal signed next year at the UN summit in Paris. That pact is a huge opportunity to secure a safe and healthy planet.
CT: Would you say that the report was too defeatist and overly focused on adapting to climate change rather than mitigating it by changing our behaviour?
IC: The report does move rather rapidly from general acceptance of climate change. Much of their findings are now recorded as virtually certain - 99 to 100 per cent probability - or extremely likely - 95 to 100 per cent probability - to adaptation.
What happened to mitigation – actually taking action now to respond to the seriousness of what the report outlines in terms of consequences?
There is one sentence that sums up the current difficulties in persuading people to accept change: "Underestimating the complexity of adaptation as a social process can create unrealistic expectations about achieving intended adaptation outcomes."
So despite affirming that all kinds of really serious consequences will indeed result from climate change and noting just how long emitted carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere and oceans, the report moves quickly to encouraging adaptation.
Adaptation without mitigation is so much harder - the problem becomes bigger with every year that passes. Surely we need to be doing all we possibly can as individuals, churches, societies and nations to lessen the impact of climate change now by moving from fossil fuel based growth economies to greener solutions?
In essence there are three stages to dealing with this issue:
- Accepting there is a problem - climate sceptics have delayed such acceptance by decades
- Dealing with the problem - mitigation, which seems to have been bypassed
- Living with any consequences - adaptation, which will be infinitely more serious given that we have still not really dealt with the problem.
While we are expecting mitigation to be covered in some more detail in another part of the report that will be published later this year, the emphasis of this report seems to have completely bypassed mitigation as a way of dealing with climate change in the long term.
JW: I think it's unfair to say the IPCC's report focuses too much on adaptation. While it makes the point that adaptation is a crucial part of the process, that isn't defeatist.
Ultimately the scientists are describing the current situation and the one the evidence tells us we will be seeing in the future. They are not the ones calling for particular policy responses, they're just outlining what they observe as happening. It's up to the politicians to decide how we respond to those findings.
The important thing to remember is that there are some sceptics who are calling for efforts to mitigate climate change to be abandoned. Instead they want to only embrace adaptation to the effects of climate change because that means we can keep burning fossil fuels without worrying about it.
The problem with that view is there are some problems that we simply cannot adapt to, like the acidification of the oceans. Responding to that kind of problem isn't like ending construction on the Somerset Levels or erecting new sea walls. Sometimes there will be effects of climate change that we won't be able to work around.
If there is a temperature increase of 4 or 5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, we can't even begin to imagine what that kind of world would look like, and we certainly don't know how we would adapt to it. Currently, we're at around 0.8 degrees Celsius above industrial levels.
There has to be a focus on mitigation first and adaptation second. But it's not an either or proposition. There are already parts of the world that are suffering so much that they need adaptation help.
Christian Aid recently produced a report entitled "Taken by storm" which gives some examples of these kinds of issues. There's already adaptation happening, but mitigation has to be the focus. You can read it here http://www.christianaid.org.uk/resources/policy/climate/index.aspx
CT: How do you think that Christians should respond to the problem of climate change?
IC: Well, this is a global problem demanding global solutions. Yes, we can change our individual lifestyles and enjoy living lower carbon lives but we also need to speak out – through emails, letters, petitions - and ensure that our leaders, both church and politicians, are aware that this is an issue of massive concern.
Only then will they have the 'wriggle room' to make the difficult and long term decisions that will give us hope for the future, instead of the short-term populist announcements we get now. And in particular to pray – for leaders, and for climate negotiators in the UN process during the climate summits (this year in Lima, Peru and next year in Paris) where the replacement to the Kyoto Protocol will be hammered out.
JW: Practically, the responses work on a variety of levels. There are decisions we should all be making about things like how much we consume, how much energy we use in our day to day lives and the like. This isn't to say that we should all stop flying and stop using our cars, it's just making sure we all make little decisions which all add up.
In terms of using our voice, we should remember that we are fortunate to live in a democratic society where our politicians ultimately have to respond and be held accountable to voters like us. If you write to your MP that's a powerful statement that many people don't have. If you go to surgeries or meet with your MP, they are often delighted to hear from you, a person they can engage with.
There's also joining with other Christians in campaign organisations. Christian Aid is launching a new phase of our climate change campaign this summer, because it is such an important time for climate change, so we are really looking to push the UK Government on this issue. If we speak with a unified voice, we can be exceptionally powerful.
Christians are becoming an increasingly important voice in this process because at its heart climate change is about injustice. Those suffering the most, be they victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines or pastoralist farmers in Kenya, have done nothing to cause this.
The suffering caused by global warming has been created by rich industrialised countries like our own. It's important to stand in solidarity with those around the world who are affected by the decisions that we make.
CT: Where in the Bible do you take your inspiration from?
IC: As we read through this IPCC report we might consider whether we should regard scientists as today's prophets – ignoring them at our peril? Two key motivations for me come from Jesus's commandments to us (Mark 12:30-31 and Luke 10: 27) to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
How can we express our love for God is we stand by idly while his precious and fragile creation is so damaged? And how can we love our neighbours, near and far, if we are not concerned about the damaging impacts of climate change on poorer people around the world – rainfall patterns, temperatures, damaging cyclones, rising sea levels and brackish water impacting on fertile land in Bangladesh and the Mekong peninsula. For me, responding to climate change is a matter of social justice.
If you'd like to read more of our thoughts on this from a biblical perspective, see Operation Noah's Ash Wednesday declaration at http://www.operationnoah.org/read-the-declaration
JW: Not only are Christians called to take care of creation, the Bible calls us clearly to care for the Body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12:26 it says: 'If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.'
There are millions of Christians and people of other faiths suffering on the front line of climate change. We therefore share in that suffering and should do our upmost to help where we can. Part of that is through our own personal actions but also in using our voice to put pressure on our politicians to make decisions which protect the planet and the poor.