The Green Room ~ A deadly serious problem


By the Revd Dr John Harrison  

In an open market place we are all, of course, free to choose where we invest our money and which products we choose to buy.  

If we feel strongly that we should no longer invest in, for example, tobacco products, we are free to withdraw our share holdings, we ‘divest’. If we wish to change the brand of beans or the domestic cleaning products that we buy, we simply pick a different can off the supermarket shelf. In the context of dealing with the issue of climatic change, the question is whether such logic applies to investment in fossil fuel companies, who are directly or indirectly implicated in the excess carbon dioxide in the lower atmosphere. Can we simply divest? The UN and the World Council of Churches have both proposed a complete withdrawal from all investment in fossil fuels, a view already acted upon by, for example, a number of Anglican dioceses. But is this an entirely appropriate course of action?

As we all know IPCC reports have told us that human society has contributed to ongoing climatic change through our emissions of greenhouse gases, so withdrawal from investment in activities which exacerbate the problem would appear to be a tempting step in the right direction. On the other hand, when the University of Glasgow recently withdrew its investment in fossil fuels it was criticised by one its professors as nothing more than naïve posturing, an accusation which on closer examination appears to have some credence.

Unlike divesting from other harmful products which may, for example, be proven carcinogens, divesting from fossil fuels overlooks the fundamental issue that our society can not readily withdraw from its dependence upon a reliable source of energy. It is questionable whether any of the alternative means of producing sufficient energy to meet fully our needs are presently economically viable or environmentally acceptable. So to abandon the use of fossil fuels, which presumably is the objective of divesting, leaves society with an energy deficiency which would be at best discomforting and at worst destabilising.

“Global Warming: The Complete Briefing (4th Edition) by John HoughtonAnother dimension to this is the significant proportion of the world’s population who live in fuel poverty, who do not have access to adequate energy sources. Many of these people are gradually being connected to energy supply networks many of which are presently based upon fossil fuels.

I am mindful of St Paul’s words “Where is your wise man now, your man of learning, your subtle debater of this present age? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish.
(1 Cor. 1: 20). It is my fear that posturing about our response to climatic change is more political than practical and will not help humankind deal with what is a deadly serious problem.

I recommend you read “Global Warming: The Complete Briefing (4th Edition)* by John Houghton who was formerly Director General of the Met Office and is a committed Christian. Chapter 11 addresses the issues surrounding ‘Energy and transport for the future’ and I am drawn to these words “The market and technology are essential and effective tools, but poor masters. Solutions need to be more carefully crafted than these tools can provide on their own”.

*Houghton J 2009
Global Warming The Complete Briefing
Cambridge University Press
ISBN 978-0-521-70916-3 pbk




  • Dr John Harrison FRMetS is the Bishop of Newcastle’s Environmental Adviser, and a former Vice-Dean of Natural Sciences and Senior Lecturer, Climate Laboratory, in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Stirling University.






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