The Failure to communicate the most important idea

“Hello, I’m grateful for this opportunity to share about why I’ve been banging on about climate change for the past couple of years! As most of you know, I’m not a climate scientist or a theologian, but I am a writer. I’m all about communicating ideas. And I believe there’s been a colossal failure to communicate the idea of the climate crisis.

To say there’s been a failure to communicate, implies there should be somebody who’s responsible for communicating the idea… climate change is so complex and nebulous that it could be a daft thing to say. But bear with me.

Before talking about the science and politics of this, I want to get to the heart of the issue first. Many theologians who are hugely engaged with climate change, like Michael Northcott, are saying the climate crisis asks us to love our neighbour as ourselves.

So who is our neighbour? One could be the frightened woman on a Pacific island whose home is already being swallowed up by rising seas. Our neighbour could be the struggling farmer in Malawi who can no longer predict the rains, so his crops don’t take root. Our neighbour is a future grandchild who will see an unthinkable extinction rate of species that can’t adapt to changes in the ecosystem. Our neighbours are those very insects, animals, sea creatures and all of creation.

Most of you remember me talking about Our Voices, a climate petition for people of all faiths. It aimed to help make the Paris Climate Talks in 2015 a success, and it became one of many moral calls to action that urged the world’s governments to agree on curbing carbon emissions, and that plan is now in place. The year before, I was asked to write the website for the Our Voices petition. And it was only then that I found out we’d reached a crisis point.

Up until then, I’d been vaguely aware of ‘environmental problems’ and man-made climate change. I’d even co-ordinated an Environmental Film Festival for the Filmhouse in 1991 – but then I’d become distracted, because, like all of us, I was really busy. I became a single mum, working full time, and I was spending my spare minutes in the 16th century, working on a novel. Around 2012, I noticed the absence of news about the environment – incredibly, I actually remember thinking with a feeling of relief that the scientists must have got it wrong and there was nothing to worry about – otherwise surely there would be more in the news? But how wrong I was. I feel so much regret for not checking my assumption, because, rather silently, we were passing major tipping points, locking in unstoppable climate change. And back then I didn’t know.

So in 2014, for writing Our Voices, I read widely and deeply about climate change and what it means, and what the UN were trying to achieve, and about the IPCC ( which stands for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) who provide the worldwide scientific evidence base. The psychologist Mary Pipher refers to the trauma someone experiences when they realise our planet is broken. Excuse the French, but she calls it the “Oh Shit!” moment. I had mine then. How had we arrived at ‘Decade Zero’ as it’s been called, with our backs against the wall, and no-one’s really talking about this? How come it isn’t all over the news?

Previously, I hadn’t seen it anywhere because I wasn’t looking – and there’s that saying, you don’t know what you don’t know.

I experienced an actual feeling of betrayal with our media, and anger. I realised with a shock that I still had – despite my cynicism – unconsciously expected that, surely, surely, if something so bad was happening, ‘someone’ would tell us about it.

The scientists are trying to tell us. Listen to them and they’re loud and clear.

Here’s a snippet from the UNFCCC in November, bear with me because this quote is a little bit technical.

“The world must urgently and dramatically increase its ambition to cut roughly a further quarter off predicted 2030 global greenhouse emissions to have any chance of minimising dangerous climate change… Even if the Paris pledges are fully implemented, the world’s on track for a temperature rise of 2.9 to 3.4 degrees this century… If we don’t start taking additional action now… we will grieve over the avoidable human tragedy. The growing numbers of climate refugees hit by hunger, poverty, illness and conflict will be a constant reminder of our failure to deliver. The science shows that we need to move much faster.”

The scientist Johan Rockstrom puts it another way: “The window is open but barely open to transition back to a safer more sustainable planet.”

The message is clear. So how is it getting lost in translation?

Much of the corporate media is a big part of the problem. Beyond our immediate experiences, the media inevitably influences our understanding of the world. This is a complex issue. And by the way I’m not a conspiracy theorist –  I don’t want to demonise the media, as it were, because there’s a lot of good reporting out there. (There are good journalists, just as there are good copywriters, who get to the truth of the story!). The New York Times, Huffington Post, The Independent and Democracy Now, to name just a few, provide so much insight  and vital news on the climate. Another caveat is that I don’t want to be simplistic about left wing or right wing. So. Talking about the corporate media at large, I do think we can pick out five factors at play which are not helping the communication of news about the climate crisis to the general population:

The first factor is, agendas. We all know the corporate media has them, taking particular editorial lines.

