Christian responsibility to fight climate change

January 11, 2008 at 5:32 pm | Posted in Actions, Celtic cross, Christianity, Climate change, Global warming, John Houghton, Responsibility | Leave a comment

Celtic Cross at St. Bede’s Episcopal Church Menlo Park CA

Global Warming & Christian Responsibility

by Sir John Houghton

Sir John T. Houghton is the co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and was the lead editor of the first three IPCC reports. He was professor in atmospheric physics at the University of Oxford, former Chief Executive at the Meteorolgical Office (The UK’s national weather service) and founder of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction & Research. Sir Houghton is also an evangelical Christian.

The crisis of sustainability
Imagine you are a member of the crew of a large space ship on a voyage to visit a distant planet. Your journey there and back will take many years. How can the crew survive that long? An adequate, high quality, source of energy is readily available in the radiation from the sun. Otherwise, resources for the journey are limited. Much of the time of the spacecraft crew is taken up with managing the resources as carefully as possible. A local biosphere is created in the spacecraft where plants are grown for food and everything is recycled. Careful accounts are kept of all resources, with especial emphasis on non-replaceable components. Waste products must not be allowed to degrade the environment on board the spaceship. That the resources be sustainable at least for the duration of the voyage, both there and back, is clearly essential. Planet Earth is enormously larger than the spaceship we have just been describing. The crew of Spaceship Earth at six billion and rising is also enormously larger. The principle of Sustainability should be applied to Spaceship Earth as rigorously as it has to be applied to the much smaller vehicle on its interplanetary journey. Professor Kenneth Boulding a distinguished American economist was the first to employ the image of Spaceship Earth. In a publication in 1966 he contrasted an ‘open’ or ‘cowboy’ economy (as he called an unconstrained economy) with a ‘spaceship’ economy in which sustainability is paramount. [1]

There have been many definitions of Sustainability. The simplest I know is ‘not cheating on our children’; to that may be added, ‘not cheating on our neighbors’ and ‘not cheating on the rest of creation’. In other words, not passing on to our children or any future generation, an Earth that is degraded compared to the one we inherited, and also sharing common resources as necessary with our neighbors in the rest of the world and caring properly for the non-human creation. As we enter the 21st century, many things are happening in our modern world that are just not sustainable.[2] In fact, we are all guilty of cheating in the three respects I have mentioned. Perhaps the biggest and most challenging problem we face is that of the climate change that is being caused by human activities particularly the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas). About 7 billion tons of carbon (as carbon dioxide) per year currently enter the atmosphere from fossil fuel sources, a figure that continues to increase rapidly, with the result that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now at a higher level than for at least half a million years.

Human-induced Climate Change
‘Greenhouse gases’ such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorb infra-red or ‘heat’ radiation from the earth’s surface and act as blankets over the earth’s surface, keeping it warmer than it would otherwise be. The basic science underlying this natural ‘greenhouse effect’ has been known for nearly two hundred years; it is essential to the provision of our current climate to which ecosystems and we humans have adapted. However, because of the human-induced increase in greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, the temperature at the earth’s surface is rising. The best estimates by the world’s climate scientists is that, over the 21st century the global average temperature will rise by between 2 and 6 ºC (3.5 to 11 ºF) from its pre-industrial level.[3] For global average temperature, a rise of this amount is large. Its difference, between the middle of an ice age and the warm periods in between, is only about 5 or 6 ºC (9 to 11 ºF). So, associated with likely warming in the 21st century will be a rate of change of climate equivalent to say, half an ice age in less than 100 years – a larger rate of change than for at least 10,000 years. Adapting to this will be difficult for both humans and many ecosystems.

