Political organization, not light bulbs, key to climate fight says Bill McKibben


Bill McKibben founder of 350.org at Le Trianon, Paris coinciding with the climate summit, COP21. © Kristian Buus

Fighting climate change requires organization rather than individual actions, founder of 350.org Bill McKibben told this year’s Greenbelt festival's audience. Joe Ware reports.

Speaking at the festival near Kettering, England, McKibben admitted that despite the recent advances there was no guarantee that the climate fight would be won.

‘We need to go outside our comfort zones,’ he said. ‘Individual actions are no longer the most important thing to do. Solar panels and energy saving light bulbs are great, but I try not to fool myself that these are the solutions on their own. We need to tackle the structural causes, we need to organize.’

McKibben, also a Methodist Sunday school teacher, was one of the biggest draws of the festival, having spearheaded the victorious fight to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and the global fossil fuel divestment movement. He has also been a thorn in the side of institutions like the Church of England over their financial investments in the fossil fuel industry.

Unlike other social justice issues like gender equality and the civil rights movement where everyone knew the battle would be hard but eventually victorious, on climate change, he warned the deadline has been set by physics. Quoting Martin Luther King, who said the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice, he said: ‘The arc of the physical world is short and bends towards heat.’

He said that time was so short that individual lifestyle choices were no longer enough.

Citing the unlikely success of the Keystone XL campaign, which saw the proposed construction of an oil pipeline from the Canadian tar sands to America’s Gulf Coast blocked by President Obama, he said it showed what could be done when people organized and took on even the likes of giants such as the US oil industry.

Along with the rapidly falling costs of renewable technology, the climate movement was the thing that gave him hope of victory: ‘All we have to do is hold down the fossil fuel companies for a few more years so the surging tide of renewable energy can come in and cut the legs off the industry,’ he said.

‘There are people all over the world working out the battle plan, often in places that didn’t cause this problem in the first place. I look forward to fighting the battle shoulder to shoulder with you.’

An eclectic mix of headliners, the festival was an assortment of arts, ideas and social justice. Rubbing shoulders with the Most Rev Justin Welby were comics Josie Long and James Acaster, New Orleans’s Hot 8 Brass Band, humanitarian and former hostage Terry Waite and environmental activists Satish Kumar and Bill McKibben.

There was even the genre-bending musical satire of sibling duo Bourgeois & Maurice with their show How To Save The World Without Really Trying.

McKibben also paid tribute to UK researchers at the Carbon Tracker Initiative for being the first to identify the full extent of fossil fuel reserves and highlight that companies had enough on their books that if they were burnt the planet would be cooked.

Joe Ware is a journalist and writer at Christian Aid. Follow him on Twitter. Tickets for next year’s Greenbelt festival can be bought at greenbelt.org.uk.

Peddling pilgrims bike across Africa

peddling pilgrims

© Christian Aid

Joe Ware on the cyclists crossing a continent that is bearing the brunt of climate change.

Africa may not have much responsibility for climate change but it’s certainly feeling the brunt of it. So with the UN climate summit coming up soon a group of Africans have decided to cycle 6,500 kilometres across the continent to raise awareness of what’s happening there and hopefully focus minds for the Paris talks.

The epic trek began in Mozambique in southern Africa and will take them through 9 countries before reaching their destination in Nairobi, Kenya, on 15 November. The distance travelled is the equivalent of cycling from Sheffield to Manchester 100 times. The peddling pilgrims, 10 of whom are cycling the whole way, will be joined by many others at different points, including 74-year-old Victor Coutries. The septuagenarian, from Soweto, South Africa, describes his cycling as a physical act of prayer in response to a changing climate, saying recently: ‘When I was young, summer was summer; winter was winter. But now summer is like winter and winter is like summer. These days, when it rains, it can cause havoc.

‘The moment one cycles, people ask, “What is going on?” Then you can tell them about climate change. Cycling for me is like a prayer, showing that I am committed through taking action.’

He hopes his example will encourage others to follow suit, adding: ‘I cycle everywhere. I don’t like to use a car – I’m happier when I’m cycling. This is another important message of the campaign – we must rely on ourselves, not use the car all the time.’

Already the pan-African cycling caravan has had an impact in the countries through which it has passed. The president of Botswana, Tseletse Khama, even paid for a new bike for one of the group.

They hope their act of physical effort will also generate global awareness for their Act Now For Climate Justice petition, which will be presented to world leaders ahead of the UN summit at the end of November.

For Allen Namukamba, 35, lead cyclist for the Zambian stretch, his journey towards climate activism began when he quit producing and selling charcoal, a polluting fossil fuel, and became an environmental campaigner.

‘Government officials from the forestry department came and did some awareness raising in our community,’ he recalls. ‘I was convinced and quit. Now I speak to my community about the dangers. We barely have any rain and Lake Kariba is drying out. Many people are suffering and it is important to show people the connection with their economy, health and education. Everyone needs to care about the environment.’

