The Paris Climate Conference: What love will do

First published in The Friend, 18th December 2015

Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel. (William Penn, 1693; Qfp 24.03)

It’s that time of year again. Negotiators are heading home from the twenty first annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN climate convention, after two weeks of working through the night. This was their fifth gathering this year, and they have been working towards this particular agreement for four years. The closing plenary was moving to watch, with delegates in tears, with hugs, kisses and extended standing ovations.

The outcome has been widely greeted as a turning point. In aspiration it goes far beyond expectations. At the beginning of 2015, we seemed on track for a 4°C global temperature rise above pre-industrial levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned of dire implications for life on Earth.

The new agreement states that its aim is to strengthen the global response to climate change by holding the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature rise to 1.5°C.

It has something for nearly everyone. It pays attention to concerns for human rights and equity, to the need for sustainable lifestyles. There are processes to increase financial support from developed to developing nations and address the issue of ‘loss and damage’ due to climate change. But – as many delegates observed – the agreement is weak on specific commitments. It relies on ‘nationally determined contributions’ – essentially voluntary commitments to emission cuts, targets, policies, financial contributions and actions. One country, Nicaragua, said it would not sign the agreement because it is inadequate and will not achieve its stated aim.

Some scientists have expressed deep disappointment about the disconnect between the 1.5°C aspiration and the emission reduction pathway signalled by the agreement. It commits countries ‘to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century’.

The COP decision asks the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to produce a new report by 2018 looking specifically at 1.5°C pathways. The IPCC Fifth Assessment, published last year, paid minimal attention to such pathways. Probably nobody thought they were seriously possible. The focus was on assessing whether a 2°C limit was feasible and what it might entail. However we can have some idea of what the new report might say. To have a good chance of limiting warming to 2°C we should phase out fossil fuels globally by 2050. To stay below 1.5°C we need deep cuts immediately, phasing out fossil fuels by perhaps 2030.

Achieving the aim of the Paris Agreement would take nothing less than a global transformation – in technology, finance, power relations, industries and lifestyles. For most people this is unimaginable. Yet it may not be so difficult. British carbon emissions per capita fell thirty percent in the last ten years. While our government currently seems to be doing its best to stop the transformation, it has begun here and most people have hardly noticed.

What really matters is not the wording of this agreement but the process by which it was achieved. The French presidency of the COP showed phenomenal leadership in transforming relationships among negotiators from the bitterness and distrust expressed a year ago to the loving fellowship displayed in Paris. It was a feat of community-building that involved a huge amount of careful listening and facilitating dialogue in small groups. And there were willing participants – perhaps most significantly in the efforts of China and the United States to co-operate and to set out their own national plans of action.

The global climate regime is voluntary. The new agreement provides for any party to withdraw from it at will. There is no provision for sanctions or force against parties that do not meet their commitments. So change will only happen when enough people – including key players in government and business – want it. The amazing thing is that transformations of relationships, of the human will, of behaviour, happen very quickly.

The COP decision explicitly states that the provisions on loss and damage do not constitute a basis for legal liability or compensation. This was necessary for some developed countries to agree. But as Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace said at a press conference, litigation is already happening. He cited a Philippines case against fifteen fossil fuel companies. ‘The struggle continues tomorrow’ and civil society ‘will be finding creative ways of resistance’.

The real challenge with a community is to maintain it, to cope with the tensions and struggles that emerge, especially when the going gets tough. Old wounds and resentments are still there beneath the surface. I do not believe there is much difference in this between the United Nations and a local Quaker meeting. My own experience is that sustaining community takes a lot of work. It helps a lot to have experienced people on hand, supporting participants to see things from each other’s point of view. It can be really hard to speak the truth, but when we don’t, relationships harden or unravel. Community depends on a willingness to listen, to love, to forgive. And above all, it requires a willingness to change ourselves.

What has happened in Paris is a microcosm of the community building that needs to happen everywhere, in organisations, neighbourhoods, cities, countries. The action needs to come from all of us. That means changing our lifestyles, our patterns of work and of relationships. It means fossil fuel companies undergoing their own transformation to leave carbon in the ground and find new business models.  It means elites finding a new power base – perhaps deriving kudos from generosity and pursuing the well-being of humanity, rather than their own bank balances.

Midwinter may be a good time to stop, reflect and listen for the Leadings of the Spirit. What are we called to do? What am I called to do? What gifts am I going to offer the world at this special time?

