We can't allow distraction in the climate debate

Bishop Philip Huggins reflects on the UN Climate Conference, COP25, in Madrid

Greta Thurnberg speaks at COP25 in Madrid

PHOTO: UNclimatechange/Flickr

By Philip Huggins

December 19 2019“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1-3)

Among those who “came into being” are the familiar faces of the Christmas story. They faithfully lived the life they were given. There is significance in this for us, in our being here now.

The life they were given was very different to the life they had probably planned.

Take Joseph, after he learned Mary was pregnant. There was no quiet life for him thereafter, as a carpenter in Nazareth.

Or Mary. In Madrid, early for the UN Climate Change Conference, I sat for an hour in the Prado Gallery looking at Fra Angelico’s painting of Mary’s Annunciation.

The shepherds. The Magi too.

As in the Ursula Fanthorpe poem, “this was the moment when a few farm workers and three members of an obscure Persian sect walked haphazard by starlight straight into the Kingdom of Heaven”.

The point is, for us, likewise. As the American novelist Wendell Berry stated, “we must live the life we are given, which may be different to the life we had been planning”.

In the context of climate change, what is the life we are now given?

Here is a story and two reflections.

First, the story. On the Friday of St Nicholas of Myra Feast, 6 December, starting outside the Prado in beautiful evening light, thousands rallied to encourage good outcomes at the climate conference.

The mood was buoyant and resolved.

The resolution I carried to Madrid was symbolised by a photo on my heart of our three grandchildren under five.

My barely contained angst towards some political leaders is this: “You want to continue doing exactly what you know is causing global temperatures to rise, endangering many lives and destroying many species, FOR WHAT?”

There were many banners at the march.

I carried one quoting from Genesis: “God saw everything that God had made and indeed it was very good.”

Others included “Creation – Not for Sale”; “Climate Justice is Intergenerational Justice”; “Don’t wait until it is too late”; “Get finance out of fossil fuels and into renewables”; “Denial is suicide”; “We can’t drink money”.

You do not need many words to make the point about this climate emergency and why, in the motto of COP 25, this is the “Time for Action”. (A motto now mocked by the minimal outcomes from COP 25).

So, with this in mind, a reflection on two critical questions, as we gather for Christmas, 2019 years since the birth of Jesus.

First, in the context of climate change, what does “living the life we are now given” mean for personal lifestyle? Second, what does all this mean for our advocacy in 2020?

Personal lifestyle

There is guiding wisdom from folk like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who responded to major needs for change in their day.

“The problems are huge. What we can do about them seems insignificant. However, it is ESSENTIAL that we do it!”

Joining a dynamic movement that promotes a more benign and loving human family – we can all contribute to that.

How? Here’s some suggestions: a more plant-based diet; ramping up renewables; capping our flying; choosing non-carbon based modes of transport like electric cars; changing consumption habits (during the latest Black Friday, Fair Trade UK shut all their shops for the day); attending to modes of building, heating and air conditioning.

A person from Green Faith told me she once named her daughter Hope because she wanted her to be ever hopeful.

“Now I would call her Courage, because that is what is needed if we are to make the lifestyle changes in this life we are now given,” she said.

A German scientist gave a riveting presentation on various delusional, so-called “geo-engineering” solutions to climate change. At best, these ideas are decades away from implementation. That will be too late. Moreover, a number of them may have unacceptable downsides, both ethical and pragmatic.

We cannot allow any distraction from the nature-based solutions which we know will prevent a continuing rise in global temperatures.

In the leisurely days of the Christmas season, perhaps with loved ones, Australians could discuss how lifestyle changes might reduce climate change.

Such discussions may lead to some robust New Year resolutions.

Advocacy in 2020

Writing in the first century about our organic universe, St Clement stated that “all parts breathe together”.

But we will not last unless serious changes are made very quickly.

Specifically, carbon consumption and emissions must be reduced if we are to keep global warming to within 1.5 per cent above pre-industrial levels.

The framework for achieving this is present in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Paris Agreement.

Scaled up “Nationally Determined Contributions” are due by August 2020, before COP26 in Glasgow next November. These are to be contributions which, in the principle of “subsidiarity”, nations volunteer freely for the common good.

It is a consensus model, based on mutually trusting that each nation will do their best. (Tricky accountancy use of historic carbon credits is viewed unfavourably).

It assumes nature-based solutions, such as a shift away from coal to renewable energy sources.

As we know from the last Federal election, the politics of this in Australia are very complex.

It is the issue of transition away from coal jobs in areas where such jobs are well remunerated or are welcomed as a solution to regional unemployment.

The emblematic significance of Adani tells part of the story. The other part is that coal exports are currently, as I understand it, our nation’s main export, worth $67 billion annually by 2030. (The Australian, December 14-15, p15).

Hence, early in 2020 we need a national summit of generous hearts and innovative minds as we try to find a unifying and nation-building way to integrate these two realities.

On the one hand, there is a need to clarify enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions by August 2020 ahead of COP26. On the other hand, there are the employment needs of coal industry areas and the needs of a Federal Budget, barely in surplus.

There is already much innovative thinking from generous hearts which can assist a 2020 national summit.

This includes Ross Garnaut’s latest book, Superpower, in which he conveys a transition to renewable energy in Australia – one that enhances the nation’s economic strength.

It includes the innovative thinking of distinguished former Federal Minister Jenny Macklin, who has proposed an Emissions and Employment Accord to revitalise the nation like the Prices and Income Accord did in the 1980s.

She spoke on this proposed Accord at the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s Sambell Oration in November 2019.

This Accord includes features which protect people from the worst of the shocks that will come as the economy weans itself off carbon. These are nation-building plans to give communities that rely on coal a pathway to future prosperity.

The fact is that our world is doomed unless big emitters step up their Nationally Determined Contributions and bring them to COP26, as required by the Paris Agreement. Every nation must do the best it can.

I heard repeatedly at COP25 Australia described as “selfish”. But a national summit, perhaps jointly convened by our Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, might rectify this. Australia could offer a generous and uplifting Nationally Determined Contribution to COP26, while still taking account of domestic realities.

Advocating for such a national summit seems a good idea.

It would also include attention to how we can better assist our neighbours. Pacific nations are already suffering loss and damage from climate change. People are being displaced by rising sea-levels and the aftermaths of more extreme and more frequent weather events like cyclones.

The Federal Government’s Pacific Step Up plan, plus the recently announced review of our aid and development program, offer opportunities to give such beneficial assistance.


Joseph, Mary and all involved in the Nativity responded faithfully to the life they were given. It was very different to what they may have planned. But they knew God – Emmanuel – was with them in that humble scene of Jesus’s birth.

Likewise, as promised, in love for the whole of creation, God is with us now as we make this crucial journey.

It is a story for another day of how I experienced God’s accompanying on the way to and through COP25.

What I am left with is this high sense of both opportunity and responsibility as I offer this Christmas reflection.

With prayers now, in the beloved, with Mary and all the saints,

Bishop Philip Huggins.


Bishop Philip Huggins is president of the National Council of Churches in Australia and director of the Centre for Ecumenical Studies at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture. He went to COP25 as part of the World Council of Churches delegation. He has been an Anglican bishop for 25 years. Prior to his time in ordained ministry, he was an economist.