Reflections on the Harvest
“There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content” ( 1 Tim 6:6-8).
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink…….seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matt 6:25 and 33).
“Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things!” (Joel 2:21) .
All three quotes come from the readings used at this year’s Harvest Festival in our local church and, as a local Agricultural Chaplain, I was asked to lead the service . They offer a vision of hopefulness based on contentment with what we have, rather than continually striving to gain more. In the last month, however, two reports have been published which really deserve careful reflection during this time of harvest, since neither make for comfortable reading.
The Agriculture Bill 2018 was published on the 12th September. It sets out the vision of the UK government for agricultural policy when we leave the European Community. There’s nothing within the Bill that hadn’t been widely trailed beforehand but there is now a clear sense of direction. Of course the devil’s in the detail, and there is remarkably little detail, but over a transition period up to 2027 government support will become channeled into supporting “Public Goods”, things like the environment, water quality, carbon mitigation. Some of that occurs already within the Common Agricultural Policy, but in the UK that will be the only support available in the future and there will no longer be government funding for producing agricultural commodities.
A major criticism is that the Bill has nothing to say about food security; the expectation is that the market will determine what is grown and what it will cost. For a nation that is only two third’s self sufficient in food that may be a high risk strategy. There is also an expectation that this new approach will lead to significant structural changes. Many farmers will leave the land, and those that remain will have to be leaner and meaner. Unlike their competitors in Europe, who will still be paid a subsidy to produce food, UK farmers will have to cover all of the costs of production from the market price they get for their produce. This will drive technological change including the use of robotics and possibly GM crops.
The second report was published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). IPCC was established by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization in 1998 to provide a comprehensive review of our knowledge of climate change and its economic and social impacts. IPCC does not conduct research, it has delegates appointed from 195 countries (including the United States) whose job is to read the literature and make an “Assessment Report” every five years or so. The 6th Assessment Report is due in 2022.
Global warming is measured relative to the temperature that existed before the start of the Industrial Revolution, usually the year 1750. CO2 up to that point was very constant at 280 parts per million (it’s easier to say “parts per million” than point 028 per cent). Since then the level of CO2 has passed 400 ppm and average global temperature has risen by over one degree centigrade. One degree doesn’t sound much but it’s a huge amount of extra energy within the earth’s climate system, the difference between today and the last Ice Age was 5 degrees.
What was published on October 7th was a special report on the impacts that will occur if global warming reaches 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, which is likely to happen in the next twenty years. It is a stark warning of storms, forest fires, drought, the end of coral, heat waves and floods. The Paris Agreement in 2015 committed nations to keep global warming below two degrees by the end of this century.
Two degrees was felt to be the point at which most of Bangladesh and Florida would disappear under water, and major coastal cities such as Mumbai, Lagos and Shanghai would become uninhabitable. In 2006 Sir Nicholas Stern, an economist at the London School of Economics, was asked by Gordon Brown to report on the economic impacts of climate change. Stern suggested that a warming of between 3 or 4 degrees would lead to 200 million refugees and the extinction of up to 40% of the world’s flora and fauna. The world currently has 60 million refugees and we can’t cope with them.
A two degree rise was also the temperature at which it was felt that some of the effects caused by climate change may start to get out of control. For example, the polar ice caps and northern snow are significant mechanisms that help to cool the earth by reflecting solar radiation back into space. If polar ice completely disappeared that incoming radiation would heat the earth’s surface and lead to even higher temperatures, it would be an inflationary spiral. As ice located above the ground begins to thaw, it releases the rotting vegetation that it covered over thousands of years ago. This melting of the permafrost will significantly add to the levels of CO2, methane and ammonia in the atmosphere, all of which are greenhouse gases and therefore this would also accelerate global warming. The threat contained in these scenarios is that we won’t be able to stop those processes from leading to catastrophic climate change.
The Paris Agreement required nations to pledge a plan of action to reduce carbon emissions and make it public. The pledges that have been published to date suggest we are on course for a 3 degree rise by the end of the century. The World Bank, not usually accused of making rash decisions, has published a report that suggests that if we reach a 4 degree rise society will not be able to adapt successfully, the world community will disintegrate.
An international research organisation, the Breakthrough Institute, has stated that “climate change is now an existential risk to humanity.”
The IPCC report suggests what needs to happen:
- We change our diet and eat significantly less meat, and we invest in bio-energy,
- we reduce our use of fossil fuels by 50% in less than 15 years and achieve a zero carbon economy by the middle of the century,
- we source all of our energy from renewables,
- we plant millions of trees to lock up atmospheric carbon,
- We scrub carbon from our industrial processes and lock it up in forests, or underground as we move to carbon free products.
There are undoubtedly signs of hope, such as the RE100 club of the world’s largest companies who are committed to 100% energy from renewables and are prepared to publish their progress; new technologies, such as a 24 storey building being erected in Austria made entirely from wood; and success stories like the Austrian town of Gussing, about the size of Kington, which is powered totally by renewables and which has rejuvenated its economy in the process. But it’s not enough, much more needs to be done and done quickly.
I don’t think our generation can say any longer “Fear not, O Land; be glad and rejoice” (Joel 2:21). Instead we seem to be on the fast track of pursuing those senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction (to quote from the letter to Timothy), rather than being content with the richness we already possess. Climate Change is not a natural disaster, it is entirely man-made, and we have a very thorough understanding of what may happen if we do nothing. The world of the future demands a more just and equitable society if we are to avoid catastrophe, on that issue both science and theology appear to be in complete harmony. Or As Matthew puts it: “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and (then) all these things shall be yours as well”.