As well as their local and international advocacy, the cyclists are also planting thousands of trees. In Botswana, one such tree was planted by Bishop Champion Malongwa, chair of the Botswana Council of Churches. ‘As a country we have serious water [shortages] and far-reaching environmental effects,’ the bishop explained. ‘I am now old, but my interest is to see that present and especially future generations do not suffer.’

Front cover of November 2015 issue of New InternationalistThe riders are currently in Malawi. Their petition can be found at actclimate.org.

Joe Ware is Church & Campaigns Journalist at Christian Aid. He is on twitter @wareisjoe

Find out what’s on the table at Paris in the November 2015 issue of New Internationalist.

Where climate change and the church come together

Rainbow above a church spire

Pierre Hurtevent under a Creative Commons Licence

At this year’s Greenbelt festival, among the beautiful trees and gardens of Boughton House in Northamptonshire, I got a sense of the growing and untapped power of the church to tackle climate change.

By no means an exclusively Christian festival – Greenbelt featured the political folk of the iconoclastic Grace Petrie alongside Muslim journalist and community organizer Abdul-Rehman Malik – Greenbelt lives up to its name as a place where faith, justice and the arts collide.

The range of issues addressed was broad. Former Deloitte management consultant Eve Poole discussed Capitalism’s Seven Toxic Assumptions, Christian theologian Noel Moules shared how the Bible and pagan belief overlaps around the idea of animism, and Jeff Halper, Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) examined what a bi-national democratic state of equal rights would look like in Israel  and the occupied Palestinian territory.

But one topic that kept rearing its head was the climate crisis and, encouragingly, I kept finding glimpses that the church is taking it seriously and may have a crucial role to play in tackling it.

Michael Northcott, Professor of Ethics at Edinburgh University and author of the Political Theology of Climate Change, told me that the perception of the chilly relationship between the church and the environment is actually a recent phenomenon.

He said: ‘The person who managed to secure the first National Park in Britain was actually an Anglican Canon, Hardwicke Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust.’

He added that long before the modern ‘eat local’ movement got started, Christian authors CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were discussing the merits of eating local and the positive aspects of the benevolent localized agrarian culture of hobbits. Northcott said Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, rich with Christian symbolism, is a book about those revelling in the destruction of the environment being defeated by those keen to conserve and restore it.

Discussing more recent development, he said: ‘Ethical investment, including the fossil fuel divestment movement, has in many cases been led by churches and universities. The Church of England has started to engage on this issue and has already divested from tar sands.’

Other places where the interchange between church and climate change emerged at Greenbelt was the launch of Christian Aid’s Big Shift campaign. A co-founder of New Internationalist Magazine, Christian Aid is turning its sights on the financing of fossil fuels, urging the world to leave energy like coal in the past where it belongs. Coal may have been all the rage before we realized its harmful effects and created new, cleaner energy sources, but now we know what we know, it’s our moral duty to urge governments and institutions to switch their investments to the energy sources of the future. Says Christian Aid’s Kit Powney: ‘Like floppy discs and three-wheeled cars, it’s time to leave dirty fossil fuels in the past.’

Also at Greenbelt was the launch of a new comedy play by talented troupe Riding Lights. Commissioned by the Church of England’s Diocese of Lichfield, Baked Alaska takes on the notoriously difficult challenge of communicating the urgency and importance of climate change in an entertaining and inspiring way. The show will be touring Britain from 16 September and if it can help bring the message of climate action to a new audience then it could be another example of the church helping to move the world in the right direction.

Joe Ware is Church & Campaigns Journalist at Christian Aid. Follow him on Twitter

10 signs that climate change success is coming


Garry Knight under a Creative Commons Licence

The battle to fend off the worst ravages of climate change and usher in a low-carbon world has been a long and difficult one. There have been more downs than ups in recent years.

Sluggish international political negotiations have failed to keep pace with the technological breakthroughs in renewable energy and the scientific and economic evidence for taking action against overbearing reliance on fossil fuels. There is much work to be done but it is clear that progressive momentum is finally building on a number of fronts.

1. The first of recent rumblings comes from an unusual source. The Oil Minister of the world’s largest exporter of crude oil, Saudi Arabia’s Ali al-Naimi, spoke in mid-May about how he could see the phase-out of fossil fuels by mid-century and said his country planned to become a global leader in solar and wind energy.

2. On 3 June, the world’s largest furniture retailer, IKEA, pledged $1 billion of climate finance, dwarfing amounts pledged by some entire countries.
The money would be split with $600 million in renewable energy investments putting the company on track to become energy independent. The other $400 million would go to help vulnerable communities affected by climate change, setting an example for national governments that they need to split their own finance contributions between mitigation-focused spending to reduce emissions, and adaptation to help at-risk countries.

