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ss triple helix - Christmas 2008,  Climate Change

Climate Change

Key Points

Acknowledging that some Christians feel that climate change is being over-emphasised, the authors argue that we should establish the facts, review our response, and see concern for the environment as service to its creator and as an opportunity for the gospel.

Global temperature is rising significantly and it is more than 90% certain that most of the warming is due to the observed increase in man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

Practical suggestions in a health care context are made for tackling the causes. Public health must be seen as a priority, and must become more proactive, as globally we tackle the effects.

Climate change has undoubtedlybecome the new gospel issue of our age. It claims that our chief problem is neglect of the earth, and that salvation for us and the planet hinges on our repentance. David Walker is absolutely right when he says that 'inasmuch as the “climate change gospel” stands independent of the gospel of Jesus Christ ... it is afalse gospel'.[ 1] Salvation does not lie in nursing ourdying planet back to health, but in the Lord Jesus Christ.

However, John 14:15 tells us disciples of Jesus Christ must obey his commands, and if concern for the environment is a neglected area of our service of the creator, it is indeed right that we recover it.We need to ask then, what are the facts, and what is our role (if any) in alleviating the consequences?

The facts

Since the industrial revolution began more than 150years ago, the average global surface temperaturehas risen by 0.76°C. This warming is leading to disrupted seasonal weather patterns and an increased frequency and severity of extreme events. In different parts of the world this means more heatwaves, more floods and droughts, and more intense storms and hurricanes. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [2] there is more than 90% certainty that most ofthe warming is due to the observed increase inman-made greenhouse gas emissions. [3] Many ofthe national science academies of the world (including those in the USA) have publicly pledged their agreement. [4]

Should we care?

First, the Bible affirms that our Lord Jesus eternally rules the physical and spiritual realms. [5] It is mistaken to think that our 'dominion' [6] gives us carte blanche to use the earth's resources however we like– they still belong to God. [7] The dominion God intends is a responsible dominion that 'cares', [8] remembers where our resources come from, and uses them with the wider interests of humanity in mind. [9]

This need not be seen as a distraction from otherpriorities such as evangelism. We routinely balance many responsibilities as Christians, such as taking time to love our spouses or doing our work diligently. We rightly recognise that this earth is in some senses temporary, but so are our marriages and our jobs! In other words, that in itself is not a reason to disobey God's instructions for discipleship. Secondly, God commands us to love our neighbours as ourselves. He specifically rebukes those who try and define 'neighbour' too narrowly; [10] after all, he provides practical resources for billions each day. [11] Climate change impacts our poorest and most vulnerable 'neighbours' most severely. These are the very people we are instructed to show particular care for. [12]

Health implications

While in some regions climate change may lead tofewer deaths in winter, scientists consider that most of the health implications are negative. [13] Emergingevidence shows that climate change has:

  • altered the distribution of some infectiousdisease vectors
  • altered the seasonal distribution of someallergenic pollen species
  • increased heatwave-related deaths(eg 35,000 excess deaths in Europe in 2003) [15]

In addition, it is predicted that in time therewill be additional health consequences such as: [16]

  • increasing burden from malnutrition and diarrhoeal, cardio-respiratory, and infectious diseases
  • increased morbidity and mortality fromheatwaves, floods, and droughts
  • changed distribution and transmissionseason of some disease vectors
  • substantial burden on health services

All these will be greatest in low-income countries. In all countries, those at greater risk include the urban poor, the elderly and children, traditional societies, subsistence farmers, and coastal populations.

What we can do

Tackling climate change requires effective action in all areas of society, from international bodies down to individuals. As Christians we must of course recognise that there are many important issues that need addressing in our world. However, if we are to be a distinctive community then we must consider how to respond to the ethical issues that face us today. Practically, responding to the climate change problem mainly requires us to do what we already do but to do it differently. Whenever we seek to respond to climate change,in any area of life, we need to view what we are doing from a different perspective, by asking twoquestions:

  • How can we reduce the greenhousegas emissions produced by thisaction/department/church etc?(Thereby tackling the cause of climate change)
  • How can we reduce the negative consequencesthat are going to arise as a result of climatechange for people we are working with in thissector/geographical area? (Thereby tackling theeffects of climate change)

Tackling the causes

Whether we are thinking about a hospital, a surgery,our church, or home, the answers to the first question are often similar. There is a wide range of practical (often simple) steps we can take to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, or 'carbon footprint', and lots of information is available on how to do this. Three key areas to think through are:

