World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

World Climate Change Conference

03 October 2003

Address by Dr David G. Hallman
WCC Climate Change programme coordinator

World Climate Change Conference 2003
Moscow, Russian Federation
September 29 to October 3, 2003

The World Council of Churches (WCC), made up of Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican churches, has been addressing the issue of climate change for over 15 years. Christian churches view climate change as a profoundly ethical and spiritual issue. Human societies are having a destructive impact on the ecological balance of God's creation through the polluting emissions from industrial, transportation and consumer activities. Furthermore, the emissions leading to human-induced climate change have come primarily from the richer industrialised nations over the past 150 years while the consequences will be suffered disproportionately by poorer developing countries and by future generations. Climate change is thus an issue of international justice and intergenerational justice.

Other religions have also been engaged in activities to address climate change within a religious context. At the 3rd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP3) in Kyoto Japan in 1997, inter-religious activities were held with Buddhists, Shintos, New Religions and Christians. At COP7 in Marrakech Morocco in 2001, a workshop brought together Muslim and Christian participants to share common concerns about the spiritual and ethical dimensions of climate change from each other's respective sacred texts and traditions.

Religious engagement is demonstrating that climate change is more than a scientific, ecological, economic and political concern but has important spiritual and ethical dimensions as well. Religions have begun to show the relevance to climate change of the values that societies hold in terms of how they view the natural world and what responsibility they accept for the destructive impact of their actions on others and on future generations. Rather than viewing the earth only as a resource for exploitation by human beings, religions are emphasising that the world is a creation of God and loved by God. Human beings are part of that creation and have a responsibility to care for the earth with a love that reflects God's own love for it.

World Council of Churches members are also increasingly able to educate their own members about the linkages between their faith and acting to address environmental concerns, especially climate change. With this spiritual understanding, churches are mobilising their members within societies to take personal action to care for the environment. In very practical ways, churches can help their members learn ways to live modestly so that they do not cause excessive damage to the earth through high-consumption patterns. But personal lifestyle choices must be supplemented by public policy choices and corporate business decisions that are similarly aimed at reducing the destructive impact of human societies on the earth and on the atmosphere. Hence, WCC member churches have pressed their governments to ratify and implement the Kyoto Protocol. Churches have also urged corporations in their countries to take climate change seriously and to reduce emissions and invest in renewable energy sources.

The World Council of Churches recognises that human-induced climate change is being caused primarily by the wealthy of the world with their excessive energy usage. The majority of the world's population does not have sufficient means to live a healthy life and is being victimised further by the consequences of climate change. The WCC is seeking to help its member churches share with each other financial and human resources to address the impacts of climate change. Ecumenical relief and development agencies are finding that their development assistance is being strained by climate-related catastrophes such as persistent droughts, sea-level rise, devastating floods and hurricanes. In addition to their traditional roles in emergency assistance, such agencies are becoming more active in the areas of adaptation and disaster-preparedness.

While responding to the real need to help people adapt to the impacts of climate change, the World Council of Churches is more than ever committed to challenging the forces that are causing human-induced climate change in the first place. Hence, advocacy initiatives by churches are continuing. A recent statement by the World Council of Churches which was endorsed by many ecumenical relief and development agencies is entitled "A Call to Action in Solidarity with those Most Affected by Climate Change". The statement reads in part:

The overwhelming magnitude of the task can easily lead to indifference or to despair. Instead, there is an urgent need for action. Every effort must be under-taken to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

The Kyoto Protocol is a first step in the global effort to combat climate change. The legal character and the compliance system are new elements in global institutional life. We call on all parties that have not yet ratified the Kyoto Protocol to do so, in particular the United States of America

However, in the light of the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2000), we must be under no illusions. The impact of the Kyoto targets will only be very small. The Protocol needs to be followed up by much stronger efforts.

The Kyoto Protocol must be indeed ratified, but at the same time we urge governments to proceed without delay with a new round of negotiations whose targets must be determined in the light of the long-term perspective. Two basic requirements must be met:
1. Stabilisation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level in accordance with the overall objective of the Climate Change Convention.
2. A fair distribution of rights and obligations, by establishing the concept of per capita emission rights for all countries, as proposed in the ‘Contraction and Convergence' scheme.

Many of us have been associated with the inter-governmental negotiations on climate change since they began in 1990 before the Rio Earth Summit. It may seem that getting the Kyoto Protocol ratified is significant progress when we acknowledge all the scepticism and resistance that the process has encountered. But within the World Council of Churches, we take a long view in which the Kyoto Protocol is indeed an important but limited accomplishment. Much, much more needs to be done to make a more profound reduction on emissions of greenhouse gases.

For the World Council of Churches, justice is the ethical basis for a new round of negotiations aimed at much more ambitious emission reduction targets. Justice is a continuing theme for us. In the 1997 WCC statement to the high-level segment of COP3 in Kyoto when the protocol was being drafted, we expressed our understanding of the implications of justice as it pertains to climate change:

  • Justice means being held responsible for one's actions.
  • The rich of the world, through promotion of the current economic model, have been and continue to be responsible for the vast majority of emissions causing human-produced climate change.
  • Justice means being held accountable for promises you make.
  • The rich of the world have broken their Rio promise to stabilise emissions by 2000 at 1990 levels.
  • Justice means being held responsible for the suffering you cause to others.
  • Small island states, millions of environmental refugees, and future generations will suffer as a result of the callous exploitation of the earth's resources by the rich.
  • Justice means being held accountable for abuse of power.
  • Human societies, particularly in the over-developed countries, are damaging the environment through climate change with little respect for the inherent worth of other species which we believe to be loved by God as are we.
  • Justice means an equitable sharing of the Earth's resources.
  • Millions of people lack the necessities for a decent quality of life. It is the height of arrogance to propose that restrictive commitments be placed on the poor to make up for the delinquencies of the rich. Over-consumption of the rich and poverty of the poor must both be eliminated to ensure quality of life for all.
  • Justice demands truth.  

Religions have an important role to play in helping societies around the world address the challenges of climate change. The World Council of Churches sees that role as involving education of its members, action in solidarity with victims of climate change and advocacy to press all countries, particularly those richer nations who contribute most per capita to the problem, to take aggressive steps to reduce their emissions. Justice is at the heart of that role.

Resources

  • Solidarity with Victims of Climate Change, World Council of Churches, Geneva, 2002.
  • Spiritual Values for Earth Community, by David G. Hallman, World Council of Churches, Geneva, 2000.
  • Ecotheology - Voices from South and North, edited by David G. Hallman, World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1994.