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Valedictory speech in the House of Lords, June 2021

by Michael Ford last modified 11 Jun, 2021 08:00 PM

Bishop Nicholas gave a valedictory speech in the House of Lords, 7th June 2021.

My Lords, I have not been in the House in person since the first week of February. Sitting on the Front Bench earlier with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln, I found myself wondering whether both of us had misjudged the timing of our retirements. I have led on the environment for the Church of England for seven years and have been a Member of the House for six. It has been a privilege as well as a responsibility and I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken kindly of what has been achieved; of course, it could never be enough.

With an eye towards retirement, I had thought that last year, 2020, would have provided a good conclusion, with the Lambeth Conference of Bishops from the Anglican Communion, COP 26 and this Environment Bill. All were postponed, so I find myself standing for the last time in this House without the prospect of being able to engage in the detailed scrutiny and revision that will make what is, in many ways, a good Bill better. Of course, my colleagues will contribute, as the Right Reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford has already. I thank the Minister for meeting the Bishops in preparation for this debate.

The care of creation is an important theme for Christians and all faith communities, but young people repeatedly say that we are not doing enough. At the last General Synod in person before the pandemic, a motion I proposed was amended for the Church of England to aim for net zero by 2030. I resisted it unsuccessfully. Those making the amendment said that we have to respond to the climate emergency and pick up the pace of our own change. This is complicated and there is a big difference in temperament between realists and prophets. The impact of that vote, however, has been to energise the Church of England in a new way and we are working towards the 2030 target with more urgent realism.

I say all this because, while I welcome the Bill, in a Parliament that has recognised the climate emergency, the Government are nothing like ambitious enough. We need to make the most of this opportunity to replace EU legislation and exceed its ambition and effectiveness in addressing fundamental issues of the environment and about the way we live. It matters a great deal that we address the role of the OEP and bottom out its relationship with the Government and the excellent Climate Change Committee, and that we establish how targets will be set.

The Bill ought to shape the work of every government department. Individuals make choices within the framework of legislation which makes the market. The Bill will and ought to shape the way we live now, not just in the middle distance and long-term future. This is a time of enormous change. We can be encouraged by the scale of changes in our behaviour in response to the pandemic and daunted that a similar scale of change is needed every year to 2030 if we are to meet the 2050 target for carbon neutrality of the Paris Agreement.

There is an obvious spiritual dimension to the Bill. Gus Speth, a scientist who used to be the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council in the United States, said:

“I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Politicians, or any of us alone, cannot do that either.

Last September, Christiana Figueres showed the bishops a cartoon, which has since become well known, of a series of increasingly large waves crashing in on a small, urban shore: the pandemic, the economy, the climate and the environment. Although each needs to be addressed in its own terms, Pope Francis is right to see them as a single piece and as a challenge to the way we understand ourselves in relation to God, one another and the whole creation. The world’s faiths are all a resource for the way in which we live together in this one room of God’s creation. In our ecumenism, we have to pay attention to the economy—helpfully understood in the way of the Dasgupta review—and to the laws, ecology and wisdom of the house.

We cannot depend on techno-optimism to dig us out of a hole and we will need to answer questions about restraint. What is enough? We cannot continue to consume as we do. A new creativity is needed. There are opportunities for the UK to exercise leadership in our hosting of the G7, this week, and COP 26 in November. The big lesson of the pandemic is that we are local and global, and that in the existential issues we face no one is safe until everyone is safe. The golden rule of every religion and philosophical tradition is to do to others as we would have them do to us; it is enlightened self-interest. That has implications for the global vaccination programme and for overseas aid.

The Bill addresses the legislative framework for our care of the environment but what underlies it is the way we human beings see ourselves. In the diocese of Salisbury, which is one of the most ancient settled landscapes in Europe and has a wonderful geology hundreds of millions of years old, this bishop knows something about the humility needed in our care of the earth, as well as the creative wisdom and ambition that has given such progress to human well-being. Most people want to do the right thing. We need a legislative framework that will help us to do so, and courageous politicians capable of seeing the need for new-world thinking in the light of what we are learning from our present experience.

It has been a privilege to make a small contribution to the workings of this House and to pray for this one small room in God’s big house. I thank your Lordships for your purposeful and expert collaboration and companionship. I thank the staff of the House for their unfailing helpfulness and courteousness, and the former and present Lord Speakers and their deputies. I wish your Lordships well in your consideration of this crucial Bill and will continue to pray for you in all your deliberations.

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