Electric cars, COP26 and the elephant in the room regarding climate change

Today at the COP26 (yes it’s still going) the focus is on switching to electric cars.  Dave Walker hs argued using his cartoon today that this is the wrong focus.

 Switching to electric vehicles may prove costly, have its own environmental impact and not bring as significant benefits as we might hope for. He argues that instead, we need to focus on getting people away from using cars to walking, cycling and using public transport. 

My initial response was to ask “do we need to make this an either/or debate?” and less eriously I suggested, slightly tongue in cheek that switching to cleaner fuel in the home may not be the answer. Surely we need to go all out to stop heating and lighting our houses in winter.

The reality is that when  you are working for change, there are big revolutionary steps you can take but those often are harder and take longer. In the meantime you can take smaller incremental steps that might not get you quite where you want to be but move you from where you don’t want to be right now. A similar argument is used for investing in nuclear energy. Nuclear is not the answer to the current climate challenge but it moves us a bit further away from dependency on coal and gas at a time when we are a long way from being able to depend on wind/wave/solar energy.

The reality is, by the way that “both/and” has been happening.  City mayors have introduced cycling routes and bike hire (like the Boris bike).  There has been significant investment in tram systems and guided bus-routes.  I suspect when you look at the figures they’ll show that things like walking, cycling and public transport usage are increasing. The problem is that driving is still increasing too.[1]

However, I think that the conversation via blogs/social media and cartoons highlights something else.  Moving to a society, culture and economy where we are no longer dependent on cars and other environmentally harmful aspects of industry would involve quite a revolutionary shift at this stage.  It may be the right or the wrong thing to do but I don’t think our political leaders are in a position to lead that change.

There are three reasons for this. First, such radical change would be dependent upon the will and consent of the people. Even non-democratic governments are looking over their shoulders at the response of their citizens.  I’m not sure that any government is really in a position to propose such a radical course of action.

However, here’s the next and bigger issue. I don’t think they have the moral authority to argue for such major changes. By this, I don’t simply mean that they lack that authority due to hypocrisy or corruption. I mean that the secular argument for combatting climate change lacks a reasoned and moral rational.  What I mean is this. 

The secular argument is that this planet as we have it is all that we have.  We have one life and one world. Once those things are gone, they are gone. We are alone on this planet. There isn’t a God looking  after it who made it and who might intervene at some point to rescue it. The world is here through evolution. Evolution is primarily about the survival, replication and multiplication of genes (remember Dawkins and The Selfish Gene). 

Now, there is no basis in that world view to insist that we need to take action in order to preserve the planet as is or even to protect our species. We have no special right to insist that we should survive and avoid major change when other species before us such as the dinosaurs have not. Humanity may not be able to survive in a hotter, wetter climate but evolution itself will continue. There again even if evolution doesn’t continue then so what.

No, a moral and reasoned foundation for engaging climate change depends on the assumption that:

  • We have a purpose
  • That we have responsibility
  • That there is value in preserving and protecting life.

It’s only the Christian Gospel that can give us that. It’s only the truth that God made this world and us, that he made us and commissioned us to look after this planet and that we have a future hope of Christ’s return and the renewal of all things meaning that we do have purpose, value and responsibility.

There is a slight challenge there though. You see, whilst I do think that this truth should lead to a concern for creation care that aligns with some environmental concerns, I don’t think it takes us all the way to where current climate change activists would like us to be.  What I mean is this.  The current environmental lobby’s position seems to be that the use of fossil fuels, the development of industry and progress in technology have all been pretty much a bad thing.  Yet, without those developments we would not have made the progress we have in areas such as medical care. 

Furthermore, as someone who believes that God created this world, that it was carefully and purposefully designed, I am inclined to think that in the absence of prohibition that we were intended to make use of fossil fuels and that we were meant to develop industry and technology.  This doesn’t mean that we have always done those things in a healthy, helpful and sustainable way but it does mean that things like the industrial revolution were not in themselves bad.

It also means that I don’t think we are alone in this world or that this is all we have. I do believe that God is at work right now sustaining his creation and that one day Christ will return to renew all things. So I don’t think we need to be pessimistic. Life as we know it will no more end because we fail to reach certain decisions at COP26 than because a dictator decides to launch IBMS at us.  The end of the world as we know it and the beginning of the New Creation is in God’s hands not ours.

So, when Christians talk Biblically about environment care, we cannot properly speaking talk about extinction rebellion or saving the planet.  What can do, and what we should do is keep talking about and setting an example of proper, obedient, loving stewardship of the planet God has entrusted to us.

[1] See Transport Statistics Great Britain: 2019 (publishing.service.gov.uk), 21 on walking and cycling.

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