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Bishop Martin says we all need to work together to tackle climate change

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Recently I had the unexpected opportunity of a conversation with Professor Julian Dowdeswell, the distinguished Cambridge scientist who studies the impact on glaciers of climate change.

I asked him to what extent he thought the one degree C rise in temperature during the last century was due to human activity.

He immediately replied, “At least 80 per cent.”

Bishop Martin Seeley
Bishop Martin Seeley

And, I asked, do you believe the current bush fires, floods and storms being experienced in different parts of the world, including here, are the result of climate change?

“Most probably, although individual events themselves have more local causes,” he replied.

The scientific evidence for the human impact on climate change is overwhelming, in both senses of the word: there is an overwhelming amount of evidence, and the effect on us can feel overwhelming.

Climate change is already having an impact on the planet. Picture: iStock/Toa55
Climate change is already having an impact on the planet. Picture: iStock/Toa55

Climate change has been happening since the earth was formed, but what is different now is that since the industrial revolution it has been caused largely by human activity, burning fossil fuels.

The rate of temperature rise has in fact doubled, just since 1980.

A couple of weeks ago the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’ (IPCC) published its latest report, the collation of the work of thousands of scientists from around the world.

This report used far stronger language than previously to assert that humans are causing climate change: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.”

The authors go on to state that without deep and immediate cuts in carbon emissions, temperatures will rise more than two degrees above the pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.

That’s when children born now will be approaching their eighties.

The scientists conclude weather extremes will increase, including heatwaves, drought, and storms.

Even if the temperature rise is kept at 1.5 degrees, sea levels will still rise 2-3 metres, and maybe more.

In the face of this evidence we are acting, but clearly far too slowly. Governments declare their intentions, but then don’t always follow through.

Alok Sharma, the minister in charge of the global climate talks to be held in Glasgow during November, has described the situation as catastrophic.

“I don’t think there’s any other word for it. You’re seeing on a daily basis what is happening across the world. Last year was the hottest on record, the last decade the hottest decade on record.”

Except he then insisted the UK would carry on with fossil-fuel projects, including licensing new oil and gas fields, the very fuels that are causing the catastrophe.

So what is it going to take to really change our behaviours? Can we learn from our experience of the Covid pandemic?

We recognised with Covid, though it took longer in some countries than others, that we were all in this together.

Governments and citizens took the scientists seriously, and while governments were not consistent, and could be slow to respond, acting on the science has proved effective.

Individuals and communities changed behaviours and practices, in some cases before governments issued rules or guidance, because people realised that changing behaviour would keep people, ourselves and our communities, safer.

And governments have taken extraordinary actions to enforce changes in behaviour, and to direct financial and other resources to support a very different economy, one based on protecting people and the provision of health care and support.

But has it yet dawned on most people that we are in that same life and death situation now with the climate catastrophe?

There should be a simple and powerful impulse to act: to protect the planet, for the sake of life including the lives of every precious human being now and in the generations to come.

Maybe we are beginning to recognise this, particularly as extreme weather events pound the western United States, Germany, and indeed this country, adding to the experience of climate change long recognised at the poles and in regions closer to the equator.

We do see more and more people becoming aware and taking personal actions, and that will now undoubtedly increase, but it needs a step change – the climate equivalent of a lockdown.

Many churches in Suffolk have been working to become ‘eco-churches’, committing to practices that protect the environment, and the target is all church buildings will be zero-carbon by 2030.

But are we all yet really following the science, the action that has proved vital in the Covid pandemic?

The scientific evidence for the human causes contributing to climate change is overwhelming, but there is still a significant gap between that evidence and the policy and practice not just of governments, but of the general population.

When will governments begin to make the drastic steps needed?

During the pandemic the rules and guidance about personal behaviours have clearly saved many lives – I believe we now need something similar to help us act responsibly in relation to the climate crisis.

We also need an economic and political turn around that will put protecting the planet – and the global population first.

We know it is possible because something similar has happened in the pandemic, though not on the scale we now need.

Working together, following the science, and recognising the need for drastic change is the solution again. Acting together we can control the rise in temperature and avert the catastrophe that is realistically predicted.

We can do this, but we need to act now, for our good, and the good of our children’s children.

-- Bishop Martin Seeley is the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich

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