My second Christian Today column this week – the original is here…
Why Boris’ climate sermon at the UN was far too simplistic
It was a typical Boris Johnson speech – folksy posh banter, self-deprecating/glorifying humour, quotations from the ancient Greeks and that kind of bouncy optimism which reminds you of what a jolly good time we can all have – if only we listen.
But what struck me most about Boris Johnson’s speech to the UN was its apocalyptic seriousness and its simplistic message.
In a couple of weeks in Glasgow a meeting will be held which is apparently “the turning point for humanity”. The time when humanity comes out of its selfish adolescence and grows up. At the same time, disagreeing with Kermit the Frog, Boris told us that it was easy to be green – and we could make lots of money out of it as well.
Like a bad sermon of the narrowest fundamentalist preacher, it all sounded so simple, so black and white. Which makes you wonder why the Prime Minister did not take on board that message in earlier years – when he was a climate change sceptic. Still there is none so zealous as a recent convert, and apart from the “now is the day of decision” moment, there were some very ‘religious’ sounding certainties in the Prime Minister’s sermon. So, let’s deal with the three main points of the Gospel according to Boris.
1. You are all sinners – and the end is nigh!
“We still cling with part of our minds to the infantile belief that the world was made for our gratification and pleasure, and we combine this narcissism with an assumption of our own immortality.”
To which many Christians would say a hearty amen. But what is Boris’s doctrine of creation? Was the world made? By whom? And for what purpose? Is it a product of unguided chance? Or was it intelligently designed? And why was it made? The Bible gives us clear answers: it was created to show the glory of the Creator and to provide a home for the apex of his creation – humanity.
If Boris believes that the earth is just a product of chance and is destined to implode/explode with the rest of the universe in the future, then what’s the point? If human beings are just “blobs of carbon floating from one meaningless existence to another” (as per Bertrand Russell) then why should we bother with carbon reduction?
Or indeed if our purpose is to reduce carbon, why not just get rid of humanity? Wouldn’t the planet be better off without us? Some Green extremists see human beings as the problem, not the solution. Let’s stop having babies, they say. There is a danger of legitimate concerns about the earth turning into some kind of cult.
The simplistic messages and the media hysteria are already causing enormous harm. A recent survey of 10,000 16– to 25-year-olds throughout the world found that the majority already believe that the end of the world is nigh. During the Covid crisis politicians found that the weaponization of fear was an excellent tool for ‘nudge’ theory and short-term control. Expect that weapon to be ramped up many times. That will come at a great political, psychological and spiritual cost.
2. Have faith… in the scientists
Boris suggested we look at Covid as an example of gloomy scientists being right – a poor preaching illustration. Every gloomy prediction from gloomy scientists (the more measured ones were largely ignored by media and politicians) turned out to be wrong. Modelling became something of a national joke. Besides which it now appears highly likely that the Covid pandemic was the result of a scientific mistake – a leak from a coronavirus lab.
Some scientists have been telling us for decades that the world was doomed and that we only had ten years to fix it. There are lots of apocalyptic predictions being made. A UN report, like Boris, warned us that nations would be wiped off the face of the earth; there would be coastal flooding, crop failures. We only have 10 years to save ourselves. That was in 1989. There were similar reports in 1972, 1982, 1990 and 2019.
Science is not as simple as those who claim they are following ‘the science’ suggest. Science must be part of the solution – especially as we seek to understand climate change and to develop technology to combat its effects – but it is not the only part.
“We need to understand who we are and what we are doing. We must show we have the maturity and wisdom to act. And we can,” the PM said.
Ironically this message contradicts his earlier attack on the narcissism of humanity. There is a supreme confidence that we can fix this, that we are in charge. Thus, he continues, “We are awesome in our power to change things and awesome in our power to save ourselves, and in the next 40 days we must choose what kind of awesome we are going to be.”
So, what are we to make of this sermon? Like many people I have been trying to find my way through the morass of information, disinformation, and extremes on both sides. I don’t trust the propagandists on either side, and I don’t need Facebook ‘fact checkers’ as though the Californian multi-billionaires are the font of all knowledge.
I have tried to read and understand a variety of sources – and it is complex. I recorded this podcast as I wrestled with the issues.
Boris’s statement that we need to understand who we are and what we are doing is certainly correct. My concern is whether he, and the rest of our world leaders do. We are human beings made in the image of God. We are to be stewards of his earth. We are sinners. As Jordan Peterson might put it: if we can’t tidy our rooms, how do we think we can fix the planet?!
I am reminded of the famous quote from the climate scientist, Gus Speth: “I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
I realise that Boris was preaching to the choir. And that the adherents of this new religion will regard what I say as blasphemy – but the situation is way more complex than the hysteria and the solutions that we are going to be offered over the next few weeks.
If climate change really is serious (as I believe it is) then it cannot be left to those who argue that it’s easy to be green, and easy to make money out of being green. We should not give carte blanche to politicians who use their new found faith to declare a climate emergency and limit freedoms that we have taken centuries to establish.
Nor should we let virtue signalling mega corporations make money out of ‘saving’ the planet at the expense of the poor. We need to ask what are the consequences of extreme climate change measures on the poor, and whether the cure will be worse than the disease.
We also need to be realistic about what will be achieved and at what cost? The Prime Minister thanked President Xi of China for what he was doing. On some estimates China pumps more carbon into the atmosphere than all the rest of the developed nations put together. It is still building around one new coal powered plant per week. It has 28% of carbon emissions, the UK 1%. If we farm out our industry to China, these ‘beautiful’ wind turbines (as Boris called them) are not going to make that much difference!
The sermon to the UN finished with a rhetorical flourish about how in Glasgow humanity was going to come of age and blow out the candles of a world on fire. It was an appropriate metaphor. If the world is on fire, then all that we do will be like people blowing on a house fire in order to extinguish it!
Peter tells us that the earth is reserved for fire, “By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Peter 3:7). That does not mean we do not care for the creation – but it does mean that we know a new creation is coming.
Right now the whole creation is groaning (Romans 8:20-22) but it too longs to be freed from its bondage to decay. That time only comes as the children of God are revealed. The best thing the Church can do for the planet, therefore, is to preach the Gospel!
David Robertson works as an evangelist with churches in Sydney, Australia. He blogs at The Wee Flea.