Recently I attended and spoke at the People’s Climate Change march in Christchurch. I did this because I am deeply concerned for the long-term well being of our community, and as a way of standing with our Pacific Island neighbours who are already feeling the effects of a warming climate and rising seas levels.
I am a member of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia which includes people in the countries of Tonga, Samoa and Fiji. There can be no doubt that members of our church and their communities are already personally affected by climate change. More intense cyclones, severe storm surges, saltwater intrusion and the bleaching of corals are just some of the major negative impacts on their lives.
The Anglican Diocese of Polynesia recently sold land in Fiji to the government of Kiribati so that when the scattered islands of Kiribati can no longer support the people who live there, their people will have somewhere to relocate. Kiribati is already planning for a future in which its island homes will no longer support its people. We must recognise that climate change is a real problem that is hurting our neighbours. It cannot be parked aside while we wait for more convenient solutions.
I believe climate change is one of the most important moral issues of our time. It is of profound importance to every human being and living creature on our planet. Christians believe the world in which we live has been created by God for us to live in vitality, beauty and fruitfulness. However, absurdly, our own greed, recklessness and indifference is destroying the very place on which we depend for our existence.
I make this statement as an act of lament and repentance because the church has been as slow to act as other groups.
The gospel message of hope demands that we who call ourselves Christians, reorient our lives so that God’s creation can have a chance of survival. The Ten Commandments are also directly applicable.
The commandments: thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal and thou shalt not covet, come quickly to mind. Thou shalt not covet because it is our never ending desire for more that drives our unwillingness to take stronger action. Thou shalt not steal because we are taking not only from future generations, but also stealing away the livelihood and lands of many Pacific Island communities. Thou shall not murder because death is becoming the observable consequence of our impact on the climate. Although it is an unintended consequence we are still responsible.
However, whether you subscribe to Christian belief or not, most would recognise that climate change is a moral as well as an environmental or economic issue.
It has been said that New Zealand should be a fast follower rather than a leader on climate change issues. This claim is made on the grounds that even if New Zealand became a zero pollution emitter it would not impact meaningfully on climate change. And yes, it is true that the big emitters must take bold action.
However, I believe that this is a morally indefensible position for a nation that prides itself on being a leader in the Pacific, where many of the countries most at risk to the adverse impact of sea level rise are located.
The global community works by developing norms. Changing norms influence the decisions made by everyone in the international community. There is value in being a leader in the global community because strong leadership develops and pushes global norms. New Zealand can make an important impact on the world stage by being a positive actor in developing new norms in the care or exploitation of our environment.
Therefore, I believe the only moral stance New Zealand can take is to be a global leader, taking bold action that reflects the seriousness of the adverse impacts of climate change in our part of the world. The policies and targets we decide upon must position New Zealand as a moral and courageous leader, willing to push global norms around action on climate change.
This is not a message of austerity or challenge to the lifestyle gains of recent decades; it is a call to rediscover the values of previous generations. It is a call to live deeply, to recover generosity, and to love our neighbours without fear. If we do this, we can rise to the challenge of creating a better world for our children that genuinely takes the earth’s natural limits into account.
The Very Rev Lawrence Kimberley is Dean of Christchurch.