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
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
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
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!