United Dioceses of Dublin & Glendalough



“We are the Last Generation that can Tackle Climate Change – We Need a Theological and Ethical Approach”

“All humanity has a common responsibility but we have to share the burden in terms of who contributes.”
“We are the Last Generation that can Tackle Climate Change – We Need a Theological and Ethical Approach” - “All humanity has a common responsibility but we have to share the burden in terms of who contributes.”
Charlotte Olhausen, Prof John Sweeney, Dr Cathriona Russell, Dr Lorna Gold, Archdeacon Andrew Orr and Caoimhe Leppard (organiser).

The stark and uncomfortable facts about climate change and the role of faith communities in tackling it was the subject of a fascinating seminar organised by the Church and Society Commission of the Church of Ireland last week. Hosted by Archbishop Michael Jackson and Archdeacon Andrew Orr, chair of Eco–Congregation Ireland, the seminar took place in Trinity College’s Science Gallery in Dublin.

Among the faith communities and organisations represented at the event were the Church of Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church the Islamic Cultural Centre, the Methodist Church including the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Revd Dr Laurence Graham, Bishops’ Appeal, the Irish Council of Churches, Christian Aid and Dublin City Interfaith Forum.

During the morning Professor John Sweeney, Emeritus Professor of Geography at Maynooth University talked participants through the science of climate change, Dr Lorna Gold of Trócaire highlighted the importance of joining the dots on climate justice and Dr Cathriona Russell, Dungannon and Beresford Assistant Professor in Theology at TCD looked at theology and environmental ethics in changing climate.

Introducing the seminar, Archbishop Jackson said that as Christians we are called to balance as well as enthusiasm and called to home and to voice hope with those who have none.

“Climate Change Awareness ties in directly with the call to the avoidance and the eradication of selfishness; with the call to more equitable distribution; with the recognition that Western–style consumer choice is not sustainable in the havoc it plays with eco–systems and human survival in the places of origin of the raw materials of the consumerism and the energy we long ago claimed as an entitlement. We who live this style of life must also be aware that, in terms of the values of community and simplicity, of unclutteredness and rhythm, we can and must always learn from those who have less than we have at the very point when we want more and more,” the Archbishop stated.

“God is perpetually revealing God’s self. Science is itself a revelation of what is. Hope is a virtue vital to our generation and The Letter to The Romans tells us forcefully that hope is in the things not seen. (Romans 8.24) Let us then pursue all that makes for hope for all of the creation,”  he added.

Setting the scene on the issue, Professor John Sweeney said that there are natural changes in our climate. However, these natural changes occur over a long period of time and are driven by natural cycles. He said the key changes over the last century were not due to natural cycles but due to the dominant effect of greenhouse gases as a result of human activity.

The increasing level of greenhouse gases is resulting in increasing the warmth of the planet and as a result 2017 was the warmest non El Nino year on record, he said. “We live in exceptional times … We have changed the atmosphere radically over the last 50 or 60 years,” he stated.  He pointed out that carbon dioxide is invisible and suggested that if it was visible, for example in the way plastic is, more action would be taken to reduce emissions.

Ireland is the third worst producer of greenhouse gases – made up of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen oxides – in the EU, producing 160,000 tonnes every day. Professor Sweeney pointed out the huge inequity of climate change – the people most affected by the results of climate change are not those who cause the problem. “Ireland is emitting more greenhouse gases than 400 million of the poorest people in the world,” he stated.

He outlined some of the outcomes of climate change in the future: areas which get a lot of rainfall now will get more; areas will less rainfall will get less; in semi arid areas the rains will become more unreliable; people living close to sea level will experience salinized water supplies; cultures will be extinguished; people will be displaced; other parts of the world will experience greater extremes such as bigger hurricanes (greater in magnitude rather than increased in number) and heatwaves will become more common.

In Ireland, he said, with just 0.5 degrees of warming most models suggest that the western half of Ireland will get wetter while the eastern half will get drier, leading to flooding in the west but water shortages in the east where most people live. Species will become extinct, water supplies will be contaminated due to flooding, railway lines will have to be relocated and there will be urban flooding.