Talking in terms of changes of global average temperature, however, tells us rather little about the impacts of global warming on human communities. Some of the most obvious impacts will be due to the rise in sea level that occurs because ocean water expands as it is heated. The projected rise is of the order of half a meter (20 inches) a century and will continue for many centuries – to warm the deep oceans as well as the surface waters takes a long time. This will cause large problems for human communities living in low lying regions. Many areas, for instance in Bangladesh (where about 10 million live within the one meter contour), southern China, islands in the Indian and Pacific oceans and similar places elsewhere in the world will be impossible to protect and many millions will be displaced. There will also be impacts from extreme events. The extremely unusual high temperatures in central Europe during the summer of 2003 led to the deaths of over 20,000 people. Careful analysis leads to the projection that such summers are likely to be average by the middle of the 21st century and cool by the year 2100. Water is becoming an increasingly important resource. A warmer world will lead to more evaporation of water from the surface, more water vapor in the atmosphere and more precipitation on average. Of greater importance is the fact that the increased condensation of water vapor in cloud formation leads to increased latent heat of condensation being released. Since this latent heat release is the largest source of energy driving the atmosphere’s circulation, the hydrological cycle will become more intense. This means a tendency to more intense rainfall events and also less rainfall in some semi-arid areas. Since, on average, floods and droughts are the most damaging of the world’s disasters, their greater frequency and intensity is bad news for most human communities and especially for those regions such as south east Asia and sub-Saharan Africa where such events already occur only too frequently. It is these sorts of events that provide some credence to the comparison of climate with weapons of mass destruction.

Sea level rise, changes in water availability and extreme events will lead to increasing pressure from environmental refugees. A careful estimate[4] has suggested that, due to climate change, there could be more than 150 million extra refugees by 2050. In addition to the main impacts summarized above are changes about which there is less certainty, but if they occurred would be highly damaging and possibly irreversible. For instance, large changes are being observed in polar regions and that the Greenland ice cap might begin to melt down is becoming a more likely possibility. Complete melt down may take up to 1000 years or more but would eventually add 7 meters (23 feet) to the sea level.

So far I have addressed adverse impacts. But there will also be some positive impacts. For instance, in Siberia and other areas at high northern latitudes, winters will be less cold and growing seasons longer. Also, increased concentrations of carbon dioxide have a fertilizing effect on some plants and crops which, providing there are adequate supplies of water and nutrients, will lead to increased crop yields in some places. However, careful studies demonstrate that adverse impacts will far outweigh positive ones, the more so as temperatures rise more than 1 or 2 ºC (2 to 3.5 ºF) above pre-industrial values.

How sure are we about the scientific story I have just presented? There remain large uncertainties in the detail but the main fact that global warming due to human action is occurring and is likely to cause serious adverse impacts especially in the world’s poorer countries is firmly based in science that is well understood. The world scientific community has carried out thorough assessments of the science of human induced climate change through the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – formed jointly by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program in 1988. I had the privilege of being chairman or co-chairman of the Panel’s scientific assessment from 1988 to 2002.

In its reports[5] the IPCC has honestly and objectively distinguished what is reasonably well known and understood from those areas with large uncertainty. No assessments on any other scientific topic have been so thoroughly researched and reviewed. The Academies of Science of the world’s eleven most important countries (the G8 plus India, China and Brazil) have recently issued a statement endorsing the IPCC’s conclusions[6]. The brief account I have presented here is based on the IPCC’s reports.

Unfortunately, there are strong vested interests that have spent tens of millions of dollars on spreading misinformation about the climate change issue. Some of those involved have had the amazing audacity to present the careful, authoritative, honest work of the world climate science community through the IPCC as ‘junk science’, when, in fact, it is their dishonest presentations that could be described that way. First they tried to deny the existence of any scientific evidence for rapid climate change due to human activities. More recently they have largely accepted the fact of anthropogenic climate change but argue that its impacts will not be great, that we can ‘wait and see’ and in any case we can always ‘fix’ the problem if it turns out to be substantial. The scientific evidence cannot support such arguments.

International action regarding climate change began in 1992 with the establishment at the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) – agreed by over 160 countries. It was signed by President George Bush and ratified unanimously by the US Senate. The Objective of the FCCC in its Article 2 is “to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that does not cause dangerous interference with the climate system” and that is consistent with sustainable development. Such stabilization would require that emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere must not only stop growing but be reduced to a small fraction of their present levels well before the end of the century.
The reductions in emissions must be made globally; all nations must take part. However, there are very large differences between carbon dioxide emissions from different countries. Expressed in tons of carbon per capita per annum, they vary from about 5.5 for the USA, 2.2 for Europe, 0.7 for China and 0.2 for India. The global average per capita, currently about 1 ton per annum, must fall substantially not only to enable stabilization of carbon dioxide concentration but also to allow for the expected increase in human population during the 21st century. Ways need to be found to achieve the large reductions required that are both realistic and equitable. The Kyoto Protocol set up by the FCCC represents a beginning for the process of greenhouse gases reduction, averaging about 5% below 1990 levels by 2012 by those developed countries who have ratified the protocol[7]. It is an important start that demonstrates the achievement of a useful measure of international agreement on such a complex issue. It also introduces for the first time international trading of greenhouse gas emissions so that reductions can be achieved in the most cost effective ways. After the Kyoto reductions by 2012, it is essential that all countries join in the agreements. The UK government, for instance, has taken a lead on this issue and has agreed a target for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of 60% by 2050 – predicated on a stabilization target of doubled carbon dioxide concentrations together with a recognition that developed countries will need to make greater reductions to allow some headroom for developing countries. Economists in the UK government Treasury Department have estimated the cost to the UK economy of achieving this target. On the assumption of an average growth in the UK economy of 2.25 % p.a., they estimated a cost of no more than the equivalent of 6 months’ growth over the 50 year period[8]. Similar costs for achieving stabilization have been estimated by the IPCC.