Your gifts may be practical. Could you move towards a vegan diet, reorganise your life to cut down on car and air travel, or install a wood stove and use less gas?

Perhaps you are a communicator. Can you befriend your MP and share your sense of urgency about climate change? Or maybe it’s time to write that short story, song or poem, or paint that picture.

You might be called to take direct action, to challenge, to expose the truth. Can you do so and sustain love and forgiveness, rejoicing in that of God even in those you are challenging?

Or perhaps your gift is to help build community and heal relationships, in your Quaker meeting, your family, your neighbourhood or workplace.

In the closing plenary of the COP, the United States delegate spoke about entrepreneurial innovation. The South African delegate quoted Nelson Mandela and the Indian delegate mentioned Gandhi. Each of us has something special to bring. Many of the delegates mentioned faith groups as part of the effort and support that made the agreement possible.

Paris represents a huge step forward in community building, globally, to be able to address climate change. We can only greet it as a moment of joy.

The Holy Mountain

(This article was published in The Friend, 1st May 2015)

Thirteen years ago I spent three days at Young Friends’ Summer Gathering at Pardshaw in the Lake District. They wanted to explore their witness to “that of God in all creation.” In the mornings they generously shared with me – a less-young Friend – their values, visions, and ideas for action for a sustainable world. In the afternoons we walked, swam, and kept talking.

Their visions were wide ranging: “we would be in contact with the earth”, “practising arts and crafts”, “we would dance all night”, “no cars”, “no nations or boundaries”, “security, trust, safe in our own homes”, “everything organic, fairly traded, respecting people and earth”, “complement rather than contradict.” I cannot convey the emotional depth and reverence that infused our worship-sharing in the sun. Or the effort to wrestle with the complexity of it all, the frustrations, the tensions between our desires and our dreams, our ideals and the Spirit of the Age.

I have experienced many visioning workshops since, with Quaker and other groups. The themes are broadly similar. There is a longing for a restored relationship with nature, with ourselves and with other people.
This longing is old and widely shared, at least in faith traditions. In God’s holy mountain none shall hurt or destroy and even the lions are vegan (Isaiah 11:6-9). But people disagree deeply on how to get there. They have tried many paths without success.

There is a path up the holy mountain. It might be called “deep nonviolence”, or “living out our faith in the world”. For me it is grounded in Quaker testimony and modelled by Gandhi and many others. It has strong Buddhist and Taoist resonances. There are three fundamentals:

First, being patterns and examples. If we hope the world will change, we start with a readiness to change ourselves, to learn from the experience and share it with others. If we see darkness around us, the first step is to let the Light show us our own darkness and bring us to new life.

Second, answering that of God in everyone. We listen, reaching deep for the truth others’ words may hold for us, prepared to be challenged, to find we have been mistaken. We embrace difference as well as similarity, recognising others’ gifts and seeing how they complement our own. Listening is the first step if we hope others will listen to us, and perhaps become companions on the path.

Third, seeking unity in a way forward together. We ask how we are led forward together and submit to God’s will – which is revealed when we heed the promptings of love and truth in our hearts and answer that of God in each other.

Sometimes the path appears to go nowhere, but if we stay with it the mountain comes into being around us. This path can bring us to new and surprising perspectives on familiar issues: climate change, oppression, community, violent conflict, housing, the use of money. Deep nonviolence applies in politics, in the family, in international negotiations. When we practise it in one sphere, we develop our capacity to practise it in others and we learn how everything is connected.

We may find ourselves walking against the crowd but we do not negate other paths. We may feel alone. This path can feel too slow. We may not arrive in our lifetimes. Even so it is the fastest path and it is what love requires. Occasionally we may find companions to walk a while with us. That is a profound joy.

Human Dimensions Retreat, Bamford, 18-22 June

Come and join us to:

  • deepen your understanding of the social, psychological and spiritual aspects of addressing climate change
  • explore your feelings and leadings in a nurturing group
  • find resources that you can use in your life, community and work
  • get to know other Friends with a sustainability concern
  • experience being part of the Quaker Community in Bamford, eating, worshipping, having fun and learning together and
  • enjoy the beautiful surroundings in the Derbyshire Peak District.

The retreat will be centred in worship, exploring what we have learned as Quakers in our engagement with climate change. Each day will include short talks for information or inspiration, extended Quaker worship and other spiritual practices, and substantial free time with opportunities for walks, individual creative work, gardening and helping in the kitchen.  We will conclude the retreat with a Quaker meeting for worship for business which may record what we have found in a minute or epistle.

