Greenhouses gases such as CO2 are allegedly warming the planet to such an extent that life as we know it will be destroyed, bringing with it apocalyptic famine, devastation and disease. We’ve heard the warning before and now we are hearing it again. But this time the warning comes not from a confraternity of scientists or television personalities, but with the full authority of an English bishop.
Nicholas Holtham, the Church of England Bishop of Salisbury, warns that climate change is the world’s most urgent moral problem, saying, “It imposes the heaviest burden on the poorest and least complicit in a way that is simply immoral.” But is this really about morality? Or is it a grab for the hearts, minds and wallets from younger generations who have turned away from traditional religion?
Climate change is the new, fashionable cause promoted by the Christian churches. The discomfiting experience of extreme weather events coupled with a prophetic compulsion to anticipate the worst for human society, rather than the best, has fuelled an alarmist response that is unwarranted by a cool analysis of the scientific study of climate change. Nonetheless, the churches want to be seen to be doing something about climate change.
In England, the Methodist Church has shed its shares in companies that mine fossil fuels. Now the Church of England is taking action and has decided to dump its £12 million holding (out of a total investment fund of £5.2 billion) in coal and tar mining companies. It may also decide soon to rid itself of its remaining holdings in fossil fuel companies. In Australia, the Anglican Church is already fired up about climate change and divesting from mining companies. Meanwhile, the Catholics are getting ready for what Pope Francis is soon going to say on the subject.
Faced both with shrinking numbers and ballooning irrelevance in recent years, the churches are desperate to burnish their reputation to attract a new generation of believers. Frustrated by loss of influence and authority, churches in the affluent, secular Western world have been searching for a new challenge to demonstrate their relevance and compassion.
Climate change alarmism and global salvationism are perfect as quasi-religious elements that can fill the void left by the decline of Christianity in the West. They combine a fear of an impending apocalypse with an urgent summons to immediate repentance which appeals to our very human feelings of guilt and unworthiness. No wonder climate alarmists declare that climate change is the greatest moral threat facing humankind today.
The catch-phrase for that new challenge of repentance is ‘energy transition’. According to the churches’ leading theologians, it’s all about managing the change to a ‘low carbon economy’. That’s carbon as in ‘carbon dioxide’, of course. CO2. The stuff plants love and on which all human life depends. We’re not talking about ‘carbon’ as in graphite and diamonds. But alarmists have obscured this by dropping the word ‘dioxide’ and insisting that any form of energy that produces carbon dioxide emissions is ‘dirty’.
The latest round of alarmism has been fuelled by recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which wants governments to conclude a binding global decarbonisation agreement. Carbon-confused latte-sipping inner city elites lap it up, just as they lapped up the inconvenient and mischievous truths propounded by Al Gore in his science fiction flop An Inconvenient Truth.
But the really inconvenient truth is that the evidence on which the IPCC relies does not justify the alarm. Take human health. Climate change is supposed to lead to an increase in tropical diseases such as dengue fever. But as Nigel Lawson, former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasurer) and founder of the Global Warming Policy Foundation ( a think-tank that includes a different Church of England bishop as one of its trustees) has pointed out, the IPCC coyly admits other ‘stressors’ might have a greater impact on human health and well-being. According to Lawson, the IPCC conspicuously fails to take proper account of the fact that “the biggest health risk in the world today, particularly of course in the developing world, is poverty.”
Yet with their divestment campaign and their drive for the transition to a low-carbon (and eventually no-carbon) economy, zealous churches are only going to make life harder for the poor. Energy prices have been on the rise for some time. Divesting from coal is only going to increase the cost of power and make it harder for the poor to heat their homes.
“We use fossil fuels not because we love them,” says Nigel Lawson, “or because we are in thrall to the multinational oil companies, but simply because they provide far and away the cheapest source of large-scale energy.” Cheaper energy leads to faster economic development which is the surest way to eradicate poverty. And there is a world of difference, he says, between developing more efficient use of fossil fuels and abandoning them altogether.
The push to ‘decarbonise’ the economy rather than promote fuel efficiency suggests Christian churches are not especially concerned to protect the jobs and livelihoods of those who live in coalmining regions. Nor do they seem concerned with improving access to cheap energy sources in the developing world to promote economic growth that will deliver millions of people from the scourges of malnutrition, preventable disease, and premature death.
The sharp, carbon-edged truth is that the churches are keen to adopt climate change as a cause to help them connect with the young, the disaffected, and the disillusioned. It’s a gesture that has little to do with morality.
Hundreds of refugees drown in the Mediterranean; religious war rages in the Middle East, spilling onto the streets of European capital cities; disease and famine ravage impoverished regions of the world; and a bloated welfare state condemns many to intergenerational poverty and dysfunction.
Climate alarmists in Christian churches such as the Church of England obviously thinks those issues are only lesser moral problems. And that is surely the most immoral gesture of all.
Rev Peter Kurti is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies