Climate talks limp over the line
Tearfund's Ben Niblett explains why he has four reasons to hope that America will change its mind on climate change.
The rest of us can overcome climate change together without America, but it’d be harder. The US is the world’s second largest emitter and President Trump has announced that they’re leaving the Paris Agreement, 2015’s historic global climate change agreement which every nation signed. Leaving takes three years, so for now, they’re still in, and I’m praying God will change hearts and minds so they stay after all.
I’ve got four reasons to hope.
First, sadly, the heartbreaking impacts of climate change seem closer. California’s deadly wildfires, the worst in their history (pictured from space here) were a reminder that climate change makes droughts and fires more likely in the US, not just in the world’s poorest countries. Last year Storm Harvey’s floods were another powerful reminder. And in Alaska, which is admittedly a long way from most Americans, houses are tilting as the permafrost
A month ago a US government report set out the risks of climate change to the US – it’s a long list including the economy, farming, water supplies and floods. There will be more wake-up calls.
Second, more encouragingly, Americans are doing a lot to reduce their emissions regardless of what the government says, and a lot of it’s about market forces. Take the Henry Ford of the 21st Century, Elon Musk of Tesla, whose electric cars are some of over a million on America’s roads (second most after China, with 2 million).
The other side of the coin is cleaning up dirty industries like coal, and a record number of US coal power stations are closing this year, which is the biggest single thing they need to do on climate. In much of the US, it’s cheaper to build new renewables than keep existing coal power stations running. It reminds me of tobacco – helping people stop smoking was great, but it meant jobs lost in cigarette factories.
Similarly, we need America to stop burning fossil fuels, and as they do it’s important to look after people who worked in the old economy and will need new skills and new jobs, of which there are many, like installing solar panels and making wind turbines.
Third, the US church really matters. Large numbers could support climate action because they love their neighbours, see want to be good stewards of Creation that reflects God’s glory, and don’t think the point of life is to pile up as many possessions as possible.
Pope Francis has given a strong Catholic lead and clear teaching on climate, with the Laudato Si encyclical and many statements since. The National Association of Evangelicals have spoken up. Young people look to the church for climate leadership, with groups like Young Evangelicals for Climate Action mobilising young people, and the Evangelical Environment Network mobilising their elders. Katharine Hayhoe is a vocal evangelical climate scientist.
But the partisan state of current US politics is an obstacle. A large majority of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump – brilliantly analysed for Brits like me by Katie Harrison – and that tribe mentality can mean people oppose action on climate as part of the package. Pastors can be reluctant to speak about it in case it alienates their flocks.
Bob Inglis is a former Republican congressman and explains that because Al Gore championed climate action, and Al Gore was on the other side and always wrong about everything, he assumed it wasn’t real. It was Inglis’s son who convinced him that the climate really is changing and human activity really is the main cause, and now he leads a group named RepublicEn working on free market climate solutions. More evangelicals staying Republican but demanding climate action would be a game-changer.
Fourth, my hope is that God will answer the prayers of many Americans and many others.
I think God loves each person He’s made and grieves for each one who goes hungry because the rains haven’t come, or who loses their home in a flood. I think God created the earth and saw that it was good. I think God is angry at the injustice of climate change where the people feeling the brunt in countries like Bangladesh or Ethiopia mostly did the least to cause it.
So I hope God will lead the US to cut emissions faster, stay in the Paris Agreement, help fund poorer countries to cope as the climate changes and find clean ways to develop – and give the US the vision to reach zero carbon by 2050.
Ben Niblett is Senior Campaigner at Tearfund
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has brought together the world's leading climate scientists to release a major new report on the effects of climate change.