We’ll address some of the most challenging questions for Quakers in our sustainability commitment.

Thursday evening: Welcome session. Introductions to the summer school, the Community and each other. Beginning to get to know one another.

Friday: Patterns and examples. How do we develop low carbon sustainable ways of life? What inspires, motivates and sustains us? How do we address the challenges and where can we find resources and support?

Saturday: Answering that of God in the Other. How do we deal with conflicting priorities – for example between people’s needs and desires (for warmth, for travel to see loved ones etc.) and our commitment to low carbon living? Can we be both compassionate and sustainable?

Sunday: Finding unity. Have we found ways of enabling people to feel they can make a difference together? What is our experience of achieving positive change in our communities, our meetings, and wider society?

Monday morning: Moving forward. This session will address personal next steps and needs for ongoing support. We could also include a meeting for worship for business to prepare a minute or epistle, if we are so led.

Booking your place

Please contact the Community at or on 01433 650085  to register. The cost of attending is on a sliding scale of £150-240 depending on what you feel you can afford. Some bursary help is available if £150 is too much for you, but please do seek support from your meeting.

Comfortable accommodation and vegan or vegetarian, mostly organic food are included.

Accommodation will be in single or shared rooms, with the use of community bathrooms. Towels and linen are provided.

We happily provide for gluten free, sugar free and other diets.

Arrivals and departures:

Please plan to arrive by 6pm on the Thursday and to leave from 2pm on Monday. The Community is ½ mile from Bamford rail station with trains from Sheffield and Manchester. There are also buses from Sheffield. We will send full travel directions when you register.


Shape of the day

Most days of the retreat will take the following shape. Timings may change depending on the Community’s worship times and decisions of the retreat group. On the Sunday morning we will join Hope Valley Quaker Meeting for worship at 10.45.

07.00-09.00 Breakfast & washing up

08.00-08.30 Meeting for Worship

09.15 -12.15 Morning session, including a break

13.00 Lunch & washing up

14.00 Free time

16.00 Individual/small group activities

18.30 Supper & washing up

20.00 Evening session

21.30 Epilogue


Further information

For more details about the content of the retreat, please contact Laurie Michaelis: or 01835 244193.

To make your booking or ask for information about the Quaker Community at Bamford please contact the Community at or 01433 650085.

Human Dimensions Workshop, Oxford, 14th March

On 14th March we are holding a day workshop which will be the first gathering of the new Quaker network on the Human Dimensions of Climate Change.

The programme for the day is here:  HDCC Workshop Oxford

Please complete a booking form and send it to us if you wish to attend: Human Dimensions Registration March 2015

The network arose from the March 2014 Canterbury Commitment Gathering at Swanwick, where a group of Friends agreed that we want to develop a better shared understanding of the social, spiritual and psychological aspects of responding to climate change. Some of the themes that interest us include

•    working with constructively with denial, blame, shame and guilt;

•    embracing difference and reconciling the value systems, worldviews and priorities of different people and groups; and

•    developing moral community and a collective will to change.

The workshop will include opportunities to explore these themes and to consider the development of our network. Our sessions will be grounded in Quaker worship.

Refreshments will be provided but please bring your own lunch.



Answering that of God in the perpetrators

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts.  Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life. Advices & Queries #1, Britain Yearly Meeting, 1994.

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one. George Fox, 1656, quoted in Britain Yearly Meeting, 1994.

At our holocaust remembrance service in Oxford, one of the readings was from Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1986: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim”. Wiesel, a Romanian Jew, survived Auschwitz to become a journalist, university professor and political activist in the United States. In his Nobel speech he went on to speak of Palestinian suffering but he said: “I have faith in the Jewish people. Let Israel be given a chance, let hatred and danger be removed from her horizons, and there will be peace in and around the Holy Land.”

Many Quakers do not share Wiesel’s optimism. It is obvious to them that we should take sides, and which side we should take in Palestine. Israeli military assaults have taken thousands of Palestinian lives. One Friend spoke to me of needing to “cage the wild dog”.

One of the problems with taking sides is that victims and perpetrators change places. Sometimes it is hard to know which is which. When we expand our vision, we may see that both are victims of something much bigger. Usually, if we are really willing to look, we find that we are part of that something.

By taking sides we collude with a narrative of blame that helps perpetuate the cycle of violence. Those we call perpetrators themselves feel victimised, while those we call victims feel justified in seeking revenge.