Two, reporting on forecasts is difficult – it’s like talking about saving for our retirement, it’s seen as too ‘slow’, too far away to be interesting to anyone. Even climate news that’s more dramatic is quickly bumped off the schedule by point three – all the important things happening now like Syria, Brexit and Trump.

The fourth factor is editorial impartiality – broadcasting the opposing view… over years, the tiny minority, 3%, of scientists who deny that climate change is man-made, have got 50% of the airtime.

And the fifth point is the power of the climate denial movement itself. Go and look up the Heartland Institute in America, they’re a climate denial think tank funded by the fossil fuel industry. Naomi Klein investigated it for her book, This Changes Everything. Their well-spun denial stories are designed to obscure the argument and confuse the public.

Klein said, “The talking points tested here will jam the comments sections beneath every article and YouTube video that contains the phrase climate change or global warming… they will fly off the mouths of hundreds of right wing commentators and politicians… most impressive are all the news stories that were never published or aired…. the collapse of media coverage of climate change… in 2007 the 3 major US networks ran 147 stories on climate change – in 2011 those networks ran just 14 stories on the subject. That, too, is the denier strategy at work…’

It’s no wonder I’d noticed an absence of news over here.

Why are they doing it? Well, scientists are saying that 80% of oil, gas and coal reserves must be kept in the ground. That’s a lot of profit that won’t be happening. There’s your motive.

When I realised about this colossal failure to communicate the emergency we’d arrived at, I got active, talking about it, getting involved with Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, organising prayer vigils to support the Paris Climate Talks for Our Voices, leading a reflection on our response to the climate crisis, and organising the Green Spot in our services.

Basically, I so desperately wished that five or ten years ago, somebody had told me that we were passing these tipping points, so I’m doing all I can to break the silence.

In 2015, Pope Francis issued an Encyclical on the environment saying, “I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation that includes everyone, since the environment challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”.

But having conversations about climate change can be hard. It can feel overwhelming. And perhaps we’re already overloaded with everyday stuff, so we switch off from it, and in effect, deny the reality of what’s happening. Perhaps our eyes flicker over a headline, and we don’t read the article.

As Naomi Klein also says, ‘We engage in this on-off ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons. We deny because we are afraid that letting in the full reality of the crisis will change everything. And we are right… Major cities will very likely drown, ancient cultures will be swallowed by the seas and there is a very high chance that our children will spend a great deal of their lives fleeing and recovering from vicious storms and extreme droughts. And we don’t have to do anything to bring about this future. All we have to do is nothing. Just continue to do what we are doing now, whether it’s counting on a techno-fix or tending to our gardens or telling ourselves we are too busy to deal with it. All we have to do is not react as though this is a full blown crisis. All we have to do is keep on denying how frightened we really are.”

It’s hard to talk about things we’re frightened about. But you know the phrase, ‘for evil to triumph, the only necessary thing is for good people to do nothing’.

So perhaps, when we engage with reality, a turnaround can happen. We can listen to our fear and grief, and in the good old fashioned language of the prophets, lament, which means feeling deep sorrow, down in the depths of our being. And deep down there, we can meet God. There, deep lamenting can lead to energising. Energising is the movement to make things better. So being real is where hope is.

Jesus led the way in this. He was a revolutionary in his time. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Jesus was the most active resister perhaps known to humanity. This was non-violence par excellence.” He rose up and challenged powers that were exploiting others, and he overturned tables outside temples to challenge corrupt systems.

Sometimes, strong actions are needed to help shift things for the better.

Christian Aid are running a really good campaign called The Big Shift, asking us to write to banks about using our money for good – and not to support fossil fuel companies.

I was so pleased to hear about this, because of the reply I received from the financial corporation Aviva, when I wrote to them about divestment. They said, and I quote, “To date, there hasn’t been a sufficient demand to establish a dedicated fossil-free fund ourselves,” in other words, not enough customers are making a noise and demanding they do this. Aviva also said, “Climate change is a market failure, and will require government action to correct.” Yet they also acknowledged that they know that government actions aren’t strong enough. So they’re fully aware, but they’re devolving responsibility, to us, and to the government, who they know aren’t doing enough. They know and they’re passing the buck. George Orwell would call it Double Think.

They’re one example of why we can’t leave action to the corporations – and we can’t just leave it to the politicians.

As people, we need strength and comfort and hope in these hard times. At least here at St James, we share the incredible mystery of faith that nature is a living expression of a living God. We’re all connected. And we’re working alongside God as fellow caretakers, caring for people and creatures, loving our neighbours.

