CLIMATE CHANGE AT THE CROSSROADS 

I was very fortunate to be able to attend two climate change conferences last week, both in Australia and taking place one after the other: Greenhouse 2005 (November 14th -17th) in Melbourne and the Catholic Bishops Conference on Climate Change (November 18th – 20th) in Canberra.   The first conference was an international event and funded mainly by the Australian government.  The speakers and delegates, over 600 people, were from science, business, industry and government and prestigious academics and leaders of industry from all over the world gave keynote addresses and papers on the science of climate change, its affect on economic life and the consequences of a warming world for wildlife and the environment. It was a privilege to hear people at the top of their fields speaking with great authority and knowledge on what is now agreed to be the greatest threat to life on earth.  It was an alarming 4 days and no one was left in any doubt that climate change is real, is happening now, is human induced and will fundamentally change life at every level and in every sector. 

Every evening after the conference I went back to stay with a close friend who lives in Melbourne and told her about the day.  I relayed the harsh facts, that the temperature of the earth is predicted to rise by up to 6 degrees by the end of the century, that this will melt ice caps, raise sea level and fundamentally alter the mechanisms that control the way our planet operates.  I told her that many millions of people will be forced to migrate away from areas rendered uninhabitable by rising seas, rising levels of salinity and unbearable heat.  I told her that millions of species of animals and plants will go extinct.  I told her the overwhelming fact that if we are to cap the temperature rise at 2 degrees C by 2050, a limit agreed by scientists as probably containable, then we must cut the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases by one half – now.  But if we continue to use energy in the same way as we do today then by 2050 the demand for energy will have doubled.  Twice as much energy but half the emissions - now that is a big order.  My friend, an artist, looked more and more horrified and eventually told me to stop.  “What’s the good news?  You’ve got to give me some good news” she said “I need to know if there is any hope”.  I was hard put to think of any other than there are some very clever people with very big ideas working on it. 

I then went straight to Canberra for the Catholic Bishop’s Conference with a head full of awful knowledge and a mind tuned to science and policy.  In contrast to the smart hotel overlooking Albert Park Lake in Melbourne this was in a suburb of Canberra in a large social club.  The atmosphere was totally different - relaxed, welcoming, friendly. In contrast to Melbourne, instead of the plastic name tag with “Media Registration” written on it I was given a wooden pendant to wear round my neck with my name written in pen.  Instead of a book with a collection of scientific papers I was given a paper bag with CDs and a video and instead of a welcoming speech by the Head of CSIRO (the main government research institute) and the Governor General of the Commonwealth we were welcomed with a small band playing the didgeridoo and guitars.  But boy was it good to sit there for the opening reflection and, for the first time in a week, remember God.  And so began an extraordinary weekend that will stay with me for ever. 

At first I thought that as much as the Melbourne conference had been all head and almost no heart this might turn out to be all heart and not much head.  But that was totally wrong.  We were given excellent talks on the science behind climate change, as good as any I heard in Melbourne. But we also heard from a photographer who had documented climate change around the world, from a young woman who had lived in the tree canopy to save it from loggers in Tasmania, from a theologian contemplating the meaning of the Eucharist in a time of climate change and from a priest from the tiny collection of islands called Kiribats, half way between Hawaii and Australia, where the very fabric of life is under threat from the rising sea.  A Jesuit physicist gave a wonderfully clear presentation of the science of cosmology which put us firmly on the map - an indescribably tiny speck of carbon and DNA in the vast ocean of space and energy we call the universe, and we heard from an epidemiologist that climate change is likely to increase the spread of disease.  We also heard from Fr Sean McDonagh who gave a passionate plea for a new Catholic thinking that would put John Paul’s call for an “ecological conversion” at the centre of worship.  But there was also time for prayer and a mass and workshops.  I left the conference feeling moved, informed and full of thanks that something special had happened and I was fortunate to be part of it. 

So, two conferences back to back.  Two conferences recognising and squaring up to the fact that our world is changing and that we are to blame.  Two conferences that grasped the science behind climate change and the implications for human society and the natural world.  Two conferences that stressed how important it is that we act right now if we are going to begin to even hold the tide.  But strangely these two events seemed very separate.  In Melbourne no one mentioned the morality of the situation.  There was no recognition that other forces besides those of science, industry and business could be bought to bear.  There was no spirituality and hence no humility and no humbleness.  In Canberra there was certainly humbleness in the face of our sin against the earth.  There was certainly humility and a deep understanding of the role of religion in transforming hearts and minds.  But there was little recognition of the way the world actually works – that even spiritual people demand cars and full fridges and holidays abroad, and many other things supplied by the big, bad world of industry and international business.  It seems to me there was a dimension missing from both meetings but that it would be very possible to bridge that gap with tremendous benefit and I urge anyone with the power to bring these worlds together to do so.  Wouldn’t it have been wonderful for the Melbourne conference to have given a platform to a religious leader and wouldn’t it have been wonderful for the Bishops to have given a platform to a head of a multi national. 

But that is my only criticism.  What the Catholic Bishops did in Canberra last week was truly exceptional.  Australia is the first country in the world to put religion and climate change side by side in such a concrete way.  To bring together so many diverse people was a tremendous achievement and the energy and focus which was generated was unprecedented.  There is certainly a long, long way to go but Australia has started the journey.  It is now up to the Pope and the Catholic Bishops around the world to stand by their side and walk with them.  If what the Catholic Church in Australia has started can be the spark that sets the world alight with a new understanding then that will be a turning point for this earth.  Humanity right now stands on a crossroads and seems unsure which way to go.  Do we follow the signpost that says “this way for economic growth and continued development – science and market forces will solve the problems of climate change” or do we follow the signpost that says “this way for a re-evaluation of what it means to be human, what it means to have enough and what it means to be a part of this incredible yet fragile earth”  Which way will we go?  I don’t know.  The voices demanding we go with the former are powerful, strong and prestigious.  The voices urging the latter are as yet quiet and fragmented.  What the world needs right now is leadership.  We need strong and clear guidance that stresses our moral obligation to protect life and act with respect towards the earth.  The Catholic Church is a global religion with the power to give a global message.  If it has the courage to speak out across the world then we may yet make the right choice.  But if that voice remains weak and small, if Catholics, and other faiths, continue to put their heads in the sand, then unchecked economic growth, a blind faith in market forces and increasing exploitation of resources will undoubtedly take hold. 

So to the Catholic Bishops of Australia I salute you and sincerely give you thanks for what you have contributed at this most crucial time.  Thank you for your courage and foresight, thank you for not being afraid to face the future and the challenging choices that lie ahead.  Thank you for making climate change a priority.  Because of you I can now telephone my friend in Melbourne and say yes there is hope.  It is still only a glimmer, but it may grow, and if it does then our children may well live in a world that is vibrant, diverse and fruitful – a world that values life over profit. 

 

MARY COLWELL

PRODUCER  BBC

NATURAL HISTORY UNIT

BRISTOL, UNITED KINGDOM.

November 2005