Is there an alternative? What do love and truth require of us? It is often easier to see a way forward when conflicts are at a smaller scale. I have sometimes been stunned to realise that the wrong I saw someone else committing was a mirror of what I was doing. I have also been amazed by the transformation that has occurred when I made the effort – and it can be a huge effort – to see things from the other person’s point of view, to take responsibility and apologise for my role in the situation.

Of course, this is a world away from the Nazis’ deliberate attempt to exterminate those they saw as subhuman, from Israel’s punitive attacks on Palestinians with apparent indifference to the loss of life, and from the unintentional mass killing of humans and other species in which we are all engaged as we continue to burn fossil fuels. A question that keeps coming up for me is about what it means to answer that of God in the perpetrators of both human and ecological harm.

The starting point for me is recognising that much of the violence in our world is symptomatic of old, deep wounds, embedded in religious liturgy, national narratives and systems of economic and political power. Two writers have particularly helped me in thinking about this. One was Walter Wink, a New Testament theologian who wrote a series of books about “The Powers”. The other was the Quaker, Adam Curle, who spent much of his life working in conflict situations and was the first director of the Bradford Department of Peace Studies.

Part of Walter Wink’s insight is that perpetrators of violence – from those who killed people in Paris and Nigeria recently to our own political leaders – are victims of what he calls the Domination System, as we all are to some degree. The  Domination System, which is closely related to what Jonathan Dale calls the Spirit of the Age, has its life in and through us and our institutions.

Adam Curle draws on Tibetan Buddhism in his analysis of the linked problems of human and ecological violence. He sees the roots as lying in the three kleshas, or poisons, of ignorance (of our true interconnected nature), desire and aggression. These feed the Hydra, the many headed monster obsessed with money and power. We can cut off one head of the monster by resolving a conflict here, or greening a corporation there, but the Hydra has an infinite capacity to grow new heads unless we can stem the flow of poison.

In Curle’s analysis, what is needed is a spiritual awakening, a transformation of individuals and of cultures to recognise the connectedness of everything. It starts with us. When we express anger at other people, when we condemn them as somehow inhuman, or use words like “evil”, whenever we deny our connectedness to them, we are feeding the Hydra.

So if there is a battle between the forces of Light and Darkness, it is played out in all of us. The first step for each of us must be to allow the Light to show us our darkness.

I haven’t generally found it helpful to point out the darkness when I think I see it in other people. It is through being patterns and examples, and at the same time answering that of God in others, that we support them in observing their own darkness and finding the way to new life. It seems to me that we are feeding the Hydra when we try to change other people – when we treat them as objects rather than subjects.

So the second step is to allow the Light to bring us to new life. For me this is a very slow process of observing the kleshas at work in my thoughts and actions, and looking to see what I can change in myself. Often this means seeking advice – and following it.

It is only when I know my own responsibility for the problem – and know it as a positive thing, beyond denial, blame, guilt and shame – that I am ready for the third step: to engage other people in working towards solutions together. This can also be a very slow process. It involves a lot of listening, trying to see things from others’ points of view. It can be very uncomfortable. It can be hard to stay faithful to the process, especially if it seems that time is being lost while the violence continues. But it is probably the only way to break the cycle.

Righteous Anger

I’ve been wondering about the place of righteous anger and opposition in a spirit-led, non-violent witness for a better world. This partly goes back to conversations with Friends over the last six months following the Quaker statement on the Gaza conflict. And in her comment Jill Weston speaks of having “enemies” and of “campaigning against” being the most effective approach in our response to climate change.

After the recent killings in Paris, several Friends spoke in my local Meeting for Worship, sharing their reflections about how our Quaker Peace Testimony speaks to that situation. An important part of the public response has been solidarity with the victims: “Je suis Charlie”, “Je suis Ahmed”, “Je suis juif”. Perhaps some new bridges are being built among communities in Paris.

One Friend spoke of the massacre of Algerian demonstrators by Parisian police at Pont St Michel in 1961. Much of the violence in the world today is so obviously part of a cycle – reverberations from past violence, whether in European colonialism, the Crusades, or the two millennia of antagonism between Jews and Christians. Western politicians stoke the fires of that cycle of violence with their rhetoric about evil and their “war on terror”.

