Faith & Reason: Do the Churches really want to save the planet?

We talk a lot, pray a bit, but don't do much about climate change. What the Churches need is a vision for the future - and courage

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As you read this, hundreds of people will be launching "Operation Noah" in Coventry Cathedral. The project aims to spread an understanding of climate change among the Churches, and to get them to do something about it.

The event has been planned for months, but it comes just as the issues are hitting the headlines. Tony Blair is to make the question central to his plans for the coming year. Vladimir Putin has signed up to the Kyoto convention, which calls on governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to politically acceptable levels. George Bush has failed catastrophically to provide leadership, but the unlikely figure of Arnold Schwarzenegger is on his case, as we shall see.

At the Coventry event, three priorities are urged. First, get the facts right. Second, get the theology right. Third, do the right thing. First, the facts. The world climate is changing as a result of human activity, notably our carbon dioxide emissions. This no longer needs arguing. Governments now stake their reputations on those claims, and powerful corporations are looking nervously at their future profits.

Second, the theology. Much of it is summed up by Tennessee Williams, who called pollution "Man's inhumanity to God". We abuse the only planet we have; but our depredations are inflicted upon God's creation. That instinct has begun to shape the Churches quite persistently. There aren't many environmentally informed sermons, but a celebration of the natural order now pervades my own tradition, much more Franciscan than Wesleyan now.

That is why so many people now respond so warmly to the insights of the Orthodox tradition. At the Convent of St John, 2,000 metres above Volos on the Aegean coast of Greece, profoundly moving prayers for the created order are uttered in the middle of a working farm. But down on the plains, it's different. Fields are irrigated by shooting water from a three-inch pipe into the blazing mid-morning sun. And traffic pollution in Athens is often worse than in Los Angeles.

This raises our third question. We talk a lot, pray a bit, but don't do much. Take current public policy. Tony Blair trumpets our success in cutting greenhouse gases, it was Margaret Thatcher who closed the coalmines, and created the "dash to gas". Renewable sources are still limited. Only wind power really works - but, naturally, only when the wind blows. So the other realistic options are conservation, and microgeneration - create your own power supply. But few of the houses that John Prescott has constructed since 1997 have these capacities built into them. Even worse; the Kyoto agreement simply signals what is politically doable. To solve the problem will require much sharper cuts in emissions.

Similarly, the Russian commitment to the Kyoto treaty means that it can be ratified. And that releases a potential $10bn to help Russia renew its highly polluting industrial stock. But do the levers of power in the Kremlin control anything much that happens in, say, Siberia?

So, if the facts are virtually indisputable, governments recognise the problem and Christians increasingly celebrate the created order, why isn't it working? It's mainly because we don't dare look at the whole picture. We have failed to see the human economy as part of the environment. We imagine that human appetite can be theologised away. We long for an irrecoverable, largely imaginary past world. One feature of that economy has shaped our modern plight - technological innovation in the marketplace. A proper vision of the future must see this as a God-given instrument of our survival. The planet will be saved only if we can make money out of it. Otherwise not. The first green billionaire had better be among us now, or we are really in trouble. (There are plenty of green millionaires, mostly American, but that's not enough).

Oddly, it's Arnie who provides us with a glimmer of hope here. He is fighting against his President, in election year, to restrain California's gas-guzzling habits. If he succeeds, and sets a new trend, then the world's fifth largest economy may be transformed, as people scheme to profit from the new regime.

But a vision is required if this is to happen worldwide. Its prophets must have the conviction of traditional religion, but look to the future as well as honouring the past. They will demand radical cuts in greenhouse emissions and compel the market to work within the new order. Airlines will go bust, but the world's poor will be encouraged to bring their goods to rich Western markets. We'll move fewer people and things around the world, and move more ideas, experiences - and the new technologies. If this works, big business will not just be nervous - it will be terrified. So Churches must urge politicians to be much more courageous than is their wont - and themselves be braver, more visionary.

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