That feels hopeful. But what about when some scientists are saying we may be too late? What does hope look like then? Bluntly, can we hope for a safe future for our kids? Vaclav Havel said that, “hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it will turn out.”

Our hope lies in living our lives in a way that makes sense. And I can testify that taking action does create hope. My involvement, for example, with the Praying in the Sea event felt very hopeful. The photos of a group of us from here standing ankle deep in the water on Portobello beach and praying about the issue of rising sea levels and for politicians as they negotiated, really encouraged others on living on the frontline of climate change on low-lying Pacific islands, where their sea levels are already rising. They organised their own Praying in the sea meetings. Somehow, global neighbours, reaching out across the oceans together, was hopeful, but joyful, as building community always does.

Amazingly, two of the most hopeful people I’ve met recently were climate scientists! They happened to sit beside Rupert and I on a train to London, last weekend, when I was working on this reflection. They were so positive! When I commented upon their hopefulness, James said that ‘you’ve got to have hope, human beings are amazing and respond and change very quickly when it’s really needed’.

We need to hear more hopeful stories about what’s happening. They shine a light forwards and show us much power and influence we DO have. They give us courage. So here are some hopeful stories. (sources below)

  • On Tuesday, Reuters reported that China has just cancelled over 100 coal power stations, focusing on green energy instead.

  • In America, 200 companies such as Nike and Starbucks wrote to Trump urging him not to break the Paris Climate Agreement – what happens next remains to be seen.

  • Also in America, a group of young people have been given the go-ahead for a court trial this year to prosecute the government and federal agencies for “knowingly allowing dangerous climate change”. They’re aiming for a legal outcome that will force faster action in line with the science. Look up their website, Our Children’s Trust. They really need our prayers and our support.

  • In Germany, 2 million citizens are producing so much green energy that they’re delivering to the grid.

  • Denmark is generating 100% green power on many days.

  • Sweden is becoming one of the world’s first fossil-free welfare countries, because of an enormous uprising of youth groups and community groups protesting about the climate.

And here’s the thing. When Westminster is hellbent on fracking as a new fossil fuel industry for the UK, Scotland could pass a permanent ban up here. To explain this quickly, as Flick will be covering this in a Green Spot. The Scottish Government had imposed a moratorium on fracking which ends this Spring. You may not know this but there are licenses to frack all around the Lothians, and the moratorium had temporarily stopped the industry from pushing ahead. There’s so much evidence that fracking threatens our health, and it’s disastrous for the climate. It involves drilling deep wells and blasting water and toxic chemicals through rock to fracture it, letting out gas, but leaky wells pollute the soil, water and air. If you want to find out more, watch the Gaslands documentary, or come and talk to me and I’d be more than happy to hear your views. Basically fracking is a big deal, so Scottish Labour are running a consultation right now and the Scottish Government will be running another one shortly, asking you and I what we think they should do. We’ve got a chance to give our politicians a strong mandate to say No to the frackers and Yes to a sustainable energy industry – there are links to the Scottish Labour consultation in your service sheets, and Flick will give us details of the wider public consultation from Holyrood in her Green Spot. Let me underline this. In other countries, to try and stop fracking or a pipeline, you have to throw yourself in front of bulldozers or be flailed by police dogs and water cannons. Here we’re being politely asked to complete an online form. We’ve got a government who wants to speak for us, not for the big polluters – so let’s give them the mandate they need to say No to a new fossil fuel industry.

But many people around us don’t know that fracking around here is even a threat – and right there is the ongoing failure to communicate the idea again.

I want to end by quoting Kathryn Hayhoe, the Canadian climate scientist, who is also a Christian. She says, one of the most important things we can do about climate change is, talk about it.

Thank you.”


NASA’s climate website

MET office on climate

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

World Energy Outlook – Paris pledges

Press release UNFCC – World must urgently up action to cut a further 25% from predicted 2030 emissions

Kathryn Hayhoe, climate scientist

TED talk by Johan Rockstrom – Let the environment guide our development

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

The Green Boat by Mary Pipher

Our Voices

Documentary film Gaslands by Director Josh Fox (Also see Gaslands 2, How to let go and love)


Reuters – China cancels 100 coal power stations

US Companies to Trump: don’t abandon global climate deal

Our Children’s Trust – securing the legal right to a safer planet

New Scientist – There’s no good reason for the UK to start fracking