Understanding the systemic roots of violence and injustice is a vital step in seeking to live our Testimony. But perhaps the hardest step – whether we are thinking of Paris, Gaza or climate change, is acknowledging our own responsibility. By which I do not mean that we are to be blamed for the violence, but that we do have some agency and that we are called to claim it. Intentionally or not, I participate in an economic and political system which contributes to the violence in our world. I help to shape the way things are through my choices, and through the choices I don’t actively make: the home I live in, my work, diet, travel, use of time and money, daily interactions with other people and with nature.

For some Friends, claiming our agency connects to expressing righteous anger and opposition. This is uncomfortable for me. But I need to acknowledge that anger in general is uncomfortable for me. When I have expressed anger with people I don’t know well, it has usually backfired. Yet I know that expressing anger is part of the normal repertoire of behaviour for some people. Perhaps it works for them. Perhaps it’s even healthy sometimes.

There were headlines last week along the lines of “Pope says: insult my mother, you’ll get a punch”. But what he actually said (according to The Independent) was: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch”.

I have sometimes experienced constructive outcomes from expressions of anger in the context of a secure, loving relationship. It hurts, but it can crack the shell of silences, half-truths and other habits that aren’t working. It can communicate to our loved ones that we need them to pay special attention, perhaps to re-examine their assumptions and expectations.

Where there is no secure foundation, I think anger is more likely to drive people apart. My experience of anger is that it can be exhilarating, it can give me a feeling of energy and strength, but it also goes with a feeling of separation from the person with whom I feel angry.

One yearly meeting, I think in 2010, Jocelyn Bell Burnell gave an introduction to a session on the Quaker Testimony on equality. She commented that her work on equality for women in science was not testimony because it was motivated by anger, and true testimony is based in love. Harvey Gilman responded during the session that we need to “tender our anger into love”.

I believe that if we are really to address the seeds of war, injustice and climate change, we need to find ways to answer that of God in the perpetrators. We need to build bridges with them. For me that means in particular working on mutual understanding, mutual compassion, and mutual trust. That is how Gandhi worked; it is how Nelson Mandela worked. It is true that Gandhi and Mandela were part of communities where righteous anger was also being powerfully expressed. But there are always plenty of people ready to do that.

Anger can be a healthy response and a great source of energy. Acknowledging and channelling our anger is vital if we are to stay healthy and make a difference in the world. But if we want to be part of a nonviolent revolution, we must tender our anger into love.

Quakers and climate change: a systems perspective on change agency

This post considers how and where Quakers can best contribute to the human response to climate change. It has four main sections:

  • Section 1 seeks to map out some of the systems and processes shaping climate change and the human response to it.
  • Section 2 considers our aims in seeking to intervene
  • Section 3 summarises what is being done by others, and where there are gaps
  • Section 4 considers some of the approaches, strengths and resources Quakers might bring to address the gaps
  1. Systems and processes

Climate change, its causes and the potential human responses to it are all part of multiple interlinked complex systems (Figure 1). The totality of these is beyond description, and this section just offers a brief sketch of some of them.

Figure 1. A few of the interlinked classes of systems contributing to climate change and the human response to it

Quakers and Climate Change Figure 1

Interlinked complex systems

A first class of systems is studied by scientists – the atmosphere, oceans, ecosystems, the sun, human and animal physiology and biology. These are probably the best understood in terms of verifiable scientific observation and theory.

Another class of systems is studied mainly by economists and engineers – markets for capital and commodities, processes of technological innovation and transfer, and economic growth. These systems are often quite well understood in ‘equilibrium’ circumstances but theorists have had limited success in introducing human psychology and culture to their models.

A third class of systems includes politics and the negotiation of laws and regulations. It also includes international relations mediated through UN and other intergovernmental bodies. This is the realm of explicit collective decision-making, studied especially by political scientists and lawyers. It is strongly shaped by the dynamics of power held by individuals and organisations. This may derive from military force, legal and constitutional rights, knowledge and expertise, financial wealth and influence (i.e. connected to the economic system) or from social groupings, networks and status.

A fourth class of systems is that of social groups and relations. This includes local communities, corporations and religious groups. It also includes professional groups and discourse coalitions. Social groups are studied by sociologists and anthropologists. They may be characterised by their degree of cohesiveness, their internal power structures, their approaches to inclusion, resource sharing and rights, and their relationships with other groups. They may also be characterised by the cultures, values, narratives, meanings and purposes they espouse and practise.

And then a fifth class of systems includes those cultures, values and narratives themselves. These evolve – or are sustained – by social groups, especially where they help to sustain existing power relations. They are also shaped by individual psychology, family relations, and religious/spiritual traditions.