3. The world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, Norway’s $890-billion pension fund, has just agreed to divest $10 billion of coal stocks, joining a global divestment movement turning its back on the most polluting fossil fuel.

4. On 8 June, a study by Lord Stern and the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics revealed that Chinese emissions could peak by as early as 2025, 5 years ahead of a government-agreed deadline of 2030.

5. On the same day, a poll by the International Trade Union Confederation showed that 9 out of 10 people around the world are demanding their elected leaders do more to tackle climate change.

6. In what was clearly a busy day for climate news, 8 June concluded with front-page headlines around the world as the G7 called for the decarbonization of the global economy by the end of the century and announced reform of the national energy systems of G7 nations.

7. Even the UN climate negotiations are showing progress, aiming to peak at the first fully global pact to begin addressing climate change at the COP21 meeting in Paris in December. Countries are in the process of submitting their ‘intended nationally determined contributions’, or INDCs, which will make up the Paris deal.

8. Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, said it would target a 64% reduction in its current emissions trajectory within 15 years. At the UN talks in Bonn, countries asked for the co-chairs of the negotiations for the Paris deal to provide a clearer agreement for ministers to work on, suggesting they are beginning to realize the need for more urgent progress.

9. This momentum is expected to continue this week with the publication of Pope Francis’ Papal Encyclical on the Environment on Thursday, which will likely argue that humanity’s exploitation of the planet’s resources has pushed the world to breaking point and make the case for an ethical and economic revolution to address climate change.

10. On Wednesday 17 June, people are urged to take part in the first mass lobby of Britain’s Parliament. Up to 10,000 people are expected outside Westminster in London to speak to MPs, urging them to make tackling climate change a government priority. The event is being organized by The Climate Coalition, consisting of more than 100 British organizations, from Christian Aid to Surfers Against Sewage, calling for a clean, safe and prosperous planet.

From oil-producing nations and furniture shops to economists and the Pope, the world is seemingly beginning to get on board the transition to a low-carbon world.

For details of Wednesday’s mass climate lobby, visit www.fortheloveof.org.uk/speakup.

Joe Ware is Church & Campaigns Journalist at Christian Aid.

Good for nothing – except procrastination

COP 20 discussions

Lots of talk, not much action at COP 20. UNClimatechange under a Creative Commons Licence

The climate summit in Peru dodged all the big issues. Now the clock is ticking, says Joe Ware

The countdown clock to the meeting that will set the course of the planet’s climate is now ticking. Twelve months and counting.

When heads of state meet in Paris in December next year to sign the long-awaited global climate deal, they will have a huge amount of work on their hands after dodging all the big issues at this month’s summit in Lima, Peru, which ended in the early hours of Sunday morning – 30 hours overdue.

This year has seen unprecedented momentum on tackling climate change. From the hundreds of thousands marching on the streets of New York and other cities to the surging divestment campaign which has seen universities, churches and other investors pull their investments in fossil fuel companies, including the historic US-China emissions cutting pact.

Despite this clear direction of travel, governments in Lima failed to respond and instead agreed to a weak deal which punts most of the big issues into next year. Although nationally determined emissions cuts have been agreed, nations haven’t introduced proper rules on assessing if these will be adequate to prevent dangerous global warming. Other crucial issues which will need to be part of any deal are the levels of climate finance and other support for vulnerable countries to help them adapt to a changing climate they did little to cause.

Because of their poor showing in Lima, governments will need to put a real shift in as we head toward Paris. What we need is an engaged and determined civil society holding their feet to the fire and reminding our leaders that for those on the front line of climate change, like the Typhoon victims of the Philippines, we can’t wait any longer.

The clock is ticking.

Joe Ware is a Church & Campaigns Journalist, Christian Aid.

Where faith meets an open mind


Jumping in puddles is compulsory at any festival. Nick Page under a Creative Commons Licence

As festivals go, there isn’t anything quite like Greenbelt. Part Occupy encampment, part faith gathering, part arts festival, it brings together a surprisingly eclectic mix of people and performers.  From the infectious sing-along political protest songs of Grace Petrie to the spiritual, meditative rhythms of the Taize community; from a thundering stump speech from Owen Jones to the measured tones of Lancaster University sociologist Linda Woodhead examining the crisis of religion in Britain – Greenbelt has it all.

The 41st  festival, which describes itself as ‘where arts, faith and justice collide’, was held for the first time in its new home in the woods and fields of Boughton House near Kettering. Having spent 15 years parked in the middle of Cheltenham Racecourse, the festival has returned to its roots with its new venue, which is in a completely greenfield site. Gone are the ubiquitous William Hill kiosks and horse statues, replaced with towering oak trees and an enchanting lake. A definite improvement.

