As we enter a critical stage of climate change, moral concerns will need to become urgent actions, says Joseph Kelly

Whatever your views on the seriousness or otherwise of the global climate emergency, it became official yesterday that July 2023 has been the hottest month on record, and possibly the hottest in the past 120,000 years.

The new global mean temperature – the overall reading if you could stick a thermometer at every location on Earth – was confirmed by scientists at the European Copernicus Climate Change Service and World Meteorological Organisation as 16.95 Celsius (62.5F), giving scientists enough data to declare a record even before the month ends.

Reacting to the news, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres – never a man to avoid an alarming metaphor – declared bluntly that “the era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived!”

“Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning,” said Guterres.

The stark July figures come after a string of June records that were also broken, and give substantial credence to the view that our planet is heading for an irreversible catastrophe if we don’t take immediate action to reduce the accumulation of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

To make matters worse, no-one seems to be able to anticipate what the consequences of unprecedented global warming will be. We can assume that the extremes of weather we’re currently witnessing will not only become more regular, but more intense. We can make a few speculative predictions about what will happen if glaciers continue to melt and seal levels continue to rise, but there has never been such an accumulation of greenhouse gases in human evolution, so we are in truly uncharted waters.

In the face of such potentially catastrophic changes, it seems absurd that there are still those who seek to deny the impact of recent human activity on the lifeblood of our planet, but the ‘discourse of climate delay’ has been one of the most significant factors in legislators dragging their heels on remedial action. Many speak in negative terms of the ‘politicisation’ of the weather, and this is a neat device to prevent discussion and action in the face of an increasingly self-evident existential crisis.

One only has to look at the prevarications and indifference of many politicians to climate issues to see that it’s unlikely that even the recent extreme weather events are going to change minds about the need for urgent action.

Unfortunately, the oil and gas industries are the largest contributors to global warming, and making changes to this infrastructure is a virtually impossible challenge as it involves industrialised nations dictating restrictions to developing countries that have no intention of slacking off in their drive and determination to attain what the rest of the planet has enjoyed for decades.

For the planet to have the slightest chance of hitting the climate limitation goals set by numerous COP and other summits, nations heavily dependent on coal – such as China (65% of power generated by coal), India (73%) and South Africa (89%) – would need to phase out their use of fossil fuels more than twice as fast as any historical power transition. This simply isn’t a politically-feasible trajectory – there are moral and ethical obstructions to wealthy nations imposing restrictions on their poorer neighbours, and the immense profits being made by the global fossil fuel industry (£3 trillion in 2022) offer no incentives to reduce fossil fuel output and develop alternative energy generation systems.

This was in clear sight just last week when the energy ministers of the world’s 20 richest countries (G20) met in India’s tourist state of Goa for their latest strategy meeting but came away without any consensus on cutting down fossil fuel usage, due mainly to sharply diverging opinions of the degree of linkage between fuel emissions and global warming.

With just over a month to go until the main G20 summit in September and four months to the COP28 UN climate summit in Dubai, geopolitical progress has been grindingly slow, to the extent that G numbers and summit expectations have become all but meaningless to an increasingly terrified general public.

To make matters worse, governments that aren’t showing any inclination to reduce the world’s annual 38.6 billion tons of CO2 emissions seem content to push the task onto the individual citizen – as if switching off your TV standby, slapping a solar panel on the shed roof  or buying the odd LED lightbulb is going to solve the global climate crisis. In fact this strategy only serves to deepen the crisis, as people come to believe that such trivial measures are sufficient to solve the problem.

For its part, our Catholic Church has a long history (reaching back to the Hexameron) of voicing its philosophical concerns about our treatment of the planet. Back in the fourth century Bishop Basil of Caesarea (St Basil the Great) wrote a series of influential homilies on the Six Days of Creation which resonate remarkably with the recent news events driving our present climate debate:

“The essence of fire is necessary for the world, not only in the economy of earthly produce, but for the completion of the universe; for it would be imperfect if the most powerful and the most vital of its elements were lacking. Now fire and water are hostile to and destructive of each other. Fire, if it is the stronger, destroys water, and water, if in greater abundance, destroys fire. As, therefore, it was necessary to avoid an open struggle between these elements, so as not to bring about the dissolution of the universe by the total disappearance of one or the other, the sovereign Disposer created such a quantity of water that in spite of constant diminution from the effects of fire, it could last until the time fixed for the destruction of the world.

(Hexaemeron, III, On the Firmament)

In recent decades, much of the developing body of Catholic social teaching has swung heavily towards engagement with environmentalism and the stewardship of creation. Unfortunately, many modern day Catholic texts also have a tendency towards the descriptive rather than the mobilising – with the Church feeling its role is to define and advise on the problem at hand, but stop short of suggesting specific courses of action. For instance, Pope Francis’ groundbreaking encyclical Laudato Si’ makes it abundantly clear that we have a moral responsibility to act to prevent further degradation of God’s creation, and urgent action is needed, but there the advice ends. It is left to the wider Catholic community to discern the best course of action.

One area where some positive action has taken place is in the divestment (disposal of investments or assets for moral, political or other reasons) being made by Catholic dioceses across England and Wales. At the beginning of 2020 the dioceses of Middlesbrough and Lancaster became the first Catholic dioceses to divest from fossil fuel and to date 11 of the 22 Catholic dioceses of England & Wales have followed suit, along with a large number of Catholic religious orders and associations, including the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales.

Such decisions have importance and influence because divesting in fossil fuel companies effectively and symbolically removes the unwritten ‘social licence’ that the industry has to extract oil, gas and coal.

The UK charity Operation Noah, which campaigns for faith groups to divest, describes this ‘social licence’ as the assumption that investments endorse the activities they are invested in such that they are generally accepted as good and desirable. Divestment, therefore, is not only a sensible and moral action, but carries the implication that the rejected product or industry is not operating for the common good.

The Global Fossil Fuel Divestment Commitments Database, which monitors such activity, reveals that globally faith-based organisations account for 35.8% of the $40.51 trillion value of institutions that have divested and this figure is now expected to increase significantly in the light of recent global climate events.

Unpicking unethical elements from often complex investment portfolios can be a difficult and time-consuming process but faith communities have become tired of trying to create changes from within, and the level of funds now falling away from the big fossil fuel companies should be acknowledged as a moment of moral reckoning for other investors, and for governments.

For the individual Catholic, such direct and influential action isn’t possible, but we have strength in numbers and can play our part in persuading those with the power to make changes to do so for the good of our planet, and to leave something of worth to future generations. We have spent a long time reading encyclicals and hearing how we must be good stewards of the earth, but when climate ‘warming’ has become climate ‘boiling’ the time has come to stop talking – and start taking action!

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian

Pic: St Carthage’s Cathedral in Lismore, New South Wales, was flooded for the first time ever during torrential rains caused by global warming that hit the region in February.