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A POLITICAL THEOLOGY OF CLIMATE CHANGE – MICHAEL NORTHCOTT

Michael Northcott, speaking at Greenbelt in 2014, described himself as a priest and professor now trying to be a peasant – and finding the tending of his potatoes the hardest of the three. A Political Theology of Climate Change is as multi-disciplinary as the life of its author. It follows on from his A Moral Climate – the Ethics of Global warming, written in 2007.

Chapter titles give a flavour of the richness of the book – The Geopolitics of a Slow Catastrophe; Coal, Cosmos and Creation; Carbon Indulgences, Ecological Debt and Metabolic Rift; Revolutionary Messianism and The End of Empire, to name just four.

I was familiar with much of the climate science and the world’s inability to agree on how to cut carbon through global conferences such as Kyoto, much less so with the philosophies of people who have shaped our views of our planet e.g. Francis Bacon, forefather of the industrial view or his opposite William Blake, writing in smoky London on his concept of the Albion Christ. It is strange that among many religious folk he speaks of, we read about St John, Augustine, Karl Barth, Joachim of Fiore, Luther and modern Popes, but St Francis is not mentioned once.

Sir John Houghton, professor of atmospheric physics and former Chief Executive of the Met Office and co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in his biography In the Eye of the Storm (2013) speaks of his Christian faith as well as his scientific career and calls for scientists and theologians to work together. Michael Northcott does just this with his synthesis of philosophy, history, and economics, alongside science and theology.

Houghton’s book is a straightforward narrative; Northcott’s is much more challenging. I have been rereading large sections using the excellent index and footnotes, though unfortunately there is no separate bibliography.

The office where I am writing is now heated by wood chip (biofuel) rather than gas (fossil fuel) and this, one of Northcott’s vast range of ideas new to me seems appropriate to share: the monks of Tyneside were the first to burn coal in large quantities for heating their large stone buildings. Previously coal had been largely used only for industry. Let’s hope that today’s communities can soon lay aside such Promethean activity and return to low carbon life.

As the world is hoping for the next climate conference in Paris in 2015 to right the failure of Copenhagen, A Political Theology of Climate Change shows that it is indeed possible for the world to take scientists seriously and to find new and creative ways of living together with each other and the rest of creation.

Hugh SSF