Idolatry and climate change

By Revd Dr James Walters

flood_1388761a.jpgThe question of whether or not human activity is causing climate change would not appear to be one that theologians or priests are able to answer. It is a scientific question, a matter of weighing up empirical evidence to make an informed judgment on which we can act. 

Indeed, the religious language that frequently surrounds the issue – from the Sun newspaper’s prayer campaign for dry weather to the curious persistence of the phrase “Act of God” – appear to point exclusively to utter human helplessness in in the face of the elements. We cannot deny the prominence of this theme in the Bible where it is his ability to calm the storm that identifies Jesus with the God who alone is in control of the weather, flooding the earth in the time of Noah and raining hailstones down on Egypt to liberate the Israelites.

Thank goodness the modern world has scientists to caste aside such superstition and shine some rational light on the matter. And yet we all know that it doesn’t appear to be this straightforward. In spite of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s view of a 95% likelihood that the global rise in temperatures are caused by greenhouse gases and deforestation, public opinion remains skeptical or apathetic (how reassuring to think we can carry on as we are) until the situation begins to hit home. 

That’s precisely what is happening to great swathes of the country at the moment as we experience the wettest year for over two centuries and homes and livelihoods are destroyed by floods. Yet even now the deniers are vocal. Last week, Nigel Lawson described a Met Office scientist’s linking of the floods to climate change as “absurd… There’s been bad weather climate-change-blog.jpgbefore.” A recent poll suggests 44% of the public agree with him. 

So it’s clearly not enough for scientists to make judgments about whether or not climate change is happening. We need a much broader reasoned public discourse about what is taking place in which theologians also have a vital role to play. That is because in addition to the competing scientific narratives (in fact, in their interpretation), various kinds of idolatry and false-faith are at play. 

Critically, these questions are being considered in the context of a time when the consumer capitalist system has conditioned our minds to view the finite world as if it were itself infinite: infinitely exploitable and infinitely adaptable to human needs and behaviour. In contrast, Christianity teaches us that the world is a finite resource for which we are ultimately accountable to its infinite source. The world therefore requires stewardship; it’s not simply a resource to be plundered, disproportionately benefiting the wealthy and harming the poor with the ecological side effects.

Second, we can’t ignore the relevance of the other idolatry that characterizes Lord Lawson and many other skeptics, which is the blind and irrational faith in the benevolent effects of the market. It’s as if the optimistic narrative of free market capitalism is so unshakeable in their minds that the notion that it may lead us to ecological meltdown is simply unthinkable. Even if they do allow themselves to acknowledge the problem at all, their dogged allegiance to market principles leads them to suppose either that the market will supply the technological solutions it demands or that questionable market schemes such as carbon trading will turn it into an attractive commercial opportunity. With such Pollyanna fantasies the economic neo-liberals refuse to face the fact, which even the Economist newspaper has acknowledged, that climate change is quite simply: “the greatest… market failure ever seen”.

With the urgent need to acknowledge the finitude of the earth and the idolatry of the market, perhaps theologians have something to contribute to this debate after all.

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commented 2014-03-01 10:13:53 +0000 · Flag
What superstition, Revd. Walters, do modern scientists cast aside, faith in an all powerful God or the belief that prayer can make a difference?

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