Three sorts of actions are required if such reductions are to be achieved.[9] First, there is energy efficiency. Approximately one third of energy is employed in buildings (domestic and commercial), one third in transport and one third by industry. Large savings can be made in all three sectors, many with significant savings in cost – as many industrial companies are beginning to find. Secondly, a wide variety of non-fossil fuel sources of energy are available for development and exploitation, for instance, biomass (including waste), solar power (both photovoltaic and thermal), hydro, wind, wave, tidal and geothermal energy. These need to be developed as rapidly as possible so as to provide for energy needs in the long-term, Thirdly, there are possibilities for sequestering carbon that would otherwise enter the atmosphere either through the planting of forests or by pumping underground (for instance in spent oil and gas wells). The opportunities for industry for innovation, development and investment in all these areas is large.

Some argue that we can ‘wait and see’ before action is necessary. That is not a responsible position. The need for action is urgent for three reasons. The first reason is scientific. Because the oceans take time to warm, there is a lag in the response of climate to increasing greenhouse gases. Because of greenhouse gas emissions to date, a commitment to substantial change already exists, much of which will not be realized for 30 to 50 years.[10] Further emissions just add to that commitment. The second reason is economic. Energy infrastructure, for instance in power stations also lasts typically for 30 to 50 years. It is much more cost effective to begin now to phase in the required infrastructure changes rather than having to make them much more rapidly later. The third reason is political. Countries like China and India are industrializing rapidly. I heard a senior energy adviser to the Chinese government speak recently. He said that China by itself would not be making big moves to non-fossil fuel sources. When the developed nations of the west take action, they will take action – they will follow not lead. China is building new electricity generating capacity of about 1 GW power station per week. If we want to provide effective leadership we need to start now.

Creation Care – a Christian challenge
People often say to me that I am wasting my time talking about environmental sustainability. ‘The world’ they say ‘will never agree to take the necessary action’. I reply that I am optimistic for three reasons. First, I have experienced the commitment of the world scientific community (including scientists from many different nations, backgrounds and cultures) in painstakingly and honestly working together to understand the problems and assessing what needs to be done. Secondly, I believe the necessary technology is available for achieving satisfactory solutions. My third reason is that I believe we have a God-given task of being good stewards of creation.

Let me explain what Christian stewardship of creation means. In the early part of Genesis, we learn that humans, made in God’s image, are given the mandate to exercise stewardship/management care over the earth and its creatures (Gen 1 v26,28 & 2 v15). To expand on what this means, I quote from a document ‘A Biblical vision for creation care’ developed following a meeting of Christian leaders at Sandy Cove, Maryland, USA held in June 2004.[11]

According to Scripture only human beings were made in the divine image (Gen. 1:26-27). This has sometimes been taken to mean that we are superior and are thus free to lord it over all other creatures. What it should be taken to mean is that we resemble God in some unique ways, such as our rational, moral, relational, and creative capacity. It also points to our unique ability to image God’s loving care for the world and to relate intimately to God. And it certainly points to our unique planetary responsibility. The same pattern holds true in all positions of high status or relationships of power, whether in family life, education, the church, or the state. Unique capacity and unique power and unique access create unique responsibility. Being made in God’s image is primarily a mandate to serve the rest of creation (Mk 10:42-45).

