Bishop Colton on Climate Change - June 2017

With diocesan synod season upon us I like to keep a watch on what our bishops say about climate change - one of the most urgent problems of our time

Burning fossil fuels generates vast amounts of air pollution causing a major health crisis in cities. Carbon pollution drives climate change that impacts people worldwide, particularly the most vulnerable. Climate stress can tip vulnerable countries into unrest and conflict which in-turn leads to refugee crises. The Christian church and mission in the affected countries can be severely curtailed.

Do our bishops understand this? I hope they do. Let’s see what the Bishop of Cork Cork, Cloyne and Ross, The Right Rev. Dr Paul Colton, had to say in his Diocesan Synod Address given in Cork on 10th June 2017.

The theme of the address was, ‘Changing times’ and the bishop listed changes such as Brexit, increased terrorism, and Trump. He then addressed the ‘Global Displacement Crisis’ noting there are 65.3m displaced people, more than half of them fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.

His next ‘change’ was Climate Change. Bishop Colton recounted a visit to the Athabasca Glacier in Canada where he saw a glacier that he’d visited 20 years before that had retreated by more than 200m. He said, “We drove northwards on the Icefields Parkway, and as we drove into the car park at the visitor centre, I got a shock.  At first I thought the glacier wasn’t there anymore.  I looked around and said ‘Gosh.  It’s much further away from the road than before’. And so it is.  It is visible evidence of climate change and of global warming. ”

The bishop quoted the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014 report that states, ‘Human influence on the climate system is clear’ and Pope Francis who said that the ‘urgent challenge’ is to ‘protect our common home’.

It was good the bishop firmly acknowledged that climate change is real and urgent action is needed, but that is where it stopped. There was no call to climate action, no encouraging churches to reduce energy bills, and no call on the government to close peat burning power stations.

Later in the address there was a general call for Christian engagement in the communities where people live. I have to say, Bishop Colton sets a leading example of this in the Church of Ireland. He said that engagement must go beyond ‘Clicking Like’ and we must go and get stuck in.

The Church of Ireland needs a bishop who will get ‘stuck in’ and call the church to act on climate. The church needs a prophetic voice to speak to communities and society across Ireland, calling for rapid change away from burning fossil fuels towards a low-carbon future and support for vulnerable people who suffer the impacts of a rapidly changing climate.

In general the speech acknowledged that change happens, which it does, and the church needs to respond. But I think that does not mean that the church should always adapt to these changes as if they are learning points on the pilgrimage. The direction of travel in society is not always positive. Excessive burning fossil fuels is leading the world towards poorer health and an existential climate crisis. The church needs voices who will speak boldly to society when society takes a wrong turn.  

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation was also mentioned in the speech. Luther is an example of a Christian voice calling the church to change direction after it lost its way.  We need to be careful the church is not simply swept along by culture and societal changes. Revisiting the Reformation should at least remind us of that.

So to summarise, in this address it was wonderful to see the problem of refugees and climate change highlighted. Bishop Colton sets a leading example in engaging with society. But the Church of Ireland is still waiting for a prophetic voice who calls for society to change direction. The church needs to lovingly challenge society when it sets a wrong course; it must not simply be swept along by every change that society brings.


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