As climate change is affecting the poorest in our communities (both locally and globally) and those without a voice (future generations and animals and plant species) many Christians feel compelled to speak out for climate justice. Roundhay Churches meet MP

  • Hope for the Future provides resources and support to help your church and community speak with your MP about climate justice.
  • Christian Aid run ongoing climate justice campaigns.
  • Zero Carbon Yorkshire is an initiative to move the region to a low carbon economy. 

On a visit to Fiji over a year ago for the Regional Primates’ Meeting of the Oceania Region, I saw how climate change has already begun to impact the lives of local people. One of them told me, and these are words I will never forget, "For you Europeans, climate change is a problem for the future. For us it is a problem of everyday survival".
Archbishop Justin Welby

While some Christians are called to work collaboratively on climate action with local councils, businesses and community groups, God prompts others to protest. Rev Jon Swales explains why scriptural reflection on the climate crisis prompted him to take part in the Extinction Rebellion protests in Leeds:

Why would a vicar join the Extinction Rebellion protests in Leeds?Rev Jon Swale at the Extinction Rebellion protest

On July 15th Extinction Rebellion activists drove a boat onto Victoria Bridge on Neville Street in Leeds city centre, closing off the road to cars. Once the boat had been secured, they proceeded to camp on the site until Friday July 19th. Throughout the week they sought to engage the wider public through workshops on the climate emergency, training sessions on non-violent direct action and handing out free food whilst entertaining passers-by with music.

Their message was simple: the UK government needs to act now to prevent the climate crisis from getting even worse.

I, along with several other Christians including Rev'd Ruth Newton decided to join them.  My decision to be involved came after several months of deep reflection on the latest climate science and asking myself what allegiance to Jesus means in this context.   (See the St George's website for a sermon series on the Book of Revelation I preached in June, exploring the topics of climate change, empire and allegiance)

With a disturbing sense of call I joined with Extinction Rebellion and was prepared, if  needs be, to face arrest if the police made the decision to clear the area. It turned out that no arrests were made but I’m grateful for the opportunity as a  Church Leader to participate in print, radio and tv interviews about the issue of climate change. 

Dr Simon Kittle, a fellow protester and friend, summarises the urgency of the issue, 

'The situation is dire. More significantly, the situation is no mere environmental crisis: it is a matter of societal, economic and political justice. 

In 2015 at a UN climate summit in Paris, 197 countries made a commitment to do what they could to limit global warming to an average of 1.5 degrees C, agreeing that a 2 degree increase would be “catastrophic” for our planet. Sadly, our governments have failed to adequately honour this agreement and four years on, we are headed towards a global warming of 3.3 degrees, according to Climate Action Tracker. These temperature rises may sound small, but given that they refer to average surface temperature rises for the entire planet, the effects are enormous. 

With “just” 2 degrees of warming by 2100, for example, studies suggest global per capita GDP would be down 13%, while global crop yields would be down 9%. With 3 degrees warming, annual crop yields could be down as much as 20%, the tropics would have expanded north by 120 miles, southern Europe would likely experience constant drought, and large parts of Rio, Osaka, Shanghai, Miami, Alexandria and many other coastal cities would end up underwater. 

Climate Central, a US-based non-profit, estimates that 275 million people currently live in areas that will be flooded with a rise of 3 degrees. However long before that, hundreds of millions will have been forced to migrate due to drought and extreme weather conditions such as hurricanes and tsunamis: that’s an estimated 143 million climate refugees by 2050, according to the World Bank and 200 million. according to the UN (and these figures are towards the lower end of the estimates).These are just some of the projected damaging effects of climate change."

Given this I do not see how  Extinction Rebellion can be faulted for reading too much into the science. The situation we face is, as Justin Welby has said, “an existential problem for the entire global community in a way that nothing else is”. 

The scriptures speak of justice being at the heart of God (Isaiah 61:8) and therefore Justice ought to be at the heart of christian reflection and action. As Extinction Rebellion recognise, this issue is one of justice: it is predominantly the rich, Western countries which have caused climate change, while it is the developing nations that suffer the brunt of its effects. Western countries also have the resources to blunt the effects they suffer from climate change, whereas many countries in the Global South do not have this privilege. 

But what about Extinction Rebellion’s methods? They argue that the government has broken the social contract because it has failed and is failing to take the problem seriously and has failed and is failing to protect its citizens. As a result, Extinction Rebellion advocate a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience. Is this justified? Should I and other Christians and Church Leaders be joining them? Should the Church be voicing support?

While these are tough questions, some things are clear. In what John Dear describes as “the boldest political event in the entire Bible”, Jesus overturned the tables in the temple, and in so doing, performed a symbolic, non-violent act of civil disobedience which served as a rebuke to a systemic injustice that exploited the poor and erected a human-made barrier between people and God. Jesus then proceeded to teach the crowds: to speak truth to them.

The Church commissioned by Jesus is called to the same. Called to love her neighbours and care for God’s creation by challenging injustice, and, alongside this, to exercise a prophetic call to speak the truth. In our times this means  exposing the dehumanising tendencies of Western culture (consumerism, unrestrained capitalism and individualism) and stirring imaginations for a society in which all can flourish.  

The climate crisis is an emergency. Given that, perhaps the time is coming, or now is, when the Church should act. Not as cheerleaders or chaplains for the political and economic status quo, with its vested interests in the stranded assets of the fossil fuel companies. But rather as followers of the Lamb, who will join with others in raising the alarm about the ongoing climate catastrophe whilst simultaneously resisting the seductions of the consumerist lifestyle many of us see as normal.

 As Rowan Williams reflected in response to Extinction Rebellion, “it might just work; it might allow a new space and a new imagination to flower in the face of incipient tragedy”. 

Rev. Jon Swales
Lighthouse Mission Priest, St George's Church, Leeds

The Right Reverend Rowan Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, speaks out about Extinction Rebellion

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