Faith leaders and Climate Change; Figueres’ call to divest

No it is not for priests to take their vestments off and preach and celebrate in the nude!

On Wednesday 7th May 2014 Christiana Figueres of the UN Convention on Climate Change spoke to faith leaders about Climate Change at St Pauls cathedral in London. It was a highly significant speech and much discussed. Figueres summarised her views for the Guardian and in her blog;

Much of what she said cannot be challenged by any thinking person; the Climate Change is happening, it is largely man-made (some today wrongly think it is entirely man-made) and is having serious consequences now and in the future. CO2 emissions must be reduced in the future and there must be a shift to renewables. So far this must be non-negotiable in any discussion of Climate Change and energy.

I shall ignore the AGW-deniers and the “frack-babe-frack” red-necks, though they are having, and will have, a bad effect on how we deal with Climate Change. They are particularly prevalent in the USA and are supported by those in Big Oil like the famous Koch brothers.They also attract a good proportion of conservative Christians and this is headed by Calvin Beisner and the Cornwall Alliance. (Beisner reckons that all fossil fuels were formed during the year of Noah’s Flood. He also believes God in His providence will not allow humans to ruin the world. history questions that. )

Among those concerned about Climate Change solutions are being polarised between those who appeal for disinvestment from fossil fuels, a ban on fracking and an insistence that renewables can deliver within a few years, and those who realise we are stuck with fossil fuels in the foreseeable future and that these will provide most energy over the next decades especially in developing countries, and that the route forward is mitigation, not rejection. Thus it is seen that coal needs to be discarded as soon as possible both for CO2 emissions and other gross pollution and that shale gas aka fracking provides a bridge or transition to a low carbon future. Many have argued this, especially Mark Lynas,  Dieter Helm in The Carbon Crunch (On Twitter 13/5/14 he commented on the Times article p34 that “gas is the “inescapable” transition fuel”) and by Francis Egan of Cuadrilla. It seems that Green Christians, along with secular Greens, favour banning fracking and going for disinvestment and regard those who support using shale gas as a bridge to better things as bad as “frack-babe-frack”!! Or this from a former exec director of Greenpeace; Just today 13/5/14 Helm has written another fine article; I note Figueres made no mention of the considerable body of people supporting (shale) gas as a transition fuel.

The ideal of disinvestment sounds very appealing while in a prayer-group or in a pub with fractivists, but can it work? Pragmatically it is an empty gesture as the greatest emitters of CO2 will not take any notice. These are China and India. The USA is another contender and there is no chance of divorcing them from fossil-fuels, especially as so many are GW-deniers. In fact, appeals for disvestment by universities is likely to widen the cultural divide and fuel their culture wars. It will play into the hands of Big Oil and the Koch Brothers and the Cornwall Declaration and Calvin Beisner, of whom I wrote so dismissively about two years back. In South Africa, for example, the alternatives are stark; either increasing polluting coal-fired power stations or develop the shale gas in the Karroo. (If the Karroo is not developed with care it will be an environmental disaster. South African Greens should focus on this and not publish scare stories about fracking.)

Figueres refers approvingly on Desmond Tutu’s call for disinvestment and an Anti-Apartheid style of boycott of fossil fuels. On both counts Tutu’s call is misguided. The call for disinvestment is the more reasonable of the two, but a boycott of fossil fuels in the style of boycotting South African goods thirty years ago is simply absurd. A boycott means simply that if you take it seriously you will use no carbon fuels in any form whatsoever. I would like to meet someone who is prepared to carry this out. A boycott will involve you to;
1. Get rid of your car
2. stop using coal and gas domestically
3. Only use non-fossil electricity i.e. reduce electiricity usage to 20%
4. Not to wear clothes made from synthetic fibres
5. Not to buy any food which has used fossil-fuels in the chain, e.g tractors, fertilizers, transport, packaging
6 Not to cycle as fossil-fuels used in their manufacture
7. get rid of all electrical or electronic gadgets
8 Refuse to live in house made with aid of fossil-fuels e.g. brick etc.
9. only use fossil-free transport where vehicle not made with aid of fossil-fuel.
And when you have done that you can die of hunger or cold with a good conscience.
At this point many of my readers will be angry. But why? This is the logic of Tutu’s call for a boycott.

Figueres lists some churches with have decided to disinvest and, of course, the General Synod of the Church of England voted to consider this in February 2014.

And then some multi-faith groups in the USA, Australia and New Zealand have written to Pope Francis saying it is “immoral” to profit from fossil fuels. That is a most naïve statement as almost all businesses aim to make a profit, whether the local shop (Thus, I was sad my local bike shop folded recently. Just to boast, I have cycled more miles so far this year, than driven in a car.), mining companies, manufacturers, farms or anything else. There is the issue of business ethics here and some businesses, whether cowboy builders or mutlinationals, obtain immoral profits, summed up in Edward Heath’s expression of “the unacceptable face of capitalism” concerning Tiny Rowland’s African mining activities in the 70s. It is difficult not to see a naïve and unrealistic agenda behind this appeal, in which business and profit are dirty words. I am tempted to ask whether Soviet-style collectivism would be more acceptable – with its attendant starvation and environmental degradation. Reluctantly I would prefer the Koch brothers to Soviet leaders! Better still is good business and environmental regulation.  A simplistic anti-profit approach is not going to cut any ice in the commercial world until the Houses of Parliament and the White House are flooded and then it will be too late.

