Climate change, the Archbishop and the Pope

An analysis of the approaches to climate change taken by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church

On 19 June, the Church Times reported  that when asked to contrast General Synod’s response to climate change and the encyclical published by the Vatican, William Fittall, its General Secretary said “you would struggle to put a cigarette paper between [them]”. In his blog Jonathon Porritt posed a different question: Can Archbishop Welby (a Former Oil Man) Rise to the Pope’s Challenge?, and concluded: “… there’ll be plenty of people there arguing that the Church of England’s leadership on climate change is just as significant as the Pope’s. Frankly, that’s just not true. Right now, the contrast between Pope Francis’s and Justin Welby’s approach to climate change could not be more stark.” Jonathon’s post helped crystallize some early thoughts on a drafting a post from yet another point of view: “What can the Catholic Church learn from the Church of England on climate change?”

Whilst Jonathon Porritt was commenting on the leadership provided by the Archbishop and the Pope, William Fittall’s response related to the similarities of the two Churches in their basic approach to climate change; the draft post would have focused on the Church of England’s involvement in climate change/environmental issues to date. This post analyses the Churches’ response from these different perspectives.

Climate change issues common to both Churches

In general, the views expressed in the new Lambeth Declaration on the climate science, the consequences of global warming and the need for urgent action appear to be compatible with those within Laudato si’. The Declaration represents a broader, if domestic, consensus since  its signatories include representatives from the Muslim, Sikh and Jewish communities as well as the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Methodist Conference and other denominations and faiths. On the other hand,  Laudato si’ was a document of the Roman Catholic Church and no-one else, although its preparation included discussions with other faiths, such as at the Workshop on 15 March 2015 Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity. The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Humanity organised by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, SDSN and Religions for Peace; the objective of this workshop was to “help strengthen the global consensus on the importance of climate change in the context of sustainable development.” Nevertheless, its presentation was not an entirely Roman Catholic affair, and in addition to Cardinal Peter Turkson and Dr Carolyn Woo, presentations were given by His Eminence Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon, representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church, and Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, an atheist and Founding Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Thus on viewing these two documents as “mission statements” of the two organizations in relation to their general approach to tackling climate change, it is fair to say “you would struggle to put a cigarette paper between [them]”. There are however, a number of underlying issues on which differences exist, or are excluded from the encyclical on grounds of Catholic doctrine. Laudato si’ specifically excludes issues of population growth, [50], such as those espoused by Population Matters, a group of which Jonathon Porritt is the patron. Whilst it acknowledges that no conclusive proof exists that GM cereals may be harmful to human beings, the encyclical suggests that there remain a number of significant difficulties in the application of the technology “which should not be underestimated”, [133 to 135].

Influence and leadership

Laudato si’ and the Lambeth Declaration

The potential influence of Laudato si’ is not limited to the world’s ~1.2 billion Roman Catholics, for whom it now forms part of Catholic Social Teaching [15], but importantly it extends to all those whose input will be taken into account at the forthcoming COP21/CMP 11 meeting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, France, 30 November to 11 December 2015. Although addressed to ”every person living on this planet”, [3], as Carbon Pulse observed:

“The encyclical is aimed at influencing the debate ahead of UNFCCC talks in Paris in December and called for changes in lifestyles and energy consumption to avert the destruction of the ecosystem before the end of the century, and that failure to act would have grave consequences for humanity.”

On the former point, a pre-encyclical CAFOD/YouGov Poll in May this year,  reported in the Catholic Herald, suggested that a third of Catholics (33%) said that if Pope Francis makes an official statement on climate change, they would be likely to alter their lifestyle choices as a result; also, seven out of 10 Catholics (72%) say they are concerned that the world’s poorest people are being impacted by climate change and more than three quarters (76%) say they feel a moral obligation as Catholics to protect these people.

The document had global media coverage and was well-trailed in the months leading to its publication on 18 June 2015. By contrast, the coverage of the Lambeth Declaration has been mainly domestic, and The World is Our Host received little coverage in UK mainstream media. Furthermore, these two documents were addressed to the faith communities of the signatories and the “Anglicans everywhere”, respectively, although the latter was written “as bishops in our provinces, dioceses, congregations and communities”.

