Keith Hitchman, a vicar in Liverpool diocese, reflects on the theology of climate justice.
In March this year I was out walking near my home when I caught sight of a teenage boy and girl running to catch a bus, each carrying a brightly-coloured homemade banner demanding action on climate change. On that day, thousands of young people skipped school to take part in protests across Britain. In the weeks and months that followed, Extinction Rebellion protests spread across the world.
I was taken by the idealism of these two young people. Some might call it naivety, but I don’t think so. The climate bus is leaving, and if we fail to catch it, it may be too late for the planet. This generation gets it. And they want justice.
I have been following the climate debate for over 30 years. When I was studying Environmental Science back in the 80s, the focus was on global warming and its impact. I can’t remember the term ‘climate justice’ ever being used back then.
Yet, climate change has always been an issue of justice – ‘distributive justice’ (the equitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens). The world’s richer countries have gained vast political and economic gain through the exploitation of natural resources, leaving the poorer countries to suffer the worst consequences of environmental degradation.
The justice that Christians seek is one which restores... the relationship between humans and nature, distorted as they are by greed and oppression.
- Keith Hitchman.
Many economically rich countries still refuse to bear any responsibility for climate change, neither reducing carbon emissions sufficiently nor supporting lower-income countries in their fight against climate disasters.
The Christian idea of justice is rooted in Jesus’ command that we love our neighbour. Climate justice is not only about the equitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens, but also about the relationships between us and our global neighbours (including our descendants). The justice that Christians seek is one which restores both human relations as well as the relationship between humans and nature, distorted as they are by greed and oppression.
Biblically speaking, justice is related to how the oppressed are treated. It was former US President Jimmy Carter (himself a follower of Jesus) who said: 'The measure of a society is found in how it treats its weakest and most helpless citizens.'
Today’s society is a global one. The way that so-called ‘developed’ countries (many of them culturally ‘Christian’) have ignored the negative impact climate changes have on their poorer neighbours is in direct contradiction to biblical justice and also a dereliction of our global responsibility.
The Way of Jesus calls for love and compassion in the face of climate injustice. Our role as Jesus' followers is to expose the sins of climate change and the destruction of the planet. It is to view the world from the perspective of our neighbours – the poor and the powerless, calling on world leaders to work together to restore human relations and the relationship between humanity and creation.