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Uniting Church: ‘The climate emergency has come about because of our sinfulness’

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

Rev. Dr Peter Walker, Principal of United Theological College, thinks emitting industrial CO2 is sinful. But Jesus told us we must take care of the poor – and there is no greater tool for alleviating poverty than industrialisation and economic development.


Insights Magazine

July 21, 2021

Recent infernos in California and floods in Germany remind us that climate change is a global drama which may end in utter tragedy for the whole creation if we do not act. Just as when a finger bumps a spinning top from its perfect rhythm, and the rotating toy then teeters out-of-balance before finding a new equilibrium or collapsing, the Earth System has been bumped out of balance. And not by accident, but by a willing, decision-making species. That’s us. Earth System Science tells us this planet is finely tuned, yet one species has been serving its own needs to such an extent that the cost to everything else has become intolerable. And it is showing.

As strange as the language of Christian theology may seem in the public square today, the human-induced climate emergency, brought about by our selfish abuse of the planet, surely requires a resurrection of the language of sin. There was speculation in early 2020 that Pope Francis might name humanity’s abuse of the Earth as sinful in his statement on the plight of the Amazon. He did not. In Querida Amazonia (Beloved Amazon), Pope Francis did denounce the unrestrained industrial destruction, saying “The businesses, national or international, which harm the Amazon and fail to respect the right of the original peoples to the land and its boundaries, and to self-determination and prior consent, should be called for what they are: injustice and crime.” That language of “injustice and crime” is powerful, yet it is not the most inherently powerful language available to Christian leaders.

The abuse of the Earth is a sin. The climate emergency has come about because of our sinfulness. It is a sign, and may prove the most telling of all signs, of our universal gone-wrongness, and of the fact that humanity has turned in upon itself. Calling people to prayer for the planet without naming the sin that makes those prayers and global action to save the planet essential is a profound moral and theological failure.

Rev. Dr Peter Walker, Principal of United Theological College

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What about the sin of denying food and clothing to the poor?

Matthew 25:34-36 tells us “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”

What will the King say to those whom, however well meaning, would rip away today’s abundance of food, clothing and medicine?

Dr Walker, I have no doubt you mean well. But seeking to tear down the keystone of our age of abundance is a direct attack on the reliable supply of food, clothing and clean water to the poor. How do you reconcile your attack on our age of industrial abundance with the Gospel of Matthew?

Only cheap energy and industrial civilisation can deliver the abundance we all too often take for granted, the abundance which has fed and clothed more poor people, and healed more sick people, than anything mankind has ever previously attempted.