'Reaching Zero
Carbon: why this is a theological imperative’.
presented by

John Wilkinson

at the Annual General Meeting of Power
for Good

at St
Andrew’s Church, West Bromwich

19th February


‘Fate’, ‘sin’ and ‘meaning’. If battling
with ‘fate’, as determined by the pagan gods of ancient Europe,
was a hallmark of the religion of the people of that time, battling
with ‘sin’ - failing in their relationship with God and people -
has been a hallmark of Jewish and Christian faith down the centuries.
It’s been suggested, however, that a driving force among believers
today is ‘meaning’ – that we are more struggling with what the
meaning of life is than with our personal sins. I thought of this at
church: it was the day of our annual ‘renewal’ service for
recently baptised children, their parents and godparents. It was a
beautiful and moving occasion. But no one mentioned the climate
change developing on God’s earth.


First, we recall, in the tradition of our faith and that
of Judaism and Islam, that the word ‘creation’ enfolds us and the
whole universe. Its meaning is broader than that of the word
‘Nature’, for ‘Nature’ is a system which
we can study, understand and control. But Creation is more than just
an account of ‘how things got here’. ‘Creation’ is, as Pope
Francis writes, “a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of
all, and a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together
into universal communion1”.
Every creature, even one which exists for only a few seconds, is
enfolded in God’s affection. Do not these words refresh and
restore us? Are they not something beyond understanding ‘nature’,
good though that is? And were these words not acted out in the
beauty of the service I mentioned? For Christians, Baptism is an act
of God the Holy Trinity, an entry into the love of God in ‘Creation’,
not just entry into the Christian Church. Creation and redemption
are both equally sacred; they are where we begin our struggle for

That said, it’s regrettably arguable that the
Christian vision of ‘universal communion in Creation’ is not as
well expressed - notably in Reformed churches and especially so in
conservative ones2
- as it is in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Orthodox
churches, which most of us see rarely and hear little about, are
playing a major role in climate change action3,
Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew has written: “It
our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the
slightest detail of the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the
least speck of dust of our planet”5

Refreshing though the words
of Pope and Patriarch are, there is one person who is regarded, more
than any others, as having lived the reality of ‘universal
communion’ - St Francis of Assisi, whose name the present Pope took
on his election as Bishop of Rome and says of him, “he
is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an
integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically6.”
He continues:
“Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever
Francis would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals,
he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He
communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting
them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with
reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more
than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each
and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of

we read such profound wording, it is hard not to regret how hidden it
now is in the world, absent from contemporary culture, and scarce
even in many churches. To find the theological imperative of
‘reaching Carbon zero’, which is the title of this address, we
should not start with bad news such as that which probably awaits
those children at the baptism, and we cannot regard only
‘intellectual appreciation and economic calculus’ as the end of
our search.
We should
start from “universal
communion”, that is that every creature is enfolded in God’s
affection, and we will then find that this is also where our search

Our Relationship with the Earth

Brought up on the Book of Common
Prayer, I decided the other day to look up
old familiar words and find how God was referred to as Creator in the
Eucharist. Well, he isn’t really, if you discount the Nicene
Creed, an inherited text, and a very brief mention in the
So not much ‘universal communion’ there! By contrast, all
except one of the eight Eucharistic Prayers in the Anglican Common
Worship book begin with affirming God as
We are struggling with the whole meaning of life, not only our
personal sins.

How are we related to the Earth, the planet on which we
live? Well, the impact of climate change was
first noted in 1799, much longer ago than is commonly realised. The
famous German naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, whilst travelling
in Venezuela, was the first
to realise the effects of monoculture,
deforestation and the harmful, human-induced climate change.

There’s no need for me to describe the abuse of the
planet since then, which has brought about the climate change crisis:
just 2 degrees Celsius - or is it 1.5? - and the release of carbon
from Arctic permafrost back into the atmosphere
as carbon dioxide, or worse still, methane, will not be reversable.
Once the ice of the North and South Poles melts, the sea will rise
somewhere between 26 and 77 centimetres, displacing millions of
Some changes, such as our severe rain storms, are already obvious
here, whilst Zimbabwe farmers are being impoverished by drought and
Australian forest fires have brought destruction and death. And we
must note in addition that Climate Change has nasty relatives: food
waste, air pollution, sea pollution, acidifying of the sea, soil
erosion, plastic waste, overpopulation, extreme wealth and vicious

Of course abuse of the planet is not new. By the year
2000 BC people in the Middle East were already facing agricultural
collapse, not because of climate change but because the empires of
the day were destroying small farms and then over-using the soil they
took. I,400 years later the prophet Jeremiah was facing the issue
of the misuse of land11:
“the lowing of cattle is not heard,” he writes, “both the birds
of the air and the beasts have fled and are gone”12.
He gives God’s judgement on this, but also advocates repentance,
changing practices and recovering fidelity to the spiritual
foundations of the nation and of the earth.13

What the powerful failed to see and honour, Pope Francis
reminds us of: it was not so with Jesus, who, in talking with his
disciples, would invite them to recognize the paternal relationship
God has with all his creatures. With moving
tenderness he would remind them that each one of them is important in
God’s eyes: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not
one of them is forgotten before God” (Lk 12:6). “Look at the
birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns,
and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Mt 6:26)14.

