by Dr Richard Smith
Sermon – All Saints Floreat UC, Perth, Sunday, 13th September 2020
Old Testament Reading
Ecclesiastes – Epilogue
(Trans. Lloyd Geering),
New Testament Reading
Matthew 19:16-24 Rich Young Ruler
The Moral Challenges of Climate Change
In 2007 the Prime Minister declared Climate Change to be ‘The Greatest Moral Challenge of our Generation’. At the time, I was working in Indonesia on the application of Satellites from Space to detect the illegal clearing of rainforests for our much-loved Palm Oil. It was part of an Australian plan to buy Carbon Credits under the Kyoto protocol to offset our nations emissions. We were part of a United Nation program called REDD for Reduction in Emissions by Deforestation and Degradation for which we developed the satellite technology. The Indonesians balked at its implementation and the REDD initiative collapsed into a seeming ‘Murder Mystery’. What had collapsed were the religious values of honesty and integrity – the vital social pillar of sustainability.
Five years ago, Pope Francis’s Encyclical Laudato Si – ‘On Care for our Common Home’,
called on all people of the world to take “swift and unified global action” to address the
Climate Crisis. In 2017, the national Synod of the United Church of Christ in America (of the Congregational tradition) passed a motion naming the climate crisis as “an opportunity for which the church was born”. Our WA Synod employed environmentalist, Jessica Morthorpe to lead our young people into this brave new era with her five-leaf program of sustainability.
These were encouraging signs.
Our Jewish scriptures tell us of the moral crises faced by the Hebrew people; of escaping slavery in Egypt, building a United Kingdom under King David and rebuilding their nation after the Babylonian conquest and exile. These three historical streams, evolved into the great Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Separate, was the Wisdom stream of writings, recording not history, but human experience and knowledge from which we are still gaining insights into the human predicament. It is in this stream scholars place the authentic parables and sayings of Jesus.
From this Wisdom stream, Science from the Latin scientia to Know, would emerge, leading to the discovery of the Earth as a unique self-creating entity, with life developing by Evolution through processes of chance and human purpose. This new way of seeing Earth, is called Nature (from the Latin – natura for birth). As I celebrate entering my 78th year, I reflect on my own origins, resulting from the romance of my parents and the act of good luck of being conceived in the middle of WW2.
The first lesson we learn from our Scriptures is the importance of Sustainability. In Leviticus 25:23 The Lord reminded the Hebrews ‘… the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. For Aboriginal people: ‘The Land owns us, and not we the Land’, reflecting their sacred duty to care for the land and hand it back in the same condition in which it had been given.
A year ago, we were reminded of this truth of sustainability when some 6 million young
people worldwide protested at the inter-generational inequity of global warming. These
protestors were our grandchildren’s generation who will see the end of the 21st Century and the full fury of climate change, unless we act. Jesus reminds us that ‘the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these’ (Mark 10:13-16).
The second lesson we learn is from Ecclesiastes to ‘Stand in awe of Nature and do what it requires of you. For everything we do Nature will bring to judgement …whether it be good or evil’. Nature’s Laws exist to maintain the integrity of life on Earth and show no mercy – for example if we defy Nature’s law of gravity, we will come off the worse for wear. If Nature’s laws are disobeyed, we are warned we will suffer the consequences for 7×7 generations (Gen 4:13-15, 23). But, Nature as Jesus reassured his disciples also offers us unlimited generosity and mercy through the gift of life, means of sustaining it, and enriching it with unlimited beauty and love (eg. Matt. 6: 25-34). Such Wisdom of seeing God in Nature resulted in Dutchman Baruch Spinoza in the17th Century, being banished from the Jewish Community and declared a Heretic. Albert Einstein who believed in Spinoza’s God, recognised the mutual importance of Science and Religion saying: ‘Science without Religion is Lame and Religion without Science is blind’. He also said ‘God is a Mystery, but a Mystery that can be understood’.
A third lesson we learn from scripture is the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue of biblical principles relating to ethics and worship, fundamental to both Judaism and Christianity (Exodus 20:2–17 and Deut. 5:6–17) and the ethical cradle of Western Civilisation. On coming to Jesus, The Rich Young Ruler understood these commandments in their prescriptive form, but Jesus told him the principles they embodied, required him to share his wealth with the poor (Matt. 7:12). Climate Change is a similar dilemma. It is caused by the lifestyle of the Rich like us, without realising that the climate impact of our emissions falls disproportionally on the Poor on the other side of the world. Therefore, most of us probably have no sense of having a moral obligation to reduce our emissions.