Unless one is an ideological fundamentalist or whose environmentalism is informed by the film Bambi, the route forward is not to create a rift with the commercial world and demonise fossil-fuel industries but to work with and alongside them for a world which uses fossil-fuels more wisely, so we do have Lord Browne’s BP – beyond petroleum in action. (Note that Browne is not only chairman of Cuadrilla but also of a vast multi-billion enterprise on renewables.) This demonisation will polarise energy issues and make the choice between dirty hydrocarbons and tree-hugging renewables. If it comes to that dirty energy will win. Low-carbon energy needs to win. No-carbon energy will fail.

Despites the ups and down of the last half century on the environment since Rachel Carson’s epoch-making book Silent Spring (my yellowed copy is dated 1966) there have been many improvements on environmental issues. These are frequently ignored by green doomsters. We are using less energy than in 1970. Fuel economy for cars has dramitally increased; in the 60s 35 m.p.g. was reckoned to be excellent, now 50mpg is becoming the norm, house insulation was unknown (in 1977 when in Friends of the Earth I helped put 3 inches of insulation into pensioners’ houses) and today it is nearly a foot, not to mention the plethora of insulation, energy saving devices and everything else. Today you can drown in the River Mersey whereas in the 70s you’d be poisoned!  So it is said in Liverpool. This improvement is often ignored. That is not so say that “all is well”. It is not as the scourges of tropical deforestation, over-fishing , pollution of land, sea and air continue apparently unabated. Further in Britain it is impossible for any political party to ignore environmental issues and even Owen Patterson is very green by the standards of forty years ago.

Sadly the churches record on the environment in the past is not a good one, and it is only recently that the environment has been on the churches’agenda. In the 70s there were virtually no Christian publications on the environment and in 1982 I floated a lead balloon in the Liverpool Diocesan Board of Social Resonsibility attempting to persuade them to consider more than unemployment and Apartheid. There were no takers. Despite the noble work of many of the the last three decades e.g. Hugh Montefiore, Sam Berry, Sir John Houghton, at present so much Christian environmental activism is a tunnel vision focused on disinvestment and anti-fracking. At times it seems that other environmental issues are unimportant and if you are not pro-disinvestment and anti-fracking then you are not Green 🙂 So I have been told on more than one occasion! I think it fair to say that many Christian Green groups today have this limited focus of DISINVESTMENT and FRACKING.

Disinvestment is the rage in universities and churches today, but few think through the implications, whether financial or environmental. I do wonder how many of students and staff in American universities who support disinvestment will behave inconsistently and travel all over the world burning up fuel provided by the very same oil companies.

The other green shibboleth is fracking, and here I fail miserably. Until a borehole at Preese Hall in Lancashire  was ovalised in 2011 few had heard of fracking, but soon it became the focus of most green groups. Since then the fractivists have become a potent force and through groups like Frackoff and local groups are very effective in presenting their case. I have to admit that it was the little tremors at Preese Hall that slowly goaded me into action. As a geologist who experienced an 8.6 quake as a child and then when working in Uganda tremors of about 4 or 5 were commonplace and, at worst, caused organists to miss a note when playing a hymn in church, paltry 1.5s and 2.3s are trivial. Having more time in retirement I carefully researched the literature but chose to use technical reports from the British Geological Survey , DECC the Royal Society and the Royal Association of Engineers, rather than scary journalistic accounts. Slowly I became concerned at the dissimulation of fracitivsits and this was clinched by going to a meeting of Frackoff near Garstang. This month FrackFreeSomerset have withdrawn a wildly inaccurate article after a complaint to the ASA.
The more I read the more I found fractivists were inaccurate and had a simple litany of fracts;
1.Shale gas is worse for emissions than coal.
2.fracking causes earthquakes
3 Fracking causes pollution of aquifers
4 Fracking causes subsidence
5. Fracking causes pollution of our water
6. Fracking causes diseases
7.Fracking will be short-lived
8. Fracking will industrialise the countryside
etc etc
This type of comment will be found on fracitivist sites and also Greenpeace, Friends of the earth and the Green Party. (Frackland is an excellent blog on fracking;  Two of the most deceitful arguments are the “Not for Shale” campaign and the use of pictures of the Jonah Gasfield in Wyoming to show what will happen in the English countryside (Jonah is pre-lateral hydraulic fracking so the wells are only a few hundeds of yards apart. Even so when we drove past the Jonah field in July 2012 we scarcely noticed its impact so took no photos!


