“Jam Tomorrow?”: Reflections on the COP 21 Paris Conference by Rev Dr John Weaver

As the White Queen offers Alice, is the Paris agreement an offer of ‘jam to-morrow’?

Rev Dr John Weaver

COP 21 sought to build on the agreement of the COP 17 ‘Durban Platform’, 2011 for a comprehensive global commitment to establish a legally binding international treaty in 2015 to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and to establish the Green Climate Fund to deliver finance and technology to developing countries for clean energy economies.

COP 21 also recognised the need to protect human rights and ecosystems, to safeguard food security, and to manage the world forests in a sustainable way. It sought to hold global warming below 2 deg C above pre-industrial levels, preferably to 1.5 deg C; to increase the ability of countries to adapt to climate change, and to pursue transformation toward sustainable development in low GHG emission societies and economies. There is recognition that the world’s least developed countries face the greatest threat from climate change as their infrastructure is too fragile to cope with extremes of weather, and they lack the technology to develop low emission power.

The science is unequivocal and all delegates accepted that the situation the world faces is urgent. 2014 was the warmest year on record and 2015 is warmer. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has exceeded 400ppm and the average global temperature has risen to 1.01 deg C above the pre-industrial temperature. The results of global warming are seen around the world, for example in the rising sea levels for the Pacific islands, water shortages for power generation and irrigation of crops in Malawi and Nepal, drought and fire risk in California and Australia. Anthropogenic Climate Change is also likely to have contributed to intense weather events in various parts of the world such as the Philippines and for the UK most recently storm ‘Desmond’ in Cumbria.

There have been high hopes expressed in the lead up to and during the discussions in Paris, and there is no doubting the historic first step that the final agreement by 195 countries represents to stave off the worst effects of catastrophic global warming. It is the culmination of over 20 years of UN climate talks and has seen all countries agree to reduce emissions, promise to raise $100bn a year by 2020 to help poor countries adapt their economies, and accept a zero emissions target by later this century. Economist Lord Nicholas Stern commented that this ‘is a historic moment, not just for us but for our children, our grandchildren and future generations.’ However, Bill McKibben, founder of environment movement 350.org, said ‘the power of the fossil fuel industry is reflected in the text of the agreement, which drags out the transition to clean energy so far that endless climate damage will be done.’ His comment reflects the predominance in the agreement of vague words, ‘resolves’, ‘recognises’, ‘urges’, ‘emphasises’, ‘affirms’, ‘takes account of’, all of which lack a legally binding commitment. But then we may ask, could any global agreement be legally enforceable?

The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions ((INDC) indicate the commitment of countries around the world, but these commitments would result in a 2.7 deg C rise by 2100 with accompanying significant and dangerous climate impacts. Therefore it was agreed that these commitments be reviewed and increased every 5 years. Alongside a vital part of the agreement is commitment to the Green Climate Fund to aid adaption to climate change for poorer nations. There is an agreed call for transparency in the review processes for INDCs and for contributions to the Green Climate Fund. The recognition of the importance of justice in the negotiations and their implementation has been refreshing.

However there has been disappointment expressed at the perceived hypocrisy in the UK government’s approach to reducing its GHG emissions. While Prime minister, David Cameron, has made a passionate call for action, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne has scrapped a £1bn fund for a demonstration plant to capture carbon dioxide from a power station and store it underground, which was a major pillar of UK climate policy. This came in addition to the reduction in subsidies for renewable energy and the diverting of money from the normal aid budget to fund the climate finance to developing countries.

These economic austerity-based cuts contrast with the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney’s speech to Lloyds of London on 29th September 2015. He saw climate change as the most urgent problem, and stated that shifts in our climate bring potentially profound implications for insurers, financial stability and the economy.

In the USA the Republican Party, which largely rejects the science behind climate change, has moved to oppose the $3bn climate aid bill. Republican Party candidates for the presidency threaten to renege on the Paris agreement. They hold a view that such top-down climate policies will threaten a free-market economy and limit the ability of corporations to make a profit.

There is a utilitarian ethical principal at work here, but the greatest benefit for the greatest number is national rather than global: keeping energy bills low for UK consumers, and higher profits for US corporations. While the needs of the countries in the developing world are ignored in this approach, the poorer nations have their own difficulties, where for example, the utilitarian approach would see the continued building of coal-fired power stations to satisfy their demand for cheap energy.

In his encyclical, Laudato si, Pope Francis called for global, sustainable, integral development, which avoided the short-term political outlook. He called for technology to be used in the service of all humanity, urging politicians to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. His call represents an appeal to virtue ethics with the recovery of Christian values and goals. He posed an ecological conversion whereby an encounter with Christ is evident in our relationship with the world around us. He encourages a life of virtue, civic and political love, with a capacity to live together, responsible for each other and for the world. However, we should note that different cultures may have differing opinions of what is ‘good’, virtue.

As Christians we worship God who created the universe and pronounced that it was good (Genesis 1); God who is in a covenant relationship with the whole of creation (Genesis 9). We follow Christ, who is co-creator with God (John 1:1-4), and who came to redeem the whole cosmos (John 3:16). Empowered by the Holy Spirit, God’s presence in all creation, our role is to become truly Christ-like, the first fruits of the Spirit, as creation awaits complete redemption (Romans 8:18-25).

We live with broken relationships (Genesis 3) in a world fractured by human rebellion, which seeks the power, control and wealth that belongs to God (Genesis 3:5). But we also live with the ultimate hope of God’s promises and purposes, God who will finally renew the whole of creation (Revelation 21:1-4) and destroy those who lust after power and wealth (Revelation 19).

We are accountable to God and are called to follow Christ (Mark 8:34) in his mission in and for the world. We are called to a life of self-sacrificial concern for the world and its people, and worship God through humility, justice and merciful action (Micah 6:8).

We see a growing movement of people involved in campaigning for greater, fair and more ambitious action on climate change. Christians have a central role in many countries in these movements keeping their governments accountable and pushing for more and better action both domestically and internationally.

As good citizens we seek to witness to God’s concern for the whole of creation now and hold governments to account, always conscious of the world we leave for those who come after us – ‘jam yesterday, today and tomorrow’.

first published as the December 2015 KLICE Comment.
Reproduced with permission.

John Weaver was born and brought up in Cardiff. After taking degrees in Geology at Swansea, he taught at the University of Derby. John trained for Baptist ministry in Oxford and was then pastor of Highfield Baptist Church from 1981-1991. From 1992-2001 he taught theology at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, and from 2001-2012 served as Principal of South Wales Baptist College. He is a former President of the Baptist Union, and is the Chair of JRI. His main areas of research are: relating faith to life and work; theological reflection; adult education; and the dialogue between science and faith.