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Who controls our climate? God, nature or people

Controlling global climate change is an immense challenge with profound implications for societies all over the world. Over 400 people attended a Science-Faith Cathedral lecture by Prof Mike Hulme, who reviewed the historical and cultural background to our current climate crisis. 

Report by Nick Brewin and Patrick Richmond

Mike Hulme, Professor [pictured above] of Human Geography at Cambridge University began by asking “Who Controls the World’s Climate? God, Nature or People? He then went on to outline a range of possible ways to reduce the impact of climate change, but he urged us not to view this multi-facetted problem from a narrow or simplistic point of view.
Throughout human history, most societies have considered their weather to reflect the activity of the Gods. For example, it is no coincidence that “Thursday” is named in memory of “Thor”, the Viking god of thunder. It was generally thought that the weather was used by the Gods to discipline or reward their people. Even today, people will sometimes refer to extreme weather as an “act of God.” Supernatural interpretations of the weather are widespread in the Bible and in religious texts from all over the world.
Exploring this way of thinking, Professor Hulme pointed out that a key theme in many biblical stories is the need for harmony between human activity and the natural environment. In many cultures, traditional “weather wisdom” leads to a notion of “moral ecology” – the idea that a well-ordered physical climate is often a pre-condition for a well-ordered social world. As many traditional societies have long recognised, our material, social, spiritual and ethical worlds are deeply inter-dependent.
Another approach to explaining the weather is that of “Naturalism”. It dates back at least as far as Aristotle, who coined the term “meteorology” - an attempt to describe the weather as a series of natural causes and effects. As an example, in 1783, Benjamin Franklin offered the naturalistic explanation that the eruption of an Icelandic volcano resulted in the release of dust clouds that blocked the sunlight and caused a year of freezing conditions in North America and Europe.
Today, climate science has widened our understanding of the causes that underpin our weather systems. For example, we now know a lot more about the workings of the jet stream, the North Atlantic oscillation and the El Nino system in the Pacific Ocean. Nowadays, it is exceptional for us to think that our climate is purely the result of non-human causes, whether natural or supernatural. Far more common is to believe that our climate is tied, at least partly, to our own behaviour as morally-accountable human actors. Human activity has become centre-stage in both theistic and naturalistic frameworks of analysis. Increasingly, we tend to think, that we get the weather we deserve.
Once we have acknowledged that human activities are causing profound changes to our weather patterns, we can begin the blame-game. This has taken several different forms. One aspect is to complain about the inappropriate use of land – for example, deforestation, intensive agriculture and urbanisation. Another is in terms of changing the atmosphere by the emission of pollutants such as greenhouse gases and industrial aerosols. James Lovelock, who popularised the Gaia hypothesis, suggested that our whole planet is a delicately balanced ecosystem that is being radically disturbed by human activity. Extreme weather is seen as Gaia’s revenge on morally inept humanity. Similarly, the Christian theologian Michael Northcott (2007) claimed that “Global warming is the Earth’s judgement on the global market empire and on the heedless consumption that it fosters”.
Having described the cultural, historical, religious and moral background to our current crisis, Professor Hulme identified four general strategies to reduce the impact of climate change. The first avenue is through governmental agencies, for example, through the Paris Agreement (2015), which seeks to minimise the effects of carbon release and other human influences on the climate of the future. The problem is that many large countries have not signed up to the agreement and many others will not live up to their promises.
A second strategy is through what is called “geo-engineering”. One idea is to mimic the effects of volcanoes by dispersing aerosols in the upper atmosphere in order to reflect some of the sun’s heat. The obvious question is who could safely apply such technologies and what is the cost-benefit analysis for different regions of the world?
A third strategy is to promote a radical change in social and cultural priorities. For example, the advocates of Extinction Rebellion encourage us to eat less meat; avoid the use of fossil fuels; bear fewer children; and so on. In this “climate emergency”, they argue that the real enemy is international capitalism and the potential victims are the billions of people who have no vested interest in a system that prioritises profit over the world’s climate and the well-being of humanity.
Finally, as a Christian, Professor Hulme promotes the concept of “spiritual transformation”. This was the theme of the recent encyclical by Pope Francis which recognised the responsibility of the entire global population to care for our common home. It talks a lot about the needs of the poor, about the mixed blessings of technological “progress”, and about the continual struggle for justice, love, and peace inspired by the character of God and the suffering of Christ. Through an ‘ecological conversion’, the encyclical offers a renewed vision of human dignity, responsibility and purpose, drawing on the rich traditions of Christian theology and ethics.
In conclusion, Professor Hulme argued that our ideas about climate control must be re-centred within our moral imagination. Science on its own offers no moral vision, no ethical stance, no political architecture for the sort of world that people desire. It is important to recognise that humanity’s ecological relations have religious and cultural dimensions. We should always try to connect environmental questions with fundamental human questions about meaning, value, and purpose.
During discussions after the lecture, Professor Hulme suggested that the introduction of a “Carbon Tax” was a good example of an economic lever that could change social behaviour. He also recognised the need for individual changes in the way we live, travel and eat, as described in a recent BBC Panorama programme. He finished with a call for everyone to both pray and act for the care of the planet.
This Cathedral lecture was delivered as a tribute to the late Professor Derek Burke, a former Vice-Chancellor of UEA and the founder of Science and Faith in Norfolk, a local group affiliated to Christians in Science.

Next Meeting: November 4

The next SFN meeting is also on the theme of climate change. Based on his recent book - Blue Planet, Blue God, Dr Meric Srokosz will ask what should be the Christian response to the fact that humans are causing profound changes to the world’s oceans and to the planet in general? This open meeting will take place on Monday 4th November from 7.30 – 8.45 pm at the Meeting Place, Holy Trinity Church, Trinity Street, NR2 2BJ.
For further information, contact the Secretary of Science and Faith in Norfolk: There is more information on the SFN website.

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