Many Green Christians focus on the horrors of Climate Change and Fracking. I am afraid I have yet to find a competent Christian discussion of fracking, as most writers seem to echo the errors and scaremongering of the fractivists. This can be seen on the websites of Chrisitan Ecology Link, Green Anglicans, Operation Noah and their baby Bright Now, Blackburn Diocese, the Church Times of Sept 2013 and various individuals. As far as I can discern most of the writers have no scientific training but several are qualified in sciences like chemistry and have no acquaintance with geology or mineral extraction.
Most give the usual fractivist litany of the horrors of fracking, often in a face-palming mixture of confidence and error. To some within the church, including bishops, this is a matter of differences of opinion. To give an incompetent misrepresentation is not a difference of opinion but, at best, sheer folly in pontificating on subjects beyond their competence and repeating the errors of others. It does the churches’ corporate witness no good and reduces the church to a laughing stock.
Because of the antagonism to fracking, nearly all argue for disinvestment and do not consider any alternative to banning fracking. Here they often repeating the green belief that renewables will be able to provide all energy needs in years rather than decades. This comes from the IPCC report  which claimed that 80% of energy in 2050 could be from renewables. But it was  written by Greenpeace and the range was 20% to 78%. In other words renewables are a vain hope.
The value of shale/fracked gas as a bridge or transition fuel until renewables can provide the necessary energy is not even discussed by these writers and thus the arguments of Dieter Helm in The Carbon Crunch for gas as a transition fuel are not so much discussed and rejected after good reasoning as simply ignored. This is very apparent in Operation Noah’s manifesto for disinvestment,Bright Now, which seems to have formed the basis for the motion for disinvestment in General Synod in February 2014. Bright Now parodies fracking and only considers total disinvestment. That does not give a balanced argument.


Figueres claims to provide a moral compass for dealing with climate change and disinvestment. However her whole approach is like using a compass to navigate rough terrain when one is unaware that the actual deflection on the compass is over 90 degrees. That would set any intrepid traveller off in the wrong direction and that is what I think Figueres has asked the churches to do. To navigate a moral maze which such moral deflection, however unwitting, will make navigation over Climate Change both impossible and disastrous. (I almost speak for personal experience as in thick forest in the Canadian Arctic – 64 deg N – we needed to turn back and thought it was simple as it would simply involve going due West. The compass was a 100 deg out and somehow after an  hour we got to our destination despite no compass or paths.)

Disinvestment will not influence oil companies for the better and may give encouragement to the less responsible ones and the whole climate change denying fraternity. Appeals for disinvestment from the churches will simply make them more irrelevant and prevent faith communities from making a constructive contribution to climate change and all environmental issues. Despite the protests of fractivists the extraction of shale gas will occur and if the churches are simply seen as tree-huggers who are pawns of radical greens, then carbon will be used in a more untrammelled way and NO mitigation will take place.

All churches need to look for a better way.

1 thought on “Faith leaders and Climate Change; Figueres’ call to divest

  1. Striebs

    Michael ,

    I think we have to be careful about dumbing down science and logic .

    Warning : there can be dire consequences for society if we start treating hypothesis for which there is even a 100% positive consensus but for which there is no proof as if they were theorems .

    Furthermore , Popper makes the case that even scientific theorems should be considered to be provisional .

    These days diversity seems to be in vogue for all things with one exception – a complete intolerance of diversity of opinion .

    Surely you are not advocating treating anyone who has drawn a different conclusion , or expresses a different opinion or is unconvinced as a heretic ?

    Don’t get me wrong , I agree with most of your article and the last paragraph sums up what is happening – chaos .

    To your 9 boycott points could possibly be added 10) be prepared force other people to do the same , 11) destroy what is left of the chemical industry and millions of jobs world wide which depend on fossil fuels 12) exist on starvation rations , 13) sterilise themselves and others after 1 child .

    What I think should deeply concern all Christians is that there is another prevailing assertion which it is taboo to challenge ; that the worlds population is “unsustainable” .

    Many of the people who promote that assertion are influential elites or greens . They actively oppose engineering and agricultural solutions because they want massive depopulation instead .

    Example : in the 1960’s Mexico couldn’t feed itself . The political and academic consensus was that these people should be allowed to starve . Remind anyone of Africa ? Fortunately Dr Norman Borlaug thought these human lives were valuable and supervised agricultural changes which saved these peoples lives . That is the side the Church should be on .

    When put all together I conclude that we are on the edge of the slippery slope where “the ends justify the means” and that one of the few anchor ropes we have is logic and we pare away at it at our peril .

    The radical green movement has no problem with starving or freezing people to death . They can and do justify Chinese style population control because in their minds “the end justifies the means” .

    Their hatred for most of mankind and God has probably even caused them to lose sight of their “end” !

    What is much more troubling is that the ideas of “unsustainability” and “the end justifies the means” are being pushed continuously , seductively both explicitly and subliminally to school children and adults in a manner which amounts to brainwashing .

    History shows what often happens next .



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