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03 July 2014
Keep the faith

Keep the faith

It is 25 years since ‘With Scorching Heat and Light’, a look at the ramifications of the greenhouse effect was published by the Church of Scotland.

The report, presented to the church’s General Assembly, was only one of many which came up for discussion in the last few decades on the issue of the environment, including the future of nuclear power and calling on the government of the day to stop exports of CFCs to poorer nations.

And yet Adrian Shaw, Church of Scotland climate change officer since 2007, said people are still surprised to learn the subject is something the church even takes an interest in.

Last month Stop Climate Chaos Scotland marked the fifth anniversary of Scotland’s Climate Change Act – an event that Shaw said would not have been as strong had it not been for SCCS “pushing, nagging, lobbying and campaigning.”

But one of the most pivotal moments in its formation was when faith groups, the likes of Christian Aid and SCIAF, became involved, bolstering its numbers and as Shaw says, giving the SCCS movement “a whole added dimension”.

Now he tells Holyrood the church is helping take the issue to congregations across Scotland and is asking big questions about how they can help the ongoing struggle to cut carbon emissions and create a more sustainable society.

There are now 300 ‘eco congregations’ across Scotland, of different denominations, a network of faith organisations examining their own impacts on the environment.

Near the Church of Scotland’s headquarters in Edinburgh’s George Street is a statue of Thomas Chalmers, the church’s first moderator – Shaw says it is a reminder of the “long tradition” of involvement in social action, with climate change being just the latest phase.

“Chalmers and others in the 19th century were appalled by the poverty in Edinburgh and set up projects to deal with that,” he said: “We’ve had industrial school movements and the anti-apartheid movement.”

He adds: “There was a criticism that the church was relatively late to this, Friends of the Earth and others have been going for 40 or more years.

“The church is not always the first out of the blocks, but it has a staying power. With the number of congregations now involved we would claim that’s the largest movement of community environment groups in Scotland. I can’t think of another organisation that has 300 local groups all working away on environment issues in their area.”

Originally from Northumberland, Shaw first worked as an admin trainee at the Greater London Council ILEA, just as Ken Livingstone became leader – a period which he describes as being “in the middle of a political firestorm”.

In the 1990s he was environment and policy officer at Strathclyde Regional Council, employing in his department a young Richard Dixon – who has since gone on to serve as director of both WWF Scotland and Friends of the Earth Scotland.

But in 2007 the Church of Scotland found the money to fund a full-time climate change post.

Shaw said one of the reasons for this was the stories being relayed to the General Assembly of experiences from partner churches in areas like Tuvalu, Bangladesh and Malawi who were suffering the serious effects of climate change.

“Tuvalu is a low-lying island nation in the Pacific where nowhere is more than two or three metres above the sea,” says Shaw.

“It is in grave risk of both drought because the availability of fresh water is very small and rising sea levels and it is likely that it may be difficult for people to stay on Tuvalu later this century.”

But Shaw adds: “That’s the global reach of the church. On the other hand, we have a presence in every parish so we can bring those messages to people in local communities. I think that puts us in a strong position to share them in a wider audience.”

While the setting of Scotland’s Climate Change Act was cause for celebration, particularly among SCCS’ members, of which Shaw is a board member, holding the Scottish Government to the legally-binding carbon reduction targets has proved difficult. Last month the Government confirmed the third annual target in a year had been missed, but Shaw says for the Act to work, people need to “take it to heart”.

He compares it with other major piece of Scottish legislation – the ban on smoking in public places, for example.

“I don’t think a government can impose difficult decisions on people in Scotland if people don’t want to do it,” he says.”

“The smoking ban was argued about and debated in every pub in Scotland, when it came to the decision, people did it.

“There clearly had been that public debate and involvement; is there that public debate and involvement around climate change at this present time in every pub in Scotland? I don’t think so.”

But, he adds: “What we can do in the church – particularly through the eco-congregation network, is to get people talking about this and challenge them to think about climate change and what it means to them, what can they do with their lives? What can they do in their community? Constantly pressing that agenda at congregations that climate change is so big you must think about it.”

The Church of Scotland has 400,000 members and its annual General Assembly takes places across six days in Edinburgh, this year tackling high-profile issues such as gay ministers and Scottish independence.

While the world often seems to be becoming more secular, the church’s active role in issues like climate change shows it can be relevant to modern society.

Shaw said: “I think from the church’s point of view, people are rediscovering what it means to care for creation.

“Living in post-industrial Scotland, urban Scotland, where most people shop in supermarkets and have no direct connection with the land, what does it mean in those circumstances living in towns or cities to care for creation where you’re a couple of stages removed?”

He adds: “That’s a profound issue for people to think about and relates to broader issues if you see elsewhere the passion people have for the countryside and George Monbiot’s book on rewilding; in an urban life people feel they’re missing something.”

On the flip side, could the church taking such an active role also bring people back in? Shaw says he hopes people will see that it is “not a strange set of people” and they have the same concerns and issues as everyone else.

On some of these bigger environmental issues, the church has been helping to bring people and their communities into the debate.

On the controversial subject of fracking – the extraction of shale gas which has seen protests across the UK and worldwide – the church held a mini conference at a church in Hamilton with speakers for and against, followed by meetings across the eco-congregation network.

Shaw said the events were an attempt to get “below the rhetoric and surface noise” and discuss the issues and, while he admitted there was a risk that the often heated debate over fracking would “blow up”, holding it in church congregations meant people felt it was a safe space to take on difficult arguments.

Similar events are likely to be held next year – and could possibly include discussing the issue of the Church of Scotland’s own investment policy, after representatives from Dalgety Church in Fife petitioned the General Assembly to stop investment in fossil fuel companies.

The ‘Fossil Free’ petition said it was “immoral for the church to have investments that will condemn creation to climate disaster” and said all new investment in fossil fuel companies should be halted, as well as saying the organisation should divest, by the end of 2018, from any association with fossil fuel industries.

Shaw is carrying out an investigation on the arguments for and against the current investment policies to report back to the General Assembly next year.

A geography graduate, Shaw says climate change is not just an abstract concept.

“If we take the natural world for granted and merely treat it as a resource to be exploited; keep taking resources out faster than they can be replenished – if they can be replenished at all – and keep putting waste into the environment faster than it can be absorbed, if it can be absorbed at all – we’re in big trouble.

“That is a big spiritual as well as a practical and economic challenge, how do several billion people live together on earth and share the resources of the earth in a relatively equitable way.

“Churches can put across the more difficult messages than governments. The arguments from developing countries, people in Tuvalu saying, ‘we haven’t done anything to deserve this’, or Bangladesh, where millions of people living on land that’s close to sea level, the climate justice is closely linked into international development and how we share resources – we can‘t put off those arguments forever.”

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