Prudence Dailey Commentary: The Church Needs to Stop Obsessing Over Climate Change

Prudence Dailey’s Commentary

The Church Needs to Stop Obsessing Over Climate Change

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously described the life of mankind in his natural state as ‘nasty, brutish, and short’. And so it was, for most of human history, for the great majority of the population; and even the wealthiest had no protection from the ravages of pain and disease.

Nowadays, however, most of us would not describe our lives in such dismal terms. We are likely to exceed the Psalmist’s three score years and ten, and to live most of our years in comfort and reasonable prosperity. An exponential rise in living standards, first in the West and now spreading around the globe, came as a direct result of the process of industrial revolution, including the invention of the internal combustion engine. Powered by fossil fuels, it has enabled us to enjoy such basic amenities as a heated home and a reliable electricity supply. 

It is difficult for us to imagine what life would be like without these necessities, although we have all perhaps experienced that sense of mild panic when we are faced with a power cut, or when the boiler breaks down. These inconveniences give us a brief taste of just how inhospitable the environment, unmediated by man’s resourcefulness, is to human life. They help us to understand why, in Genesis, God commands Adam to ‘have dominion’ over the earth, and to ‘subdue’ it—and to appreciate the almost miraculous extent to which, through his God-given ingenuity, Man has fulfilled that injunction.

At the same time, we are enjoined to remember that ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and all that therein is’. The world is God’s beautiful creation, and the only home we have, so we must care for it. For many decades, it was generally believed that the planet was too large for human activity to have a significant impact on it: it was only in the 1960s that scientists began to appreciate fully the extent to which we are capable of polluting the earth; and not until the 1990s did man-made climate change become a matter of widespread concern.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury calls for ‘repentance’ over climate change, for what, exactly, is he asking us to repent? For the fact that scientists have not, in the space of thirty years, managed to displace fossil fuels with alternative energy sources that are clean, reliable and economically viable? Or that others might aspire to the standard of living that he—with his six-bedroomed second home in Normandy—already enjoys?

As alluded to by your Editor in the previous issue, the Church of England at present seems completely obsessed with climate change. Not only have the Church Commissioners been charged with disinvesting from fossil fuels, but the General Synod has set a target for all churches to become carbon ‘net zero’ by 2030. Were this to be enforced, it would be a disaster: Parish churches can barely afford to keep the heating on, let alone replace working heating systems; and the alternative—dispensing with the heating altogether—would simply drive already dwindling congregations out of freezing churches.