This year’s theme was ‘travelling light’, which revellers carting armfuls of stuff from the distant car park no doubt wished they had done. Among the myriad topics being discussed, two prominent ones were on the environment and sexuality – or the greens and the gays, as one festival goer quipped.

Edinburgh University Professor of Ethics Michael Northcutt did a fine job expounding his political theology of climate change. Christian Aid Director Loretta Minghella urged people to engage their MP on climate change ahead of Britain’s general election next year in her talk ‘No Planet B’, while John Bell of Scotland’s Iona Community charted the damage caused to the environment by the Church’s doctrine of human dominion over the earth and the rise in creation-focused Christianity.

One of the biggest cheers of the weekend was received by Vicky Beeching, the evangelical Christian commentator and theologian who recently announced that she was gay. The standing ovation she received when walking out on stage to chair a discussion entitled ‘Can We Reimagine Marriage?’ was a touching moment.

There is always a satisfyingly international feel to Greenbelt and this year was no different, with contributors from all corners of the earth congregating in a Northamptonshire field. Mpho Tutu spoke movingly of her father’s legacy in South Africa, Filipino activist Lidy Nacpil shared stories of her country recovering from Typhoon Haiyan and the need for international action on climate change, and Saharan blues band Tinariwen brought the sounds of arid north Africa to the slightly damp revellers dancing in Monday’s rain showers.

The events of Gaza were not forgotten either. Not only was the site dotted with sculptures of large keys – a symbol of the Palestinian hope of return to their lands following the Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’, in 1948, there was also a discussion about how people in Britain can be part of ‘Kairos Communities’, an initiative encouraging the Christian community to stand in solidarity with those suffering in Israel and Palestine.

The biggest crowd of the festival went to iconoclastic activist/priest/musician Sinéad O’Connor, who packed out the glorious Glade Stage.

But Greenbelt isn’t really about the big names and the predictable; it’s about stumbling across the unknown and finding beauty in the unexpected.

Joe Ware is Church & Campaigns journalist at Christian Aid. 

A win for women in the Church of England

Chichester Cathedral

JohnPeasePhotography under a Creative Commons Licence

The Church of England’s General Synod is an odd place. The Parliament of the established Church, it has the look of a Conservative Party conference, albeit with the centre-left leanings of a Labour one. It’s packed with characters straight from ‘The Vicar of Dibley’; the room is dotted with cassock-wearing monks, quiet knitters and snoozing vicars defeated by the sweltering July heat (although bishops live-tweeting from their iPads are now also common). Somewhat unfairly there is the perception that this is the preserve of just the socks and sandals brigade.

As the decision-making body of the Church, Synod members wade through all sorts of obscure legislation. From debates about the vestments clergy are allowed to wear during services to the finances of the Archbishops’ Council. Many of the discussions are so impenetrable to the untrained ear it feels like a meeting of Dickens’ Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit. But also in there was an encouraging debate around the 'common good' and a vote in favour of calling on political parties to recognize the role of churches in sustaining the good of society.

Despite not containing the usual ingredients for a media frenzy, this year’s Synod was swamped with camera crews as the world waited to see if the Church of England would finally allow women to become bishops. As they filed in for the crucial vote on Monday, flustered Synod members had to run the gauntlet of microphone-wielding TV news reporters seeking quotes for their lunchtime bulletins.

Since the narrow no-vote in 2012, which came as a surprise and embarrassment to many, the Church has been keen for another crack at it. Before Monday, Britain remained one of the only nations in the world with a part of Parliament (the Bishops in the House of Lords) from which women were barred.

Girls’ and women’s rights are increasingly on the global agenda, whether it be outrage at the brutal rape and murder of girls in India or the violent opposition of female education by the Islamist Boko Haram.

The Church has a prophetic tradition of speaking up for the vulnerable and marginalized, which the prohibition of women from the top jobs made more difficult. To give it its due, many progressives within the Church have long been campaigning to bring about change. As recently as February, Synod passed a motion on the subject of gender-based violence. As with all of the big social justice movements in history, people of faith have been both at the forefront leading the way while also having to be dragged along behind. It was the Christian MP William Wilberforce who helped bring an end to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Baptist minister Martin Luther King who led the fight for civil rights in the US and Archbishop Desmond Tutu who helped end South African apartheid.

After a long and, at times, emotional debate, in which some people made painful sacrifices putting personal theological views aside for the sake of unity, the Church of England finally got over the line and threw open the doors of the top jobs for people of both sexes. The first women bishops will hopefully bring a new understanding of what it is to be an oppressed minority and so may be better able to include other voiceless groups in the Church.

It may have taken too long and the Church may have suffered damaging PR in the process, but the progress of gender equality has moved forward, one socked and sandalled step at a time.

Joe Ware is the Church & Campaigns Journalist at Christian Aid.

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