A can-do approach to climate change

By Giles Fraser
13 Nov 2009

In a few weeks time, the fateful UN climate-change summit in Copenhagen will take place. There is a mounting sense of urgency. We are in a race against time to save the planet. The consequences of failure would be disastrous. What is at stake here is nothing less than the survival of the human race as we know it.

It is hard to dispute the facts. Industrialisation has increased the world’s temperature by something like 0.75 per cent, and is set to increase it by roughly the same amount again, as the consequences of past carbon-dioxide emissions make themselves felt. We have known about the rising temperature for a couple of decades, but have done little to stop the production of more and more carbon dioxide.

Most scientists now think it impossible to hold the temperature rise at two per cent. Then the ice will melt and the sea will rise and swallow millions of square miles of land. The central part of the world will turn into a desert, pushing people further north and south. Untold numbers of bird and animal species will be made extinct. Wars will be fought over dwindling resources. Our grandchildren will live in a world unrecognisable to us today.

So why is the climate-change campaign failing to change hearts and minds? Or perhaps it is chang­ing hearts and minds (we all do our little bit: recycling, green toothpaste, and so on), but is failing to affect our fundamental thirst for energy which drives the deeper changes that are taking place. Why?

One explanation is that many climate-change campaigners sweat gloom about the future. That hardly gives them a Henry V leadership style. It can sometimes seem as if their message is that if we try extremely hard, then we can just about stop any more changes. In other words: let’s make huge sacrifices in order to make nothing happen. With that message, it is hard to imagine how you might persuade someone to get out of bed.

At Lambeth Palace last fortnight, religious leaders got together to press a different message. We are the generation that is being called on to be heroes, to make a difference, to save the planet. Now that is the right emphasis.

The climate-change campaign needs a sense of can-do enthusiasm. It would be really something if that was what faith leaders were able to add to the mix: replacing gloomy defeatism with a secularised version of something we call hope.

Moreover, we may find that those who have sneered at the very idea of salvation will come to see the importance of this type of language. A biblical-sounding crisis requires a language and a philosophy commensurate with the size of the threat.

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© Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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