“This is the cost of doing nothing on climate change. We are failing to meet our obligations on emissions and we will face fines which will be met by the general taxpayer, not the polluter. Farmers are regarded as the stewards of the landscape but our policy is taking them in the wrong direction… Ban Ki–moon said we are the last generation that can tackle climate change. We need a theological and ethical approach to tackling the problem,” he concluded.

Dr Lorna Gold of Trócaire said that Professor Sweeney’s presentation pointed to the sheer urgency of bending the arc of our emissions. “We are heading in the wrong direction. After 20 years of climate change agreements, that emissions trajectory is still heading upwards and as time passes the steepness of the descent becomes almost impossible,” she suggested. She said the urgency reflected the failure of our political systems which base reduced emissions on voluntary national commitments within a global economic system.

She said we are facing a question of incompatibility – the incompatibility of our economic models with solving climate change. “Our cultural system with our capitalist model is based on things that are incompatible with solving climate change,” she stated.

Dr Lorna Gold
Dr Lorna Gold

She said that there were a number of reactions to climate change but that the most important thing that we need to do is to change the story and put ourselves in the picture of what is happening. “This is in the lifetime of our own children. We do so much for our children but we don’t seem to be able to grasp this issue. Presenting climate change as an issue affecting our children and grandchildren – I wonder how we as parents and grandparents in 10 to 20 years’ time will deal with the remorse and shame of having known what was happening and not done anything about it?” she asked.

“As citizens, what are we demanding of our governments in terms of climate change? What are the new forms of citizenship we need to be advocating for? We are citizens of Ireland but climate change demands that we become citizens of earth,” she stated.

Dr Gold asked what it meant to be a person of faith at this time. Individual actions were important but communities also had a responsibility to come together to change. “As faith communities we have a responsibility to make our mark on the communities that we pastor and live amongst… Scientists are looking to faith communities for a response on an ethical, moral and cultural level,” she said.

She suggested that faith leaders could respond with a number of steps. They could enable safe spaces for deep conversations around climate change; practice what they preach and be the change that they want to see; preach what they practice – spread the word and help people to join the dots themselves; engage with national dialogue on climate action; and look at their own investments, for example divest from fossil fuels.

Citing Pope Francis’s Laudato Si, Dr Cathriona Russell, spoke of the intensified pace of life which was out of place with the naturally slow natural cycles. She suggested there that we need to think about stewardship, justice and contemplative theologies.

Stewardship is the least we should strive for, she stated. She said that the poor were often disproportionately blamed for issues like deforestation because they had to choose between forests or survival. “Either we favour humanity and our planet is degraded or we assume that we become like the other species. It’s not anti–human or anti–development. It’s a question of how we understand ourselves and creation,” she explained. She added that people must be regarded as capable agents who are capable of working out solutions for themselves.

On the issue of justice Dr Russell said the elephant in the room when discussing global warming and development was population. The rate of population growth was driven in part by development, particularly in relation to women who once they have access to education and careers tend not to have children as many children, as young. However, she suggested that while population growth mattered, the poorest areas with the largest populations contributed least to climate change.

“All humanity has a common responsibility but we have to share the burden in terms of who contributes,” she said. She said that people often look at justice in terms of equality. “We have tackled extreme poverty. If we want to move further then poverty alleviation is not enough… We need inequality alleviation if we want to drive change and conservation. We are aiming for a flourishing life for all from the point of view of injustice. That means acknowledging our past and understanding ourselves as capable agents and how we exercise this through just solutions and practical wisdom,” she said.

Dr Russell said there are main ways theologies engage with creation. She suggested we could tell new stories or imagine how we live on the planet differently, how we can live lightly on the planet and reconstruct the garden. She argued that we can engage with new technologies and transhumanism and mimic natural systems and that we must talk and listen to each other across the systems. We need to see the limits of natural choice theory and think more deeply about humans as capable agents and to realise we need polyactive approaches. There needs to be equality and a democratic transfer of technology, she stated.