Bishops, Cardinals, Climate Change and Biodiversity

In the last few weeks two senior clerics, the Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster (Church of England), and Cardinal Pell, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, have written articles or given speeches which have been highly sceptical of human-induced climate change. There have been several strong responses to both clerics, most notably from Professor Bob White, Bishop David Atkinson, and Ellen Teague. As JRI Operations Manager I had the opportunity to assess the latest on the science of climate change and the policy issues surrounding it at the Royal Society in London today (9th Nov.  2011), and this is what I found.

Well certain bishops and cardinals may not believe in climate change, or at least its human origins, but the people here sure do. As I write the beginning of this piece I am sitting in the Welcome Trust Lecture Hall at the Royal Society in London, UK. It is the lunch break in the conference “Climate Change: Biodiversity and People on the Front Line.” The conference is jointly sponsored by RSPB, Natural England and WWF. So far we have had four presentations. The science of climate change looks clearer than ever, but we are also beginning to see the impacts. Most obvious, perhaps, are the changes in terrestrial organisms- earlier flowering and bud break  in the spring, moving polewards, up mountains and potentially dying out. Then the impacts on vulnerable areas such as the Amazon and Polar regions. No doubts- major changes are happening already and very quickly. The biggest changes, however, are in the oceans which are much less studied than terrestrial areas.

In the tea break now. We are beginning to see some of the effects of climate change on people. Of course it is the poor who suffer most, and they have done the least to deserve it. We also looked at some of the “solutions.” Some of these look almost worse than the problem. Massive geoengineering- is putting iron filings or lime into the oceans sensible? It was suggested we may need to move some organisms or even whole ecosystems from one badly affected area of the world to another that is less affected. Is there any choice? Few people here seem to think that the maximum two degree C increase target for global temperature that most scientists would like to see is likely or even possible. Most are reckoning on 4 degree C as most likely.

Now I am on the train back from London. It was a really good, well organised, conference. But it was also highly depressing. We moved on to climate change policy, and it was clear that the gap between what the science was saying and where we are at on policy is huge. The present policies on the table will put us well above the levels of carbon dioxide emissions for a two degree C global rise. Prof. Robert Watson (Chief Scientific Advisor, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in the UK) summed it up for me by saying we should, “prepare for a 3-5 degree C warmer world.” Everyone in that room at the Royal Society knew that this would lead to massive biodiversity loss and millions of people dying, particularly in the developing world. I am sure that this is not the scenario that Bishop Forster or Cardinal Pell would want for our future, or for future generations. We have two major opportunities coming up where we might just have a chance of breaking the policy deadlock and to turn this around: The Durban climate change meeting (COP17) at the end of this month; and the RIO+20 meeting next year. Let us all commit ourselves to prayer for these meetings.

Dr. Martin Hodson (JRI Operations Manager)

(Another report on this meeting is available from BirdLife International)