Only in recent decades have human beings developed the technological capacity to assess the ecological health of creation as a whole. Because we can understand the global environmental situation more thoroughly than ever before, we are in a sense better positioned to fulfill the stewardship mandate of Genesis 1 and 2 than ever before. Tragically, however, this capacity arrives several centuries after we developed the power to do great damage to the creation. We are making progress in healing some aspects of the degraded creation, but are dealing with decades of damage, and the prospect of long-lasting effects even under best-case scenarios. We cannot hide behind an earth that will not last or has no future. Jesus has promised to return to earth – earth redeemed and transformed.[12] In the meantime earth awaits, subject to frustration, that final redemption (Rom 8 v 20-22, Col 1 vv 15-20). Our task is to obey the clear injunction of Jesus to be responsible and just stewards until his return (Luke 12 v 41-48). Exercising this role of stewards provides an important part of our fulfillment as humans. In our modern world we concentrate so much on economic goals – getting rich and powerful. Stewardship or long-term care for our planet and its resources brings to the fore moral and spiritual goals. Reaching out for such goals could lead to nations and peoples working together more effectively and closely than is possible with many of the other goals on offer.

New Attitudes
Taking our Christian stewardship seriously demands new attitudes and approaches at all levels of society, international, national and individual. An example of such an attitude is that of ‘sharing’. At the individual level, a lot of sharing often occurs; at the international level it occurs much less. Perhaps the most condemning of world statistics is that the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer – the flow of wealth in the world is from the poor to the rich. Although the amount of aid to the developing world has increased substantially in recent years, if aid and trade are added together, it remains the case that the overwhelming balance of benefit is to rich nations rather than poor ones. Nations need to learn to share on a much larger scale. We often talk of the ‘global commons’ meaning for example air, oceans or Antarctica – by definition these are ‘commons’ to be shared. But more ‘commons’ need to be identified. For instance, there are respects in which Land should be treated as a resource to be shared or fish and other marine resources. Or, in order for international action regarding climate change to be pursued, how are allowable emissions from fossil fuel burning or from deforestation to be allocated? How do we as a world share these natural resources between us and especially between the very rich – like ourselves – and the very poor?

The FCCC has soon to start negotiations including all countries regarding allocations of carbon dioxide emissions. One proposal is that the starting point is current emissions, so that it is reduction levels from the present that are negotiated. That is called ‘grandfathering’. Another proposal by the Global Commons Institute called ‘Contraction and Convergence’[13] is that from some future date – for instance, 2030 or 2050 – emissions should be allocated equally per capita with transfer of allocations allowed through trading. The logic and the basic equity of the second of these is in principle quite compelling – but is it achievable? Sustainability will never be achieved without a great deal more sharing. Sharing is an important Christian principle. John the Baptist preached about sharing (Luke 3 v11), Jesus talked about sharing (Luke 12 v33), the early church were prepared to share everything (Acts 4 v32) and Paul advocated it (2 Cor 8 v13-15). The opposite of sharing – greed and covetousness – is condemned throughout scripture and is explicitly forbidden by the last of the Ten Commandments.
To achieve sharing in practical terms requires a means of accounting for each person’s or nation’s share. This, in turn, implies goals or targets at which to aim. All commercial companies engage in carefully thought out, realistic, target setting so as to assist in ensuring business success. Targets are needed at all levels of society – international, national, local and personal. Many examples exist of international targets that have been agreed. Within the UN FCCC, targets have been set within the Kyoto Protocol. Discussions are beginning about internationally agreed targets for later dates that must involve all major countries. In the meantime, some countries or states (e.g. the UK and California)[14] have set real or aspirational targets of their own.

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development at Johannesburg in 2002, some new targets were established for example, to halve the proportion of people without access to clean water and basic sanitation by 2015; to use and produce chemicals by 2020 in ways that do not lead to significant adverse effects on human health and the environment; to maintain or restore depleted fish stocks to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield on an urgent basis and where possible by 2015; to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction in the current rate of loss of biological diversity. Many felt these targets were too vague or too weak. But at least they have provided something rather than nothing to aim at.
One aspect of sharing, the importance of which is increasingly recognized by agencies concerned with aid and by others, is not just to share our food or other goods with the third world but to share our skills, for instance in science and technology. I give you one example from my experience as a Trustee of the Shell Foundation,[15] a large charity set up by the Shell company particularly to support the provision of sustainable energy in poor countries. In general, this is not being done through grants for individual projects. It is often said that it is better to provide a hungry man with a fishing rod than with a fish. It is even better to find someone who will set up a fishing rod factory! So the Foundation’s programs are increasingly concerned with the creation of local enterprises and the loan financing to enable them to get started. Examples of such enterprises are some that build and market simple efficient stoves using traditional fuels that will substantially reduce the amount of fuel that is used and also reduce indoor air pollution with the serious damage to health that it causes, and others that provide sustainable and affordable energy to poor communities often from the use of readily available waste material (e.g. rice straw in China, coconut shells in the Philippines etc). The potential for the multiplication of such projects is large. An aim of the Foundation is to catalyze other bodies and agencies in the creation of mechanisms for the large scale-up of such programs so that they can become significant on a global scale both in the provision of energy to poor communities and also in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

