RI Interview: The UK’s Bishop of Salisbury: a climate pilgrim working for the common interest

Church of England’s environmental lead on the low carbon economy….and a Pilgrimage2Paris

Salisbury, for those who don’t know it, is a medieval city a few miles from Stonehenge in southern England. Its ancient cathedral, featured in Constable’s resonant painting, ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’, has a working 14th-century clock and an original copy of the Magna Carta.

If ever a place evokes ‘the long-term’, it is Salisbury. It’s perhaps fitting then that Rt. Revd. Nick Holtam, its Bishop since 2011, is the Church of England’s lead on climate change. He chairs the Church’s Environmental Working Group that was established by the General Synod in February 2014 following a grassroots campaign led by the Southwark diocese in central London. Holtam, who has a degree in geography, is a former vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, the prominent church on the northeast corner of Trafalgar Square. And it is this link with St Martin’s that has brought us together, for it is from here that Holtam will launch a pilgrimage later this month bound for the COP21 climate change talks in Paris. The Pilgrimage2Paris takes place between November 13-27; it’s being organised by the Church of England, Christian Aid, CAFOD and Tearfund.

He notes a wave of similar pilgrimages to Paris and argues that “politicians can only act if they’ve got support”. “They’re not going to be able to exercise leadership without people saying ‘we want this’ – so these church communities are saying this is a really serious moral issue for us.”

He speaks of typhoons in the Philippines, Pacific island states planning relocation, and of floods followed by drought in Malawi, which he visited with Christian Aid earlier this year where he saw people grappling with soil erosion by planting trees: “They didn’t have any doubts about the impact of climate change.”

He explains that climate change is a moral issue because it both affects the poorest and is an intergenerational issue: “How do we steward this creation for the sake of our children, grandchildren, for our successors?” But what leverage does the Church have? “Truth’s quite persuasive,” he answers. “We might not always get it right but we are about the truth, I think that really matters.” We meet at the House of Lord’s, the UK’s second chamber: very much at the centre of the British ‘establishment’ where he’s one of 26 bishops who are ‘Lords Spiritual’.

“The role of the lords spiritual isn’t party political,” he tells RI. “We are there to exercise a function on behalf of the whole community which is not simply about political power.” He asks rhetorically: “Can we take the long view, not just the expedient view?”Just before the interview, the Lord’s scored a major victory in a highly charged row over tax credits. Holtam says of the affair: “What’s interesting is that it took the lid off something which had a very political framework around it and allowed people to talk sensibly about it. Now if that’s the role of a revising chamber, that’s a successful outcome.”

Something he is keen to stress is the cross-faith work going on around climate change – particularly in light of the Pope’s encyclical, which he says has had a “huge” impact. Holtam himself recently presented to the Jewish Board of Deputies with former Friends of the Earth Director Jonathon Porritt. “There is a sense that we really want to work across the faith communities,” he says – pointing to an “ecumenical convergence” on the issue. The force of events – an “existential crisis” – was pushing faiths together to find a common solution. Indeed, our meeting coincided with a visit to London by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, who insisted at an event with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby that global warming is a “moral crisis” requiring behavioural change.

“What we need to move to is a low carbon economy and therefore there needs to be a positive investment into renewable energy,” Holtam says. “There’s going to become a tipping point at which there are stranded assets and the question is, who’s going to spot when that comes? Because there’ll be a moment when you’re much better off investing in renewables than you are in fossil fuel.” Holtam doesn’t engage directly with corporate executives directly, but what would he say to the senior people at BP and Shell? “There’s a community of common interest,” he observes. “The science is consistent. We all know there’s a problem in terms of the transition to a low carbon economy. And 2 degrees is a maximum. Now, if that’s agreed territory – how are we going to do it?
“And how are we going to move to a different sort of economy with renewable fuel? Fossil fuel companies have to become part of the solution, not just part of the problem – that’s actually a common interest and that’s the line that I think we all ought to be working on.” But what about incentives across the system? “That’s a grown-up bit of conversation, isn’t it, which I think we’re only beginning to approach. ‘Who owns the capital, who owns the pension funds, on whose behalf are they acting?’ – that’s a conversation that we are preparing for really and have begun to engage with.”

He concludes by wondering if the whole situation has similarities with Alcoholics Anonymous. “You’ve got to hit rock bottom, you’ve really got to know you’re in a mess before you can set about the 12 steps: you need a community with solidarity.” It’ll take more than 12 steps for the climate pilgrims to get to Paris, but it will be worth all the blisters.