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Climate Change: a Moral Issue - address to the Tyndall Centre

Thursday 4th May 2006

The Archbishop was invited to address members of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the launch of Phase II of their research project.

The address, at 4 Millbank, London, outlined the Archbishop's views on the moral necessity for action over the environment, to prevent further harm to those living with the worst effects of climate change, and to all future generations.

A transcript of the Archbishop's speech follows:

Thank you very much indeed for that welcome and thank you for the opportunity to be here this afternoon, on what is undoubtedly a very significant occasion in the life of a very, very significant research project. We've just been reminded that the fundamental question is who we are, where do belong, do we belong anywhere in this world? Because we behave as if we didn't, and one of the underlying, evasive, moral and imaginative questions that arises in thinking about climate change and the wider environmental agenda is this habit, this ingrained tradition of behaving as if we didn't belong, as if we were not part of an interactive system, as if we were brains on stalks. So the moral question is not simply, as you heard, about what you do, it is about imagining who we are, reviving that sense of being part of a system, not one that imprisons or crushes us, but one in which we become who we are by interaction. It's as true of our place overall, as it is true of our social destiny, and possibility, as social and political beings. But to begin there, is of course to remind ourselves that we're now more and more in a world in which conventional political patterns, and conventional ideas of local and national sovereignties, are challenged in all sorts of ways by the number of problems we face that cannot be addressed or resolved by one nation, one jurisdiction, alone. The challenges that the environmental crisis poses are challenges which need to addressed by global citizenship, that's to say, by a lively and practical sense of belonging to something more than just the voting community in any one locality. There are other problems like that and I would, in brackets, put in the severe problems we face here, and the far more severe problems that are faced, say in Africa, by the spread of HIV and AIDS, by the health crises that affect us and which are not wholly unconnected, of course, with the issues we're here to think about today. But, whatever the truth of that, the point is that we are now in an environment in which local resolution, local decision has to open out into global perspective.

The moral dimension comes in, of course, in a sense, not only of responsibility to people at a distance from us here and now in our world, it comes in in respect to our responsibility to the future. And that's perhaps a slightly odd thing to say in some ways, but if, in justice, one sector of a public or a community is using, draining, resources at the expense of others, then if we have a longer view than just the contemporary, what we are currently involved in is a fantastically and manifestly unjust situation where those who happen to be alive at the moment are draining off the resource from that vast future community who need to live in a habitable and a just world. The interaction here of ecology and economy becomes crucial in the present, and in respect to the future. So that another dimension of our moral imagination here, has to be a stronger and stronger sense of what we owe to the future. You can talk about that in terms that sound a bit woolly and aspirational, but the fact is that we behave, most of the time, as if we trusted that there would be a human future. We beget children, we leave legacies, we make records, but how are we actively going to continue to make a sustainable, habitable environment? That, I suggest, is a question of justice. So, that's part of what we address, and part of what excites me about this project is, as you'll see from the list behind me, the way in which a whole range of disciplines, areas of research and resource, are being held together. We're encouraged not to forget the connections between ecology and economy; we're being encouraged to see that issues about development cannot be counter-poised to issues about environmental justice, and we're being encouraged quite simply, to be exact and precise about the knowledge we need in order to address the crisis. We need to think about this in relation to those questions of the unequal balance of power in our world between wealthy and poor, and I'm very excited to see the way in which those themes are woven so consistently into the programmes of the years ahead of the Tyndall project. And of course all of this would be completely empty if we were not, at the same time, talking about the empowering of ordinary agents here in the United Kingdom, agents like you and me. When we're confronted with these problems that require global consciousness, global citizenship, it's very easy to think that this is much too big, this is something where I'm incapable of making a difference. Those of you who share my enthusiasm for The Simpsons may remember that wonderful episode where Homer runs for public office on the slogan 'Can't someone else do it'. And wins! As he probably would in many electoral contexts, but I'll say no more about that for now.

And so, all of this ought to issue in a much stronger sense for the ordinary citizen here of what's possible; what's do-able. The exactitude of the research, the breadth of the scope of the research, is not something that ought to distract us from these very basic and practical questions. So I hope that the fruit of the project will be not only that high level professional resourcing of our public and intellectual discourse about this, but also the sense of empowerment for the ordinary citizen, and perhaps even the ordinary church. I know that it's customary, in some people's eyes, for the Church to make large moral statements about things that it doesn't really do very much about and, before that is said, I hope that we can really address this in our own context, speaking as a member of the Church of England. And we are about to launch precisely that project within our Church, a 'Shrinking the Footprint' exercise which will ask every church, every diocesan office, every national institution of the Church of England, to measure its energy consumption, and begin to set targets. It's a small beginning, but at the moment we haven't got that information; we need to have it, and that kind of auditing activity is of course one of the places to start for any individual, any household, and any organisation. So, in the work the work that lies ahead, in the change of awareness that we all of us here desperately hope to see, I hope I can say that the Church of England is fully behind this effort and involved in this effort. And I know that you will tell us if we're falling behind, and not let us forget; and I challenge those present to keep us up to the mark on that. We have a number of tasks to go forward with here, but if we and other public institutions can clearly set some standards, both for auditing and for target setting, (or rather more importantly, for target meeting- a sensitive point), then we shall be spreading a little bit of good news around.

I come at this question, obviously, as somebody who believes that we're here because we are meant to be here in the purposes of God, but for me being 'meant to be here in the purposes of God', means meant to be here in the material, vulnerable, interactive world which I have to respect as deeply and seriously as I have to respect other parts of the human creation. That's the challenge which Christians and other religious persons have to internalise and rise to, but it's a challenge which really makes claims on all of our capacity to extend our hearts and minds to envision ourselves afresh; as I said at the beginning, to develop a new, more rooted, more serious, sense of who we are and where we belong.

I welcome this project with enormous enthusiasm and wish it every good thing in the years ahead. Thank you.

© Rowan Williams 2006 

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