The Rise of Technology

On the north side of the
chancel in Canterbury Cathedral is a wonderful group of mediaeval
windows erected by the guilds of various trades. They express
something of Jesus in this link between faith and work. The link is
eroded in most countries now, partly because of the rise of early
capitalism and in England also as a consequence of the Reformation.

and technology have developed their own independence and in many
ways this was necessary. With regard to science, many Christians
have been slow to understand and accept discoveries, notably the
relationship of the sun to the Earth and the evolution of human
beings from earlier forms of life. With regard to technology, we
benefit much from two centuries of inventions and change: from the
telegraph and steam engines, via motor cars and modern medicine, to
the digital revolution. But there are also nuclear bombs and the
array of technology which totalitarian regimes have employed to
kill millions of people, and the slow chemical poisoning of the
the most difficult cause of climate change is the result of our good
actions, overpopulation.
medicine has saved and extended the lives of millions. When I was
born, the world’s population was about 1.5 billion. It is now 7.6
billion and, at the present rate, is likely to peak at about 10
million by the end of the century. At this point, premature death by
starvation and disease may
well balance the birth rate15.
There are suggestions that the number of limiting the number of
children is necessary. There is also a small movement advocating
that the planet and its millions of species can be saved only by the
human species having no children and so dying out16.

technology gives tremendous power, but it is mainly those with the
knowledge, and the economic resources, who now use it to develop
dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world. As Pope
Francis writes: “Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet
nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we
consider how it is currently being used.”17
Clearly our
immense technological development has not been accompanied by a
development in human responsibility, values and conscience.

The struggle to save the balance of the earth

“Fall in solar power expected after ministers
announced a sudden 65% cut to the Feed-in Tariff. Size of drop-off
will dismay green campaigners” –a heading in the Guardian in
April 2016. It’s good that Power
for Good exists, and that many other
community organisations are also at work to combat climate change.
But even the Guardian was calling us “green campaigners”, as if
we were just an ‘interest group’. The reality was that the big
six electricity companies were blaming rising electricity prices on
Feed-in Tariffs. The policy of slowly reducing tariffs as the price
of panels also decreased was destroyed overnight, as were many solar
panel companies, including the excellent firm which put solar panels
on St Andrew’s, West Bromwich for Power for Good.

Behind such moves is what Pope
Francis calls the technocratic
paradigm (a paradigm is a conceptual
framework in which theories are constructed) in which major
transnational companies develop their power
internationally. He explains it in these words: “This
paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and
rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over
an external object… It is as if the subject were to find itself in
the presence of a formless object which is completely open to
is one such ‘subject’. It tries to hide behind donations to good
causes. For example at the British Museum BP was at one point about
to support an exhibition about the Arctic whilst it was extracting
oil there! In the end it did not do so, but it the Museum still
allows BP to support it19.
Last year an article in The National Geographic about extraction of
fossil fuels in the

of Canada (not all BP) was headed “This
is the world's most destructive oil operation—and it's growing”20.
The refusals of corporations to act against
climate change are matters of politics and
economics, not science. In
the last few years, the struggle against climate change has
intensified. The leadership of the young prophet Greta Thunberg has
led to international demonstrations. But the response of those who
most need to change, the big corporations and the leaders of
government who support them, as in Brazil, the United States and
Australia, has been poor. Whilst for us the danger of going over the
2-degree limit now seems a likely disaster, in so many key places
preventing climate change remains a marginal concern and worthy of,
at best, just token support.

Visions of the end of time: from lament to

Australia has recently undergone a vicious and
well-publicised encounter with the burning effects of climate change.
Until now, the present Australian government has acted like one of
the international corporations mentioned above. Australia
is the world’s largest coal exporter and was planning to double its
coal exports21.

In this context Barbara Rossing, Professor
of New Testament at the
Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago, has responded to the question,
“How do you see God involved in the climate
crisis?” Around the world, those who had been hardest hit —
victims of climate change in Asia, Africa, the Arctic and other
regions — asked in response: “Why is God punishing us?” The
international corporations, the “subjects”, will not mind this
haunting question from these supposed “formless objects open to

Rossing rejects it. Instead her first response is

As we face rising waters, hunger, and displacement,

God suffers with us.