Our current Prime Minister on return from Fiji, where he had been asked to take more
action on Climate Change to save the Pacific islands from rising sea-levels, responded that since Australia contributed only 1.3% of global emissions it was doing enough. I frequently hear the same argument. However, he conveniently excluded scope 3 emissions that come from Australia’s export of Coal and Liquified Natural Gas, which brings our contribution to 5% annually.
The fourth lesson we learn is from the wisdom of Jesus as the Way and the Truth (John
14:6), from which flows the truths of Climate Science. We are in a Post-Truth world, which like Alice in Wonderland who on falling down the rabbit hole, found the truth is ‘whatever I choose it to mean’. This post-truth world we now live in, has captured the right and left of politics and is acted out daily by in Parliament. Some independents are the exception.
The first propositions of science are acts of faith, that should never violate reason or be
unreasonable – otherwise they become ignorant superstitions of the Post-Truth world.
Science is a community activity requiring the highest standards of honesty (eg. 9th
Commandment), enforced by the peer review of evidence supporting a theory based on the balance of probabilities. COVID-19, is teaching us in a brutal way the importance of science, the scientific method and public communication of the science and its uncertainties. Also the importance of the Golden Rule.
So what does Science teach us about the Climate Crisis?
- Over many millennia plants removed Carbon from the atmosphere (CO2) by
photosynthesis, storing it, in and under the Land and Ocean, raising the level of Oxygen in the atmosphere from 15% during the time of the Dinosaurs, to the present 21%, so we big brained animals could survive, thrive and dominate the Earth. For those climbing Everest and not fully acclimatised, an oxygen content of 15% is known as the Death Zone.
- Climate change began with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, some 200 years
ago, when the burning of fossil fuels began emitting CO2 back into the atmosphere beyond what the Land or Ocean could reabsorb. The Industrial Revolution has delivered us wealth, comforts and electronic gadgets beyond all imaginings, bringing billions of people out of ignorance, slavery and poverty. But by the end of the 19th Century, scientists had raised the red flag, that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from burning fossil fuels could increase temperatures by 5°C. We are progressing well in fulfilling this prediction made over 120 years ago, having failed to take notice of the red flag.
- Despite these warnings, scientific theories need empirical data to prove their
validity. Such data was slow in coming, because for the first half of the 20th Century the world descended into the madness of two World Wars, fought over how this massive and expanding wealth from fossil fuels should be shared among the peoples of the Earth. Finally, the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stopped this madness and enforcing the Long Peace from the fear of MAD – mutually assured destruction.
- This ‘The Long Peace’ enabled young scientist Charles Keeling to venture into the
middle of the Pacific Ocean away from industrial pollution, to set up instruments to
measure atmospheric CO2. The data revealed the Earth was alive, with CO2 rising in the northern spring and falling in the autumn, but each year the CO2 was rising at an accelerating rate. The Keeling Curve is one of the great revelations of modern Climate Science.
- The CO2 was rising but was it warming the planet as predicted? It took another 40 years to assemble and analyse temperature data for the last 1,000 years. The result was Michael Mann’s Hockey Stick graph which ignited the post-truth Climate Wars.
- Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a practising Christian, realising the significance of the Hockey Stick would declare ‘Climate Change the Greatest Moral Challenge of our generation.’
- The weather is always changing and we have little awareness of our Warming Globe,
because 93% of the energy impinging on the Earth, is absorbed by the Oceans. Already 20% of the Corals that live in the Ocean have been wiped out. As the ocean heat is redistributed around the world, we experience the impacts in terms of extreme weather-related events such as storms, bushfires, droughts etc. many of catastrophic proportions – as is occurring in the Western USA at the moment and last year in south-eastern Australia.
- Proclaiming the Truth in a Post-Truth world is the opportunity for which the Church was born. So, what can we do? Inform ourselves, switch to renewable sources of energy, live simply so others might simply live, plant trees and lobby Government to tax carbon emissions, using the funds to compensate the poor and educate the public using imagery from the many satellites in the sky.
Young climate activist Greta Thunberg understood the imperative well: ‘Where there is Action, Hope Abounds’.