Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture

Climate change and hope: religion and ethics in the Anthropocene

22 Sep 2017

By Rt Rev'd Professor Stephen Pickard

Given that the 'science is in' as they say regarding the significance of climate change arising from global warming what may we hope for? Interestingly this question arises from within the world wide scientific community; from those whose expertise has led them to conclude that the current trajectory for the blue planet is rather bleak. There is a broad consensus in climate science that the trajectory the planet is on is a consequence of the impact of human influence on the environment via increasing carbon emissions over the past century and a half from the period of the industrial revolution. The experts inform us that the earth has passed a 'tipping point' and human kind have had a major role to play in a planetary future that will radically change the possibility for sustained life as we know it on earth. We have moved into what is termed the age of the Anthropocene; an age where the 7 billion human inhabitants on the late great planet earth, have emerged as the major influence in the fate of the earth. The result is that the earth's system appears recalibrated in such a way that the normal self regulatory ways in which the planet might have once readjusted itself to absorb the impact of various global phenomena no longer obtain. Something new has occurred and the new trajectory for the earth will no longer provide a home for life as we now know it.

The Paris Agreement regarding commitments to lower carbon emissions was never a quaint intellectual and political exercise to make people feel good about themselves. It arose out of deep concern for the impact of climate change and a recognition that humans have had the major hand in what is happening and will unfold. And the knowledge that the fate of the planet is very much a matter for responsible human action fills many of the scientific community with an existential angst.

The philosopher of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant had asked three fundamental questions: what can I know; what must I do; what may I hope for? It is the last question that is on the table today. Only a wilful blindness will refuse to address this question. What indeed might we humans hope for not simply for ourselves but our home on planet earth and the life it currently sustains? It is hardly an academic and esoteric question. It is a question for political and policy decision making; for fundamental attitudes to our way of life, especially for a greedy and acquisitive society where inequalities are growing; millions are migrating in search of a better life; and violence and war is closely related to changing climate patterns that alter economic and social conditions for the poorest. Such things are organically related and makes a nonsense of so much political speak about refugees identified as either economic or 'genuine' fleeing persecution. The wars and violence affecting so many of the poorest places in the world comes on the back of changing climate, prolonged droughts, water shortages, vast inequalities and injustices, and consequent destabilized political regimes. Things will only continue to deteriorate given the present circumstances with estimates of 150 million people migrating over the next two decades. Again the question of hope presses in on us.

It is against this background that the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in conjunction with the Public and Contextual Theology Research Centre and Faculty of Arts of CSU sponsored a colloquium recently on 'Climate change and hope: religion and ethics in the Anthropocene'. The gathering brought together people from the University and beyond from a range of disciplines: theology and biblical studies, philosophy, ethics, social sciences, Literature, science, education. The urgency and importance of the 'wicked problems' before us require trans-disciplinary conversations marked by intelligent, respectful listening and speaking. It was apparent from the colloquium that there is much more careful thought and engagement required and far more committed action at local, national and international levels. This note is struck in Pope Francis' justly famous recent Laudato Si on the challenge of climate change. Certainly there can be no 'cheap hope' of an escapist kind. But nor can we comfort ourselves with a fatalistic nihilism such that we 'live, eat and be merry for tomorrow we die'.

In the age of the anthropocene human agency and responsible action is paramount. Yet this begs the question of what grounds a hopeful engagement for the sake of the planet, its life and peoples, especially our grandchildren and their children. Underlying the variety of responses to climate change is a question about the status of the world. Is it a friendly place or fundamentally threatening? Is the earth now become, in the phrase of CSU Professor of Public Ethics Clive Hamilton, a defiant earth? Indeed, it was Hamilton's book of that title that was the catalyst for the colloquium. The opportunity to engage with Clive, one of Australian's leading public intellectuals proved how valuable and necessary such conversations are today; especially against the moral bankruptcy and political paralysis that bedevils our national engagement on the matter of climate change. In this context we need a more inclusive conversation beyond utilitarian and secular ethics; a conversation that includes many disciplines and religious traditions which draw from deep wells of accumulated wisdom about the earth, its life and peoples and the divine. In this context the story of the rising of Jesus leads to a hope that springs eternal. How that hope might contribute to a new social and political engagement with climate change and its consequences is an urgent issue for all peoples who love and care for this planet.