It was a great surprise and an honour to become president of the JRI, not least because my immediate predecessor was Sir John Houghton, founding chair of the JRI. I well remember Sir John inviting me to become a JRI board member in 2000, during a weekend workshop at St. George’s House, a study centre within Windsor Castle (an exciting event in a unique venue!). John was concerned to get younger people involved in the running of the JRI and asked Claire Ashton and me. Despite his great eminence as a climate scientist, he was always humble and encouraging to others. I remained on the board for several years, including helping to organize the Climate Forum at Oxford in 2002 which brought together delegates particularly from the UK and US to discuss climate change in a Christian context. Since stepping down from the board I’ve kept in touch and been involved in the occasional event, but I’m looking forward to be more active in the JRI again.
I’ve been reflecting on how the world has changed since 1998 when I first encountered the newly formed JRI. It was a time before iPhones, one year into the Blair government, 10 years before the financial crash. The world was also about half a degree cooler, the sea level 7cm lower and atmospheric CO2 concentration 47 ppm less. The environment has also changed in terms of the loss of species and natural habitats. By profession, I am an ecologist and for most of my career I have worked on ecosystems and climate change. It is sobering to think that in a little over 20 years, I’ve seen and, in some cases measured, changes in the natural environment that were predicted in the late 1980s and early 90s. I’ve stood on eroding coasts, seen the ash falling from wildfires, and watched the countryside dry up during hot, dry summers. The evidence that climate change is changing the natural world gets clearer every year and the risks to both people and nature are escalating. In the first part of my career I worked on the impacts of climate change – trying to understand how species and habitats were changing. These days my work is much more focused on what we can do about this – how we can adapt to a changing climate and build the resilience of ecosystems and also how restoring natural systems can sequester and store carbon. This reflects a wider shift towards increasing emphasis on finding solutions to the problem of climate change, as well as predicting changes in climate and their impacts.
JRI has made an important contribution to bringing together scientific and theological insights into environmental problems, including climate change. This remains essential; it is however important to challenge ourselves about how our work enables and facilitates action. Climate change is not a theoretical future risk, it is the lived experience of millions of people around the world. Science can help people to make wise decisions, but, by itself, it is not sufficient to motivate action: this depends on people’s values and beliefs as well as their having the resources to make a difference. Thinking of the human dimension, we need to reach out to a diversity of people, in terms of, for example, ethnicity and age. It has been notable how school children have been in the vanguard of increasing demands for action on climate change, we need to look to how we can support and learn from younger people. It is also the case that the consequences of environmental problems hit poorer communities hardest: they live in the most vulnerable places and have the least resources to cope with the impacts of, for example, a flood or fire. Yet, their voices are often not heard.
Looking ahead, the challenges are great, but it does feel that the world is now waking up to the need for action on climate change and other environmental problems. The church is surely called to be at the forefront of action to protect and restore the planet: we must play our part in enabling this to happen.
Dr. Mike Morecroft is the JRI President