These new attitudes are not just to provide guidance to policy makers in government or elsewhere. They need to be espoused by the public at large. Otherwise government will not possess the confidence to act. For the public to take them on board, the public have to understand them. To understand, they have to be informed. Christian churches could play a key role in the propagation of new attitudes based on accurate and understandable information. Christian communities in the world should rise to the challenge, take the high ground and demonstrate Christian stewardship in effective action. A particular imperative is to express our care for God’s creation, our love for God and our neighbor (wherever he may be) by leading the way in more equitable sharing of the world’s resources.
We, in the developed countries have already benefited over many generations from abundant fossil fuel energy. The demands on our stewardship take on a special poignancy as we realize that the adverse impacts of climate change will fall disproportionately on poorer nations and will tend to exacerbate the increasingly large divide between rich and poor.

When I speak on this subject, my wife always reminds me to indicate the actions that individuals can take. There are some things that all of us can do. For instance, when purchasing vehicles or appliances we can choose ones that are fuel efficient; we can ensure our homes are as energy efficient as possible; we can purchase our electricity from a ‘green’ supplier guaranteeing that it is from renewable sources; we can use public transportation, car-share more frequently or travel less. Also we can support leaders in government or industry who are advocating or organizing the necessary solutions. To quote from Edmund Burke, a British parliamentarian of 200 years ago, ‘No one made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do so little.’

In conclusion, I much like the symbol of the Celtic Cross, the cross of Jesus surrounded by a circle denoting the world, illustrating that the redemption Jesus accomplished includes not only humans but the whole of creation.[16] And we humans have the responsibility of being stewards of God’s creation until Jesus returns. In a parable about stewardship in Luke 12, Jesus instructs his disciples ending with the clear message, ‘Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.’[17] The challenge to all of us is unmistakable and daunting. But we also have the assurance that we do not have to act on our own. As God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden in the Genesis story, so he will come alongside us to help us as we seek to do his work here on earth.

[1] Kenneth Boulding was Professor of Economics at the University of Colorado, sometime President of the American Economics Association and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His article, ‘The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth’ was published in 1966 in ‘Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy’ pp 77-82.
[2] See, for instance, UNEP, ‘Global Environmental Outlook 3’,pp 446, Earthscan Publications, London 2002
[3] the range represents different assumptions about emissions of greenhouse gases and about the sensitivity of the climate model used in making the estimate.
[4] Myers, N., Kent, J. 1995. Environmental Exodus: an emergent crisis in the global arena. Climate Institute, Washington DC.
[5] Climate Change 2001 in four volumes, published for the IPCC by Cambridge University Press, 2001. Also available on the IPCC web site My book, John Houghton, Global Warming: the complete briefing, 3rd edition, Cambridge University Press, 2004 is strongly based on the IPCC reports.
[6] See web site of Royal Society of London,
[7] the USA is the main developed country that has failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. US emissions of carbon dioxide in 2010 are projected to be over 25% greater than in 1990.
[8] see energy review by government strategy unit,
[9] for more information about energy futures see my Prince Philip Lecture to the Royal Society of Arts, May 2005, entitled ‘Climate Change and Sustainable Energy’ available on the John Ray Initiative website,
[10] see for instance J Hansen et al in Sciencexpress for 28 April 2005 / 10.1126/science.1110252
[11] from an unpublished statement ‘Biblical Vision for Creation Care’ prepared by participants at a conference of Christian leaders at Sandy Cove Maryland, USA in June 2004.
[12] N.T.Wright – ‘New Heavens and New Earth – the Biblical Picture of Christian Hope’ No B11, Grove Books
[14] The UK target has already been mentioned. Governor Schwarzenegger of California has proposed a target reduction for carbon dioxide of 80% by 2050.
[16] cf John 3 v 16 – ‘God so loved the cosmos…’; Romans 8 v 20-21; Colossians 1 v20.
[17] Luke 12 v 48 AV.
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