Divestments and Corporate Engagement

In other areas, however, the influence of the Church of England has been more effective. Through its three National Investment Bodies (NIBs)[1] the Church has been active in its divestment from investments in thermal coal and tar sands and in its corporate engagement with fossil fuel producers in which they remain invested. It is also involved with electricity generation utilities, large energy users and producers of energy intensive products to encourage them actively to contribute to the transition to a low carbon economy. In April this year, the Church announced that none of its NIBs would make any direct investments in any company where more than 10% of its revenues are derived from the extraction of thermal coal or the production of oil from tar sands. The announcement coincides with the adoption of a new climate change policy recommended by the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG) that sets out how the three national investing bodies (NIBs) will support the transition to a low carbon economy[2].

The BP and Shell shareholder resolutions co-filed by the Commissioners, Pensions Board and CBF Funds earlier this year are illustrations of the intensive and firm engagement that will be pursued under the new policy. The resolutions were approved by 98% of shareholders and the two companies are now legally required to disclose in their reporting their strategic approach to climate change and to cover the five areas of disclosure specified in the resolution.

The ecumenical Church Investors Group (CIG), of which the Commissioners, Pensions Board and CBF are members, has run a structured engagement with a wider range of companies on climate change. This programme, conducted by CCLA, focuses on FTSE350 companies who have not achieved a C rating from CDP, an NGO. The Church of England has been acknowledged as being in the forefront of institutional investors, of which it is the largest religious body in the world and the largest private commercial forestry investor in the UK. Synod Paper GS 2003 states:

“16 … Within the Commissioners’ UK commercial forestry holdings there are two existing wind power schemes and a number of other viable schemes are being actively explored, subject to planning [permission]. In addition, the Commissioners have recently entered into a framework agreement with a solar energy company, Lightsource, to develop solar power generation facilities on rural land owned by the Commissioners; wind farm possibilities on the rural estate are also being explored.”

Involvement in climate change

Commitment to carbon reduction targets

In addition to its investments and landholding portfolio, the Church of England has been active on climate changes since 2005 with the General Synod’s adoption of MPA’s Sharing God’s Planet, the subsequent launch of Shrinking the Footprint, (StF), and the commencement of the seven-year programme Church and Earth 2009-2016. The latter includes an ambitious commitment to a carbon reduction target for churches and associated property holdings of 80% by 2050 and an interim target of 42% by 2020.

Current details of StF on the ChurchCare web pages include impressive lists of What churches are doing? and Church buildings with renewable energy systems. However, there is no reference either in these or in the Synod Environment Working Group’s Background Paper to General Synod, Combatting Climate Change: The Paris Summit and the Mission of the Church, GS 2003, to the percentage carbon reductions that have been achieved to date. Information on these data is not easy to access: our posts The Church and the Environment and Climate change and the CofE noted the excellent Energy Audit Report 2012/13 detailing the 2012/13 carbon footprint of energy-use in the Church’s built estate, as part of the National Energy Audit;  but we observed the limited data set and the gaps on the Renewable Energy Systems map.

Other StF activities

General Synod Paper GS 2003 states that Shrinking the Footprint has provided a banner under which numerous other initiatives are taking place, and in the last twelve months these have included:

  • Environmental Engagement Programme:  StF is publicising a 2014 pilot organised by the Lichfield diocese to encourage all dioceses to promote environmental awareness and action at parish level involving mission, energy, food and biodiversity etc.
  • Churchyard Yews: A major feature of new Heritage Lottery Fund’s Ancient Yew funded project. Churches are encouraged to apply for small grants for community heritage projects and support workshops to help maintenance, care and protection together with interpretation for both local and visitor interest.
  • Paris Pilgrimages Liaison: Tearfund, Christian Aid and Cafod have provided funding for StF to appoint a UK co-ordinator for the various pilgrimages planned for the run-up to the UN Climate meetings. A website and programme of events is under development. As well as providing a link to all the UK initiatives this service will also provide a link to all international pilgrimages.
  • Eco-pod: Piloting sustainable new uses for closed, closing and underused churches involving appropriate structures built within them in ways to be sympathetic to the host buildings.
  • Historic Environment Adaptation Group: Involving Historic England, Historic Scotland, National Trust, Environment Agency, National Parks and Defra, chaired by StF.
  • The Adaptation of Cathedral and Church Buildings and Communities to a Changing Climate:  Development and support of report.
  • Bats: Partners with Natural England in a £3million HLF bid to tackle the emotive issue of bats in churches.
  • Environmental news and information: Regularly produced for Diocesan Environment Officers, Bishops and clergy.
  • Website, Constantly updated and receives a large number of ‘hits’. Popular pages include guidance on taking action and an interactive map of renewable installations
  • Parish Buying: Promoted by StF and energy data are collected through the scheme’s 5000 energy packages.
  • Social media: StF is active on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube
  • Diocesan Environmental Officers: All dioceses should have a DEO who receives frequent updates on a wide range of issues and encouraged to meet together at least once a year to discuss ideas, activities and to network.
  • Communications: StF has strong governmental links with DECC and DEFRA along with a number parliamentary groups, business associations and NGOs.
  • UNDP’s Faiths and the Sustainable Development Goals: StF to represent the CofE in this two-day event in September 2015.


