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CEL home > Resources > Green Christian > Summer 2004: Issue 55 > Unmasking Christian Denial Last updated:  July 2010

Climate Change: Unmasking Christian Denial

by John Mead

To Sir David King, it is a threat worse than terrorism; to Sir John Houghton, the equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction. For Michael Meacher, it is the greatest threat mankind has ever faced. (see interview on page 18) There is a remarkable coalition of the great and the good, all warning us about the danger of climate catastrophe. Unless we act very rapidly to reduce CO2 emissions, by the end of the century Antarctica will probably be the only habitable continent.

So why is there so little curiosity about how we are to avert this threat, and so little eagerness to take the steps necessary to do so? And above all, why so little interest on the part of the Christian Churches ?

The answer is in one word: denial. If we were to take seriously the threat of climate catastrophe, we would find ourselves confronted by some extremely uncongenial demands. For example, we would have to reject annual air travel for holidays. This is an idea so frightful, so blasphemous, for the devout consumer society to which most of us largely belong, that we cannot tolerate it. And denial is an extremely efficient device for banishing such ideas.

Denial in this sense is not deliberate dishonesty. It refers rather to an individual's honest rejection at a conscious level of some truth or fact that at a deeper level is known about however incompletely, but avoided because of the fear and anxiety that it arouses. In the jargon of psychology, denial is a defence mechanism. It defends us from some truth or feeling that we cannot bear to acknowledge because to do so would expose us to painful feelings of horror or shame or confusion. It, therefore, defends that basic clarity and peace of mind that we all need if we are to carry on with our lives, and to which we all, therefore, tend to cling. Hence the enormous resistance to attempts to remove denial.

Society, like the individual, needs to guard and preserve certain fundamental assumptions if the peace of mind of its members is to be maintained. In our own society, denial about climate change is just one manifestation of a much wider state of denial about our affluent culture as a whole. The Christian economist Herman Daly refers to "the enormous forces of denial" embodied in the cultural assumptions of the rich societies, forces which have to be overcome before we can begin to live sustainably; that is in ways that do not wreck the planet. The most central of these assumptions is the supposed need for unending economic growth, an aim that is utterly incompatible with saving the climate.

Human kind cannot bear very much reality.   T.S. Eliot- Four Quartets

Denial in respect of climate change comes in all sorts of guises. For example:-

•  It's all speculation – the scientists can't agree about it;

•  It isn't the result of human action - there have always been these natural variations;

•  It isn't seriously damaging; in fact it may turn out to be rather beneficial;

•  There's plenty of time if it does turn out to be serious;

•  The Government is looking after the problem.

What all these denials do is to protect us from the realization that the whole way of life of the rich world is fundamentally flawed, including many of its basic cultural assumptions, and needs radically and most urgently to change.

Take the last, that Government is doing all that is needed.

At present the UK Government is motivated primarily by the wish to maintain the support both of the electorate and of the business community. Both would be at risk if it spelt out the measures needed to protect our children from climate catastrophe, let alone if it actually took those measures. It aims therefore to do enough, and more importantly to say enough, to suggest that the environment is safe in its hands.

Hence the extraordinary gap between Government rhetoric about climate change, and Government delivery of the measures needed to tackle it. So that eloquent speeches about it by Tony Blair are often followed after a short pause by announcements about, for example, the easing of regulations for heat insulation in new houses, or plans for new runways for increased air travel.

It is of course deplorable that Government should be so lacking in courage and conviction on so vital an issue. But how much more deplorable is the silence of the Church! Unlike Government, the Church does not risk electoral defeat if it challenges the religion of consumerism.

What can Christians do about all this? Unfortunately the Church of England has itself largely become the consumer society at prayer. Christians and their leaders, the bishops, are themselves in denial. In the words of Jürgen Moltmann - the church has become “so fused with our society” that it cannot offer it a message of hope. So the first task is to end that state of fusion.

That done, Christians could then initiate a very wide range of activities to challenge collective denial, and to show by example the steps needed to avert catastrophe for our children:

•  They could publicly renounce annual air travel for holidays.

•  They, and above all their bishops, could join the annual Kyoto march organized by the Campaign Against Climate Change, and similar public protests.

•  They could sign up to Operation Noah.

They could lobby their MPs on these issues, protesting against the priority given to motorists in road and traffic management, at the expense of cyclists and pedestrians, and demanding, for example, proper cycle paths to enable our children to cycle safely to school.

Government will only take necessary steps in response to intense public pressure. At the moment there is no such pressure, so great is the state of denial.

If Christians and their leaders acted on these lines, with emphasis and persistence, this would lead to far more public debate, a lessening of the state of apathy and denial, an increase in pressure on politicians and, therefore, a real prospect for the aversion of catastrophe for our children and their contemporaries worldwide.

But we must act now!

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