Brief for Mission Education School IV

posted by Kaihsu Tai on October 4th, 2009

Brief for Council of World Mission’s Mission Education School IV ‘All Creation Groans: The Eco-crisis and Sustainable Living – Understanding the Implications for Mission’

Kaihsu Tai, United Reformed Church, United Kingdom, 2009-06-05/21

The following sketch is written from my personal impression, based on several years of non-professional but serious study, observation, and discussion of the issues. Due to time constraints, I am not supplying references to the statements I make, but with modern resources it is not difficult to verify (or disprove as the case may be) most of them. I try to be frank and fair at the same time, but some might take this account to be polemical.

1 Identify the major climate change concerns and challenges for your region.

Primarily, for the United Kingdom (UK), climate change is less a physical hazard than a moral one. The UK is usually categorized as a ‘developed’ country, as measured in indices such as gross domestic product per capita. For the next decade or so, it is not difficult for those well-off (perhaps around half of the population) to adapt to the physical effects of climate change. However, the moral implications are more dire: as the first country to spark off the fossil-fueled Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, and one of the first to have the scientific and political capacity to realize the consequences of climate change since the 1980s (during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher), it cannot escape the moral responsibility about climate change. To complicate the matter, the intention to protect the competitiveness of London’s status as a major financial centre in a globalized world – the rump of an imperial past – hinders the political will to face down this moral hazard.

A secondary concern for the UK related to climate change is energy. Along with other member states of the European Union (EU), the UK feels an increasing pressure to ensure the long-term supply of energy, especially as its internal supplies of oil and gas are dwindling. Taking greenhouse-gas emission into consideration, each of the other sources in the energy mix (without going into detail) comes with political, environmental, and economic challenges. The stated political priority is to ‘keep the light on’ (this, while sometimes done in wasteful excess in the UK, is a luxury in many other parts of the world), and to make energy affordable to everybody, especially protecting by subsidy or other mechanisms the ‘fuel-poor’ – those who can become vulnerable when exposed to high energy prices, such as people on low/no income and old-age pensioners. Another strain on the energy demand is transport, fed by decades of car-centred infrastructure development and now aeroplanes, both cargo and passenger travel (this Mission Education School being one instance). These modes of transport are conventionally fossil-fueled, and are difficult – but not impossible – to retrofit with low/zero-carbon alternatives. However, it might be easier to replace them with alternative, public modes of transport.

Land management and agricultural production pose a third challenge. The impending changes caused by climate change to the UK’s physical terrain will compound the already-stressful requirements of nature conservation, wildlife biodiversity, food agriculture, biofuel and renewable energy production, archæological and historical preservation, flood prevention, housing, industry, business, and transport. The pros and cons – including the greenhouse-gas emissions – of various forms of agriculture and food production (including the option of importing food) is a topic for debate and investigation. Another related topic is the proper mix of economy in the UK among the four categories of agriculture, manufacturing, services, and finance.

Finally, the diffuse nature of climate change, at the most profound, may remind the UK body politic of its centuries of struggle for personal, individual freedom (‘liberty’ the learned term) on the one hand, and for a shared, collective polity (in the sweet vernacular ‘commonwealth’) on the other. Papered over with many sets of compromises in the last half-millennium, the present constitutional settlement appears stretched to its limit, by climate change but also by many other compounding problems. While further tinkering remains as ever an available option, some call for radical reform of – or for transcendence of contradiction in – British democracy, warranted by the many challenges it faces: climate change, financial chaos, peak oil, bankruptcy of trust in the political system, to name a few. Sixty years ago, the large-scale threat of the Second World War – and Britain’s response to it – redrew the boundaries of the UK’s realm, reshaped its character, and re-established the relationship between the people and the government. In the best case scenario, the response towards climate change may similarly come to define Britishness, deepen its meaning, revitalize the local economy, and renew the democracy.

2 Share the ways in which your church and other CWM churches in your region are involved in educating and informing persons about climate change.

The United Reformed Church’s (URC) monthly magazine Reform has hosted a two-page spread ‘green pages’ in every issue for nearly a year. This features news from the Eco-Congregation programme, Operation Noah (both sponsored by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and other ecumenical bodies), and Christian Ecology Link (a charity which started as a fellowship of Christian members in the Green Party). Before the European Parliament elections earlier this year, the Conference of European Churches issued a booklet to give the churches focused questions for the candidates, especially on issues such as climate change and world development. More generally, the Joint Public Issues Committee of URC, Methodists, and Baptists keeps up the pressure from the churches on the government and other public bodies. The URC network of congregations called Commitment for Life is our way of supporting Christian Aid, which along with Tearfund are members of the umbrella campaign Stop Climate Chaos.

3 Briefly outline the position of your country’s government on the issue.

Within the UK, in addition to the central government based in London, there are three devolved national governments (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), the English regions (responsible for large-scale spatial planning and economic development), the principle local authorities (counties etc.) and in certain areas town and parish councils. Each of these are responsible for its own policy mandates. For many, climate change is on their agenda. However, the priority accorded depends on the political attitude and composition of their councils. Some of the local authorities are involved in community-led initiatives such as the Transition Towns movement.

Famously the UK – long-time a party to the Kyoto Protocol – is the first country to adopt legally-binding targets of greenhouse-gas emissions pursuant to its Climate Change Act 2008. A new Department of Energy and Climate Change within the government, and a Climate Change Committee independent thereof, have been created as part of the mechanism to manage an annual ‘carbon budget’. Though the Act binds the government, it is unclear who would have standing to seek judicial remedy if the carbon budget is not adhered to. The Climate Change Committee could shout from the rooftop but ultimately only has political – not legal – effect. The electorate may be the only control in the event of a breach, through its power to impose a political remedy – but its mind may well focus elsewhere when it reaches the ballot box.

The UK operates within the framework of EU strategy to manage climate change. Again, while the rhetoric of the EU is for emission targets, the control mechanism is an even-weaker Emissions Trading System (ETS). While each phase of ETS is more stringent than the last, it started with grandfathered quotas to existing emitters, in effect granting rights to pollute. Overall it is a laxed régime which some commentators deride as ‘hot air’. In this case, control is either directly financial–economic (for example, by purchasing emission permits to drive up the price or by forfeiting permits – that is, by not emitting the permitted amount), or indirectly through political control over EU institutions. More recently, there is a new scheme called ‘20-20-20 by 2020’, which promises 20 % reduction carbon emission, 20 % renewable energy in the mix, and 20 % better energy efficiency in about a decade. Without a clear implementation framework, it remains to be seen whether this is yet more hot air.

The UK ultimately is a party to the Kyoto Protocol and its international-law basis the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It has contributed expertise to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change through scientists such as Sir John Houghton of the Meteorological Office. With government-endorsed reports and speeches by Lord (Nicholas) Stern (report commissioned by the Treasury) and Sir David King (former scientific advisor to the government), it contributes to the sense of urgency to tackle climate change. It is well-known that the régime of international law is notoriously inconsistent and generally weak. Worse, on the international level, the UK government at times appears ambivalent in negotiations. We shall see in Copenhagen later this year whether this assessment remains valid.

Published in: Creative Resistance, Environment, Green Party, Itinerant Communicant, Oxford | on October 4th, 2009 | Permanent Link to “Brief for Mission Education School IV” | Comments Off on Brief for Mission Education School IV

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