Climate justice protestors holding placards.

Photo credit: World Council of Churches

WHEN Extinction Rebellion was being set up in the summer of 2018, Ekklesia was not quite as fast at getting on board as we could and should have been. Not because we didn’t see the urgency of the issues and the need for nonviolent direct action (NVDA, which we have always supported when appropriate), but because we had concerns about initial tone and approach.

Those issues weren’t a matter of ‘niceness’ in some bland way, but concerned effectiveness. Moving public opinion is a key part of shifting the opinion of politicians, and galvanising legislative and economic change. All that requires action which builds bridges rather than walls. By December 2018 we were definitely committed, and since then we have tried to message, speak and act in support of XR, the excellent Christian Climate Action, and our many other friends and allies in the environmental movement, of all faiths and none.

All of this is to say that it takes time to build a movement for change, and not everyone goes at the same pace. Equally, all allies and converts should be warmly welcomed. People can contribute in different ways. Nevertheless, NVDA, while not always welcome, is a vital component of the struggle to confront the Climate Emergency – which is, have no doubt, an existential threat to humankind and nature as a whole, not least the poorest and most vulnerable.

From 21 to 24 April people have been coming out onto the streets in their thousands to support The Big One, a mass mobilisation for climate action. Groups like Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain (which we also endorse) are involved in waves of disruption aimed at politicians, economic actors and the fossil fuel industry. So are expert campaign groups like Scientist Rebellion, Doctors for Extinction Rebellion, and Doctors for the Environment. Their activities can be far from popular. They can cause disruption to the public, are sometime designed to shock, and of course create particular ire within the tabloid and conservative press.  But the evidence is that they are necessary if we are serious about challenging, subverting and defeating the huge vested interests of the fossil fuel lobby.

Yesterday, on BBC Radio 4’s morning ‘Broadcasting House’ programme, a representative of the right-wing GB News channel tried to pour cold water on climate activists by suggesting that they are at one with ‘the establishment’. Because, after all, everyone is in favour of tackling climate change. So everyone chill, there is no need for protest or disruption.

Given the spokespeople for climate inaction (or worse, denial) who have appeared on GB News and similar outlets, that pitch seemed a bit rich. It is also dangerous nonsense. The whole rationale of NVDA right now is to highlight the fact that key decision-makers are good at talking, but still disastrously slowly in acting. All the evidence is that without radical change we are heading towards environmental disaster, and that without direct, public pressure, politicians and industry leaders will go on dragging their feet. Some still don’t get it. Activists are putting their bodies in the line because inaction is a death warrant.

Interestingly, no-one challenged this attempt on the BBC to dismiss climate campaigning as unnecessary, and presumably the Corporation (which also platforms dark money think tanks, remember) decided to have GB News on for ‘balance’ — though as has often been pointed out, ‘balancing’ information with disinformation or fact with error is not public service broadcasting, but the opposite of it.

Meanwhile, more bishops and church leaders (following the earlier example set by Rowan Williams and others a number of years ago) are now joining protests publicly. This is a good and welcome development. However it also highlights the gap between rhetoric, gesture and measurable action (especially financial action) when it comes to the investment approach of the Church of England, in particular.

C of E policies have undoubtedly moved in the right direction. But not nearly quickly enough, and with a sizeable slab of fudge, evasion and equivocation. The Church Commissioners have promised disinvestment from any fossil fuel companies “not aligned to the Paris agreement” by July 2023. An independent academic assessment undertaken by the Transition Pathway Initiative will determine which companies are aligned and those that are not, we are told.

But critics point out that this way of framing things enables companies to retain investment through words and ‘commitments’ demonstrably not matched by actions, and that there is a serious lack of clarity on what will really have happened by July. What is needed right now are moves now to disinvest from all fossil fuel companies, and to pressurise other industries to switch to renewables as soon as possible. This is also a massive transition task for government and local authorities which requires unprecedented levels of investment and planning. That is, for the large part, nowhere in sight.

It is good to see Church of England bishops joining those from other churches and faith groups (as well as many of no belief)  in supporting action against the climate catastrophe their country, and our world, faces. But that only strengthens the questions the C of E still needs to face about its actual actions and policies.

Condemning climate change while continuing to prop up the industries creating it is not good enough. Investment priorities should be switched to renewables and Just Transition as quickly as possible. After all, was it not Jesus who reminded his followers that “where your treasure is, there is your heart also”? We need decisive action from church leaders, not just symbolic gestures and words.

That, of course, goes for all of us, individually and corporately – though with particular attention to the small band of the super-rich. and the largest  transnational companies, who between them are responsible for the vast bulk of global emissions. The disparity between rich and poor nations is also huge.

Every one of us needs to address the question as to what we can do, and what we should stop doing. But the meta-issue is structural, economic and political. Momentous change is needed. How we organise, inform and prepare for that (and, in democracies, persuade people to vote for it before it is too late) is perhaps the biggest collective challenge we face right now. It is one deeply linked to wealth hoarding, inequality, conflict and forced migration, too.

One thing we can sure about is that without real pressure and action, too little will happen too late. As was also pointed out on ‘Broadcasting House’, the suffragettes are regarded as heroes these days. We even build statues to them. But at the time they were loathed by many, if not most, ‘right-thinking people’. That included bishops, by the way.

The despicable jailing of nonviolent protesters (three years for scaling a bridge peacefully) shows that the current UK Government and its allies will stop at nothing to suppress democratic protest and real change. Pushing back with our bodies as well as policies and alternatives is now a spiritual and moral, as well as political and economic, priority.


© Simon Barrow is director of Ekklesia. His new book, Against the Religion of Power: Telling a Different Christian Story, is due for publication in the summer of 2023. His columns can be found here (and archived ones here). Twitter: @simonbarrow