‘The end is nigh,’ proclaims the apocryphal sandwich board. There is a long and not very glorious history of people making dubious predictions about the end of the world. When the Large Hadron Collider in CERN was about to be launched a few years ago, the tabloids panicked, asking in inch-high letters, “Are we all going to die next Wednesday?” In the last 15 years we’ve also seen bird flu, biological terrorism, and the millennium bug all supposedly about to bring humanity to the brink of destruction. Yet we are still here.
Historically, religious people are of course particularly prone to this tendency. There are many passages of scripture about the coming ‘end times’, traditionally read each Advent in preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ and in anticipation of his return in glory. Many in the early church were convinced that Christ’s return was very imminent, and they inspired millennialists in subsequent generations – many of them distinctly strange and clearly deluded.
These beliefs are easy to mock, particularly in hindsight, but it’s more difficult to laugh off the fact that in the last seventy years, humanity has come closer than ever before to being in a position to destroy life as we know it – acquiring both the knowledge and the technical capability to bring about the end of the world by our own actions. And not only are we capable of doing it, we are doing it. It may not be by nuclear holocaust, as was the big fear a generation ago, but we are inexorably bringing about the end of the world with a slower and less visible environmental holocaust.
As a result of our industrial economies and our love of fossil fuels, present levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher today than they have been for 420,000 years. Scientists expect that global temperatures will rise by between 1.4°C and 5.8°C before the end of the century, with catastrophic consequences for both people and planet: floods, droughts, the loss of habitats and livelihoods, the spread of hunger and disease, millions of environmental refugees.
When previous generations spoke about the end of the world, that usually implied God stepping in and bringing things to a close with the inauguration of his reign. If God didn’t act, the world would go on much as it always had. But for us it’s the other way around. Now the end of the world as we know it will simply be the inevitable consequence of things continuing unchanged as they are.
That is why this week’s UN Climate Change Conference in Paris is such an important opportunity for world leaders. Agreeing a fair and ambitious global climate deal, which commits every country to act to limit carbon emissions, could keep global temperature rises to below the internationally agreed target of 2°C. While technological solutions might offer some mitigation down the line, a global agreement of this sort would be the surest way to reverse the current trends of climate change and avert their potentially disastrous consequences.
During Advent, as we hear again those familiar Biblical passages about the coming end times, let us pray that world leaders give us cause to be hopeful about the future.
Grant our political leaders courage and vision, for what we ask of them is not easy.
The planet has no vote in elections, and those suffering most as a result of climate change are those with least power and influence.
We pray that negotiators in Paris can put aside short-term and self-interested considerations and act bravely, for the sake of justice, creation and future generations.
Grant our political leaders courage and vision.