As we mourn the distress
and wounds of God’s creation,

God weeps with us22.

Seeing the Amazon basin and much of south-east Australia
on fire had me looking at Revelation, the book of this Bible with all
its apocalyptic prophecies. Rossing also goes to Revelation, though
I don’t know how she decided to do that. She has four steps in
investigating the book:

First: the word often
translated as ‘Woe!’, sounding like a curse on the cities the
book mentions, is better translated as ‘Alas!’, or ‘How awful!’
- God’s lament.

Second: God Is not against
the earth. God is outraged that lands and seas have been taken over
by Satan’s emissary, the Roman Empire. God is lamenting its violent
conquests, predatory economic system and enslaving of both people and

Third: Revelation is based on
a very important precedent, the exodus of the Israelites from slavery
in Egypt. “The Lord brought you out of the iron furnace, out of
the land of Egypt”, writes the author of Deuteronomy23.
“Egypt was the “biblical archetype of the
industrial society: burning, ceaseless in its demand for slave
Exodus liberated God’s people and healed them from all the
“diseases” of Egypt (Ex. 15:26). The Exodus has since inspired
enslaved and oppressed Christians to escape, as notably recorded in
the Black American spiritual: Go down Moses.
In Revelation, the author applies this understanding of Egypt to
diagnose the sickness of the Roman imperial economic system of his
day. Those dramatic plagues in the book are warnings to oppressors.
They are wake-up calls, warning of the consequences of Rome’s
unjust actions, a bit like the nightmarish visions that Ebenezer
Scrooge experiences in Charles Dickens’ A
Christmas Carol25.

Fourth: There is hope.
Revelation’s focus on the urgency of the present moment, and its
vision for New Jerusalem, writes Rossing, are two hopeful aspects of
the book that can help us face the crisis of global climate change.
As the Israelites arrived from Egypt and moved into the ‘land of
milk and honey’ (and later returned from a second captivity in
Babylon), so Revelation describes the vision of the New Jerusalem:
Then the angel showed me the river of the
water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and
of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either
side of the river is the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of
fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are
for the healing of the nations26.

This vision is what we need today as a model of hope for
our world. We need those healing leaves today27.
Our world is ill — very ill, as it is in the hands of ruthless
transnational companies, aided by governments which have not yet
realised that the world is on fire.

Governments dally with chronos,
the Greek word for consecutive time, doing a bit here and after that
something else – “we aim to do x and y by 2050”. But in
reality, it must be for us as if war has been declared. The battles
must be fought now if we are to get free of those who treat the mass
of human beings as “a
formless object which is completely open to manipulation”. We
are in the hands of the exploitation and slavery of modern
equivalents of Egypt, Babylon and the Roman Empire. We need the
Greek word for concurrent time, kairos,
in which everything needs doing now. Few governments have acted as
needed, and few major companies. This is kairos,
the urgent right moment, by the grace of God, for action by the
‘objects’ from below.

Laudato Si’, encyclical
letter of the Holy Father Francis: “On Care for our Common Home”,
May 2015, pp.55,56

analysis of resolutions and campaigns by evangelicals over the past
40 years shows that anti-environmentalism within conservative
Christianity stems from fears that Stewardship of God’s creation
is drifting toward neo-pagan nature worship, and from apocalyptic
beliefs about ‘end times that make it pointless to worry about
global warming.” From Why conservative
Christians don’t believe in climate change,
Bernard Daley Zaleha and Andrew Szasz, Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists, 2015, Vol. 71(5) 19–30

and Science Working Together on Climate Change,
Bingham, S. G. (2016), Eos,
doi:10.1029/2016EO050243, 14 April 2016.

See also Laudato Si, pp. 6,7.

Responsibility and Ecological Sustainability, Closing
Remarks, Halki Summit I, Istanbul, 20 June 2012.

Si, p 9

Si, p.10

“Maker of all things”.

Prayer C is the exception. It is based on the Eucharistic Prayer of
the Book of Common Prayer, but in modern English.

recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“When the people of God allowed their work on the land to displace
the worship of God, and when they enslaved one another and the land
to serve the greed of the rich, the land lost its fertility and the
rich and poor alike were exiled from the land”. A Moral
Climate, Michael Northcott , Darton Longman and Todd,
2007, p.12

Jeremiah 9:10.

A Moral Climate, ibid.

Si, p. 72



Si, p.77

Si, p.79




Barbara Rossing, God Laments with Us: Climate Change, Apocalypse
and the Urgent Kairos Moment, Wold Council of Churches, 2010.

Deuteronomy 4:20.

Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge
University Press2010, p. 69.

Davis, ibid, p.125.


Rossing, ibid, p.129.