Rich Christians in an Age of Climate Change

Christian environmentalist Jonny Hanson argues that the Irish churches must address economic and ecological issues, and not just spiritual and sexual ones, as part of their Kingdom mission.

(From the January - March 2017 issue of VOX.)

From February to June of last year, I joined many others to protest peacefully against the decision to drill an exploratory oil well less than 400m from a drinking water reservoir in the hills above Carrickfergus, my then home. It was my first time getting involved in such a process, as it was for most of the others. And contrary to the claims of various politicians, the protestors were overwhelmingly local and overwhelmingly ordinary, with few classing themselves as ‘greens’ or ‘environmentalists.’ Also striking was the sense of community that developed amongst this diverse group over the course of the five months: there were codes of conduct written; there were barbecues and ceilidhs held. I even brought my kids.

But there was also a serious side to the whole affair. We were there to protest against the dangerous idea of drilling such a well, including all the toxic chemicals used in the process, so close to the water supply of homes in over 1800 streets. We were there to protest against the complete lack of transparency and legality involved in allowing such a scheme to proceed. We were also there to protest against the moral madness of attempting to extract yet more fossil fuels at a time when all of the evidence suggests that we should keep such deposits in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change, and instead invest in renewable energy.

The Stop the Drill campaign ended in June when the test well revealed that, despite the promises of 25 million barrels of oil at the Woodburn site, there were, in fact, none. But the story of rich Christians in an age of climate change only begins there. For despite the community spirit and the triumph of peaceful protest over what many considered to be illegitimate and immoral development, I was profoundly discouraged by the almost total absence and silence of a local organisation that should have had rather a lot to say about the matter: the church.

To the best of my knowledge, and despite numerous enquiries over the duration of the campaign, I am unaware of the formal involvement of any local congregations, clergy or Irish denominations. This is despite the confluence of critical issues relevant to the prophetic role and mission of the church that the Stop the Drill campaign represented, including human and environmental health, political transparency and climate change.

Today, on climate change, most churches and Christians in Ireland are lagging far behind their secular contemporaries.

The only bright spots that I am aware of were an interdenominational prayer walk at the site that I helped to organise, at which a representative of the local Catholic church read a prayer from Pope Francis’ creation care encyclical Laudato Si, and a policy submission on the planning process to Stormont by Christian Aid.

Yet climate change is the defining issue of our time, and one that demonstrates the intimate interconnection of economic, ecological and social (including spiritual) issues.

Two hundred odd years ago, churches and Christians like William Wilberforce were at the forefront of the abolition of slavery in the UK and its territories. Fifty odd years ago, churches and Christians like Martin Luther King Jr. were at the forefront of ending segregation in the USA.

But today, on climate change, most churches and Christians in Ireland are lagging far behind their secular contemporaries. By limiting its mission to spiritual and sexual issues only, the church isn’t only watering down the Gospel; it is also watering down its witness to a world weary of rich Christians doing so very little in response to climate change.

Tackling climate change with compassion is our version of abolishing slavery, our version of ending segregation. The question is will we, individually and collectively, be the Wilberforces and Luther King Jr.’s in this era? Will we – rich Christians in age of climate change – put the interests of the poor before our love of money and stuff? It is time for the churches of Ireland to answer these questions.

Jonny Hanson is a Christian environmentalist and entrepreneur. A referenced and expanded version of this article is available at