The most urgent moral issue facing humanity


Bishop David Atkinson reflects on the messages from the Fossil Free Tour.

A call for disinvestment from fossil fuels! Nearly 1000 people, including many students and many from Christian churches, filled the Troxy cinema in Limehouse, London, on Friday 1st November for the concluding session of the ‘Fossil Free’ Europe tour, featuring American environmentalist Bill McKibben. Another 5000 people watched live screenings in 39 countries. I was there, along with other members of the Operation Noah Board, to see the culmination of months of planning from Operation Noah’s Bright Now team along with our partners 350.org and People & Planet.

Bill McKibben, is a quietly spoken (till he warms up) Methodist who, to his surprise, has become an international leader seeking an urgent response to the threat of catastrophic climate change. His first book The End of Nature (1989), argued that if the world of human civilisation is to survive, we radically need to revise the relationships we have with the natural world. By our actions, nature has been irredeemably altered.

Twenty-four years on, things have only got worse. We now know more about the effects of burning fossil fuels on the climate. As the latest IPCC science report said, it is now certain that the climate is warming, and 95% certain that human activity is a major driver. More than that: the Arctic and Greenland ice sheets are melting, oceans are more acidic, food security is threatened, and extreme weather more common. The effects on our children’s and grandchildren’s worlds will be immense. That is why Bill McKibben has been the lead speaker for the Fossil Free tour in Berlin, Amsterdam, Oslo and then in the UK leg (in partnership with Operation Noah) at Edinburgh, Birmingham and London.

The presentation included video messages from Naomi Klein, the Canadian writer, and from Archbishop Desmond Tutu who likened the urgent need for action about climate change for the sake of justice to the need for action against Apartheid. Natasha Gorodnitski, Ethics and Environment Officer at UCL, urged student action. There was an enthusiastically received Christian contribution from Siobhan Grimes, a leading member of Operation Noah’s Bright Now campaign. She argued persuasively that Churches should disinvest from fossil fuel companies, since while ‘mainstream culture’ might ‘celebrate profit at any cost’ Christian faith has different values. Kumi Naidoo, the International Director of Greenpeace, also spoke and pleaded with religious leaders to actually take a lead in this.

Bill McKibben’s case was very simple. It was the case he made in Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark’s book The Burning Question (Profile Books 2013). The only global agreement on climate change, made at the Copenhagen ‘debacle’ four years ago, was to hold a global temperature rise to 2 degrees. It has been calculated that human beings can only pour roughly another 535 gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere and still have some hope of staying below 2 degrees. In fact, globally we are currently burning something over 30 gigatonnes a year, a figure growing by 3% a year – which gives us a window of about 15 years. So McKibben’s first message was one of urgency.

However, the tone was not only of frustrated disappointment that so little action has yet been taken. It was one of active, transformative hope. And one route of major positive action, McKibben argues, is to call for widespread disinvestment from fossil fuel companies. They already have reserves in the ground of 2,800 gigatonnes of carbon, some five times more than can be safely burned. These companies of course have an interest in holding those reserves, burning them and seeking for more in order to keep profitable. But, said McKibben, it is immoral for us to be profiting from actions that damage God’s earth and our children’s future.

There is a growing international movement, from students, churches, trades unions and others towards disinvestment from fossil fuels, and for investment instead in renewable energy. In the UK, the Quakers have already decided to disinvest, and other churches are actively considering doing so. Kumi Naidoo put it this way: climate change is the most urgent moral issue facing humanity: it is a matter of intergenerational justice.

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