  1. Energy use: 70% of energy use in primary health care is attributed to heating, so optimising thermostat and air conditioning settings, combined with checking natural ventilation andinsulation, is essential. In addition, turning off lights and stand-by functions and using energy saving light-bulbs will provide substantialsavings.
  2. Transport: 5% of UK road transport emissions can be traced to NHS-related journeys. Therefore, where feasible, driving less or when necessary driving in a way that reduces fuel consumption will help. Promoting and developing car-share and public transport initiatives, perhaps by providing bicycle storageand changing facilities, may encourage this.
  3. Waste disposal: reducing (using email andtelephone communication and electronic storagerather than paper), reusing (eg using reusablecoffee/water cups in surgeries rather than paperor styrofoam ones), and recycling (eg collectionbins for patients and staff, using refill printercartridges).
  4. These actions may sound familiar, and run therisk for some of being over-familiar, but we mustnot become numb to them. They will make adifference. For example, with around a quarter ofthe UK's emissions coming from the energy usedto run our homes, these simple steps would havea significant impact if we all did them. Health careinstitutions also have enormous power to reduceemissions, particularly the NHS as one of thelargest employers in the world. [17]

    In our workplaces and churches we need peoplewho are asking questions and pushing for change– could you encourage your team to recycle, or yourchurch to change their light-bulbs? Could you raisea few key points in a professional meeting or withyour church leader? Even just asking the relevantstaff what policies are already in place can help toraise the profile of the issue. It often works well ifthere is a group of like-minded people from acrossan organisation who work together to identify areasfor change. Coming up with innovative ideas tomotivate and inspire people is really important.

    Tackling the effects

    Minimising the negative effects of climate changeis perhaps more complicated, and certainly verycontext-specific. In this case, strengthening publichealth services will need to be a central componentof our response. [18] Doing so is the only way toensure our public health interventions will be robustanyway. But what could this mean specifically?

    First, public health services will increasingly needto anticipate risks, becoming more proactive ratherthan reactive. For example more heatwaves willnecessitate improvements to housing, managementof chronic diseases, and care of the elderly andvulnerable. [19] Therefore participation in publichealth will need to broaden, for example, to climatescientists, urban planners and housing specialists.A few countries have already developed warningsystems for imminent heatwaves and floods. [20]

    Secondly, current public health projects need tobe screened for future risks to climate change, toensure they improve the wellbeing of communitiesin the long-term. [21] This is a complex task, and therewill be some uncertainties. [13] Nevertheless diseaseprotection strategies must be reviewed andstrengthened, and communication to the publicmust be enhanced, to raise awareness of theincreased risks of food-borne diseases andallergic disorders. [22]

    Thirdly, with increasing frequency and severityof natural disasters particularly affecting developingcountries, there will no doubt also be an increasedneed for expertise and practical assistance on theground. Health professionals could considerdevoting a block of time to an area of the worldrecovering from disaster, or be on standbyfor new ones.


    Even if we take a pessimistic view of our abilityto tackle climate change, our response amountsto basic discipleship. This means we cannot excuseourselves from doing it any more than we canexcuse ourselves from fighting lust, envy and greed.In addition, as we take stewardship seriously wemay well gain opportunities to explain the gospel. [23]

  1. Walker, D. God, the land and the'climate change gospel'. MThDissertation, Oak Hill College,2008
  2. The IPCC was established toprovide the decision-makers and others interested in climate change with an objective source of information about climate change
  3. IPCC, Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2007:The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Solomon Set al, Eds. Cambridge UniversityPress, Cambridge, 2007
  4. Royal Society, Joint science academies' statement: Global response to climate change, Royal Society Statement, 2005
  5. Colossians 1:15-20. Jesus' bodily resurrection also affirms that the physical realm is integral to God's plan for the universe
  6. Genesis 1:26-28
  7. Romans 8:21
  8. Genesis 2:15
  9. eg Leviticus 19:9; Matthew 5:44-45
  10. Luke 10:27, 36-37
  11. Matthew 5:44-45
  12. Deuteronomy 15:11. See also Leviticus 23:22; 1 Kings 21; Proverbs 14:31; Psalm 72:2,4,12-14; Galatians 2:9-10
  13. WHO, Climate Change andHuman Health – Risks andResponses, WHO Report, 2003
  14. Confalonieri U et al. Human health. In: Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation andVulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Parry M et al,Eds. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007
  15. Menne B and Bertolinni R. Health and climate change: a call for action, BMJ 2005;331:1283-1284
  16. IPCC, Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2007:Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Parry M et al, Eds. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007
  17. Coote A. What health services could do about climate change. BMJ 2006;332:1343-1344
  18. WHO, Protecting health from climate change – World HealthDay 2008, WHO Report, 2008
  19. Kovats R and Hajat S. Heat Stressand Public Health: A CriticalReview. Ann Rev Public Health2008
  20. Menne B and Bertolinni R. Art cit
  21. Roach R. Adapting to climate change. Tearfund Report, 2007
  22. Menne B and Bertolinni R. Art cit
  23. John 13:34-35
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