Monday, December 21, 2009

Copenhagen: so what?

My second piece reflecting on Copenhagen has just gone up at the Centre for Public Christianity (a.k.a. CPX). You can read the first one back here. My new piece was written towards the end of last week and attempts to reflect on some of the positive outcomes to this much anticipated gathering, even though at the time it was looking like little of worth was going to come out of it. And it is important to remember, that sadly (but not unexpectedly) that turned out to be largely true.

Baby permitting (we're still waiting, which is quite apt, given that it is Advent), I'll write a third piece in the days ahead that presents a more critical and reflective view on "where to from here?".

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Too late? A genuine possibility

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood -- it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on."
A quote from the debate at the Copenhagen conference yesterday? A speech from a prominent NGO outside? No, it is an extract from this 1967 speech by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. and concerned the Vietnam War. The man had a gift with words.

But the sentiment he expressed then about the challenges of his day still apply today to ours. Procrastination still kills. There is no guarantee that our civilisation will escape the fate of those dug up by archeologists. And there is no guarantee that our actions and inactions might not be material contributing causes to that result. As my fifth-grade teacher used to say "It is possible to avoid the consequences of our actions, but not to avoid the consequences of avoiding the consequences". In other words, we shall reap what we are currently sowing.

What of grace? Of forgiveness and the love of God? They are indeed a comfort, removing anxiety over past mistakes and giving us hope to act without full knowledge (to "sin boldly", in the famous exhortation of the older Martin Luther). But they are never an excuse. They give us freedom from guilt and fear, freedom to act, but never freedom from responsibility or the "freedom" to do as we please without consideration of others. This latter "freedom" is merely another kind of slavery, according to Jesus. It is slavery to our selfish desires. The great epistle of freedom is Paul's letter to the Galatians:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

- Galatians 5.13-15

Are we indeed loving our neighbour? Or are we simply consuming and thereby consuming one another? To follow Christ does not give simple answers. While we may find a new centre and coherence to our lives in seeking to love our neighbour, it does not remove the necessity of working out just what it means for us to love one another today.

So let us examine ourselves without any of the false safety nets of misplaced security or simplistic notions of freedom and ask: what are we to do today? Not "what do we want to do today?", nor "what will enable our lives to continue as they have been?" nor even "what must be do to survive?" But simply, what are we to do today? This question is not easy. The pressing needs of the hour do not remove its complexity. The answers are not found in the back of a book. The apparently obvious solutions put forward by so many interests do not remove our responsibilities to pay attention, to deliberate and to act.

May God have mercy on us all.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

UK 1; Australia 0: Monbiot vs Plimer on Lateline

A case study in the ancient art of avoiding the question
Yesterday, prominent Australian climate sceptic Ian Plimer debated UK Guardian columnist George Monbiot on ABC's Lateline. The result? UK 1; Australia 0. You can watch it for yourself here.

After some initial conversation about the hacked emails, the discussion turns to two of Plimer's best-known claims, that volcanoes produce more carbon dioxide than human activity and that global temperatures have declined since 1998. Time and again, Plimer sidesteps the questions of both Monbiot and the host Tony Jones when they point to published studies refuting his claims. It grows increasingly comic.

Eventually, Tony Jones asks this in apparent exasperation: "Is it reasonable for journalists to ask questions about something which you repeatedly claim in your book and to actually get answers to those questions?" Plimer's response was, unsurprisingly, to dodge this question about his question-dodging.

Note that Plimer has repeatedly challenged Monbiot to a public debate, but like his evasive answers on Lateline, when Monbiot accepted, Plimer didn't follow through. From yesterday's showing, perhaps we can get some idea why.

UPDATE: Monbiot's summary of the experience.

Copenhagen petition

Already 13 million people have signed a petition to the 110 presidents and prime ministers currently arriving in Copenhagen saying:

We call on each one of you to make the concessions necessary to meet your historic responsibility in this crisis. Rich countries must offer fair funding, and all countries must set ambitious targets on emissions. Do not leave Copenhagen without a fair, ambitious and binding deal that keeps the world safe from catastrophic global warming of 2 degrees.
You can add your voice here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Acting in the dark: climate change and the paralysis of novelty

"[B]eing compelled to make decisions in a situation which remains opaque is our basic condition. [...] We find ourselves constantly in the position of having to decide about matters that will fundamentally affect our lives, but without a proper foundation in knowledge."

- Slavoj Žižek, First as Tregedy, then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), 63.

We nearly always act in situations on incomplete or insecure knowledge. We have to do things before we truly know what they mean. Sometimes, this feeling is more acute than others. How is it possible to get married when one has never experienced making such a promise before? How can one have a child while ignorant of how it will affect your life? How can we baptise those who don't yet really know what the way of the cross entails?