Jonathon Porritt’s post acknowledges that:

“[o]n an historical basis, the Church of England has been vaguely helpful on climate change issues over the last few years. There are a number of solid, low-key initiatives such as Project Noah[3]. Former Archbishop, Rowan Williams … provided some wonderful theological grounding, and former Bishop James Jones, from the evangelical tradition, was a brilliant leader on climate issues. And there have, of course, been many, many dedicated individuals beavering away on climate issues for a long time”.

But he is critical of “the overall quality of decisive, moral leadership has, across the country” and the lack of media coverage, and suggests that Justin Welby’s approach may be influenced by background in the oil industry. Without specific examples it is difficult to comment on this last assertion, but note that although the Archbishop worked with various oil companies for 11 years, he has not done so for more than a quarter of a century.

There is no doubt that Archbishop Welby has given “decisive moral leadership” in a number of important areas including banking standards, pay-day loans, credit unions, &c. Nevertheless,  it is apparent from his Press Releases that statements on the Church’s position on climate change tend to be made by the lead bishop on the environment: Nicholas Holtam, the Bishop of Salisbury, who succeeded Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, in September 2014. Equally important, but not acknowledged, is the work of the Church of England National Investing Bodies, particularly the new ethical policy on climate change and investment announced and implemented on 1 May 2015.

The Church of England’s current position is summarized in the two papers prepared for General Synod: Combatting Climate Change: The Paris Summit and the Mission of the Church, GS 2003; and Climate Change and Investment Policy, GS 2004. The latter provides a coherent overview of the work of the Church’s NIBs. Significantly, this includes acknowledgements of its achievements from Lord Stern, Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics (LSE), who praised the NIBs for their “fine and wise leadership”, and from Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, who said “the Church of England’s investment policy, supporting the transition to a low carbon economy, is remarkably thoughtful and expressive of investor integrity”.

By contrast, purpose of the document of the Environment Working Group on combatting climate change, GS 2003, appears to be the provision of background information to the Synod members’ groups work and debate on climate change on 12 and 13 July respectively, GS 1987. In the three paragraphs it devotes to StF, however, there is no mention of the carbon reduction targets within StF, reflecting some of Jonathon Porritt’s criticisms.

A future post will report on the outcome of this debate.

David Pocklington

[1] Church Commissioners, Church of England Pensions Board, and Central Board of Finance, (CBF).

[2] Fuller details are contained in the paper for the July 2015 General Synod “Climate Change and Investment Policy, GS 2004

[3] When launched in 2004, the BBC reported Jonathon Porritt as saying “Operation Noah is a wake-up call, not only to people of faith but to the whole of society. It makes us stop and think what we are doing to the earth and dares us to live by a new set of values.” BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott said the campaign was “the boldest co-ordinated step yet by senior church leaders to intervene in the political debate over climate change”.


Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Climate change, the Archbishop and the Pope" in Law & Religion UK, 30 June 2015,

7 thoughts on “Climate change, the Archbishop and the Pope

  1. Pingback: Climate change, the Archbishop and the Pope -Law and Religion | Fulcrum Anglican

  2. The elephant in the room appears to be the provision of contraception to women in the 2/3 world so that they can control the size of their families. Unless the explosion in the growth of the world’s population can be brought under control, all other efforts to modify the impact of humanity on the planet will be undermined to the point of futility. While the pope stands by Humanae Vitae, there is little hope of progress.

  3. The truth about population is exactly the opposite. All countries that have accepted contraception are now in population meltdown. Our Country would be such a case without mass immigration.There are now 40 million surplus males in China, and countries like Japan and Russia( with no major immigration) are in serious trouble.The Pope does well to speak out about the use of contraception and abortion as a political weapon, which does not address the real causes of poverty.

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