The novelty of these situations is personal rather than social. We marry without personal knowledge of what exclusive lifelong commitment means. Yet we do so on trust since we have witnessed others (perhaps our own parents, perhaps some other role model) who live out the blessings and struggles of this reality before us. We may not have firsthand knowledge of the delights and despair associated with raising a child, but perhaps we are already an uncle, or a cousin, or a godfather or in some way know a little of what this has meant for others.

But what about social actions that are historically novel? How is it possible to will a new social situation that has never before been experienced, not just by me, but by anyone? And how is it possible to make political and social decisions in a situation of incomplete and contested knowledge?

That is exactly where we find ourselves today with climate change. Whether we choose to do nothing (or the equivalent of doing nothing through greenwash and weak agreements) and so continue the novelty of our present carbon experiment, or whether we choose to make widespread and untested changes to our global economy, we cannot but choose historical novelty. Our knowledge, based in the science and our estimations of what is thinkable economically and politically, is far from complete. Scientific models can give some sense of likely climate outcomes, or at least a current best estimation of various risks (which should not be sneezed at). Economic models represent some of our best guesses about the costs of action (and inaction!). Political discussion seeks to find the best solutions that it is possible to implement (though it is important not to shut down the possibility of new possibilities opening up due to radical political action: the abolition of slavery or universal suffrage would have been unthinkable economically and politically without decades of more and less radical protest). But we are still left with educated guesses taken on trust in the individuals and institutions offering them.

This could be paralysing. But it need not be. The stakes are high; the debate is heated and complex. But how is possible to seek the best options without sticking our head in the sand or waiting until our knowledge is complete? What beliefs and practices keep open such a space for careful deliberation under high pressure?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

What does Christianity have to do with climate change?

And specifically, what does the Christian message have to offer to the enormous UN conference currently underway in Copenhagen?

In a number of previous posts, I've mentioned the work of the Centre of Public Christianity (a.k.a. CPX) in Sydney. The high standards of their online work might now be under threat since they just published a short piece I wrote attempting to answer that question, titled "Facing the truth in Copenhagen". I outline two common mistaken answers and their alternatives. Go and check it out. Or at least go and check out the rest of the CPX site.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The problems with cap and trade

I mentioned back here that I'm not convinced that a cap and trade system will actually be effective in reducing atmospheric CO2e levels (which has to the point, doesn't it?). Here is a brief video giving some of the reasons to be hesistant about this proposal, which is at the heart of the upcoming negotiations in Copenhagen.

Indeed, James Hansen (the first climatologist to testify to US congressional committees and raise the profile of global warming back in 1988) is also opposed to cap and trade and thinks that it would actually be best for the upcoming negotiations in Copenhagen to collapse, since that would leave open the possibility of a more ambitious solution.

Many others who are critical of cap and trade nonetheless suggest that it is the best that it will be possible to do (politically) and so support the negotiations.

It is hard to know what to think about this. Politics is indeed the art of the possible and there is no point destroying an actually obtainable partial solution for the sake of a virtually impossible better solution. However, the questions are: (a) is cap and trade even a partial solution? (b) Will this partial solution still lead to catastrophe and so turn out to be no solution at all? (c) Are other suggestions really superior? (d) And are they truly impossible, or does their impossibility arise from a limited horizon of imagination sustained by powerful status quo interests?

To these questions, I do not currently have answers. But I am still yet to be persuaded that a revenue-neutral carbon tax (or rather, GHG tax) has flaws as serious as those associated with cap and trade.

UPDATE: An interesting opinion piece from James Hansen today critiquing cap and trade and proposing an alternative. And another leading climate scientist says the targets being offered by many of the major players are "token gestures".

UPDATE #2: Now I have finally seen a coherent argument against a carbon tax. It can be found here, although the focus of the piece is a critique of one particular proposal that is aimed at delay. In short, Hamilton argues that cap and trade (for all its faults) is the horse that has already run half the race and we don't have time to go back to the start again.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Barneys new design

I started this blog just days after our long term church home at St Barnabas' Anglican Church, Broadway in Sydney (a.k.a. Barneys) was burned down early one morning by an accidental fire. The building had been about 150 years old and was one of the better known churches near the centre of Sydney. Some of my first posts reflected on the destruction of the building, and I have continued to follow the unfolding story, even though we left Barneys to serve at All Souls Anglican Church in Leichhardt and have since moved on to St Paul's and St George's Scottish Episcopal Church in Edinburgh.

With that brief church bio out of the way, I can get to what I wanted to say, which is that the design for the new Barneys building is complete and approved, and funds are already being raised. You can find out more under raise the roof on the Barneys website. But to get a very quick idea, take a look at this flythrough video:

More details about the design can be found here.
Image by MER.