Drivers of climate change

Climate change can be understood as the outcome of many mutually reinforcing processes in these various systems:

  • Development of technologies for finding and extracting fossil fuels
  • Development and diversification of fossil fuel-based technology in transport, manufacturing, heating and cooling, communication and entertainment
  • Human habits and choices leading to an ongoing growth in demand for products and services
  • Growing population, wealth and infrastructure increasing the demand and opportunities for using those products and services
  • The decline in local community, partly caused by industrial products such as the car and TV
  • Increasing connectedness over a distance, which encourages increasing travel
  • Businesses competing for market share by developing new technologies, products and services
  • The evolution of narratives supporting the “consumer culture”, validating and reinforcing production and consumption, and the desire for choice, comfort and convenience
  • Governments pursuing GDP growth through policies including infrastructure provision, fossil fuel subsidies, and tax breaks for energy intensive industries
  • Government commitment to a process of globalisation, increasing trade flows and travel
  • Systems of political funding that build links between politicians and fossil fuel industries
  • The development of narratives supporting the status quo within a ‘discourse coalition’ in politics, business, academe and the media and much more.

Climate change is “over-determined” – that is, there are many causes that reinforce themselves and each other.


Change processes

Governments and analysts tend to think simplistically about change. They often start with what I’d call a machine metaphor: government is in charge and can pull the levers to make change happen from the top down. This is the model for early environmental regulation through programmes of “pollution prevention and control”, which mostly take engineering and planning approaches (end-of-pipe solutions, relocation of large pollution sources etc.)

In the last couple of decades a bottom-up perspective has become increasingly popular. Within governments the initial impetus came from economists who advocated environmental taxes as more economically efficient than regulations, although there were very few real examples of price-based measures until the late 1990s. During the 1990s economic arguments became more sophisticated with better understanding of innovation processes as represented in evolutionary/endogenous growth models and increasingly in agent-based models. In this ecosystem metaphor the role of the government is to nourish and guide the creativity.

These two models – society as machine and society as ecosystem – treat people as automatons following instructions or incentives, and unable to make ethical choices. They are thus limited a) by what leaders want to achieve; b) what governments believe the people will accept; c) by a variety of unwanted consequences of trying to get people to do things through force or appeals to self-interest rather than through building a shared will.

There has been a trend in recent decades, at least in OECD countries, towards public consultation and stakeholder engagement, and this has been particularly encouraged as part of Agenda 21 (the broad sustainable development agreement made at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992). However, governments (and most established organisations) find it hard to include people fully in decision-making because true engagement runs counter to prevailing cultures and vested interests. In most practical instances consultation remains superficial. Nevertheless some groups have experimented more with collective decision-making, often influenced by Quakers.

In real life, change involves a combination of processes – some hierarchical, top-down influences, some creative, bottom-up innovations, and some open dialogue to build shared understanding, compassion and will. However it is the last of these that most people find hardest, and this is where Quakers may have most to offer.

Agents and scales

In addition to considering different systems and processes, it may be helpful to think about the different scales on which intervention is needed. Each of the systems in Figure 1 operates to some degree at all scales (Figure 2). At different scales there may be different key agents – people and organisations that need to be engaged in any process of change.

Quakers and Climate Change Figure 2

The Intergovernmental Process

Intergovernmental negotiations constitute an intervention seeking to develop narratives, and ultimately agreements, that require and support policies and measures at national level. Climate change is different from many other kinds of international negotiation. Human rights issues such as the use of child soldiers or torture, and environmental issues such as ozone depletion or acid deposition, can generally be addressed by a government through a single statutory instrument. Addressing climate change requires a transformation of government, the economy and civic society, and it requires action throughout all systems and scales. In this transformation, national governments are not necessarily the most influential of agents. The media, business community, even the church may be more important in some countries. Top down measures will fail if there is no grassroots will for change.

In the UNFCCC the negotiations primarily involve governments, while most interaction between governments and other agents takes place within States. There is a contrast here with other post-Rio processes (in particular UN Commission on Sustainable Development), where negotiations have engaged business and civil society much more directly although with little concrete outcome.

In Figure 3 the central box shows the negotiations, taking place among government delegates in communication with their capitals. Surrounding them are the other accredited organisations attending UNFCCC conferences – who lobby the negotiators (with little access or impact) and hold their own discussions.

What really shapes the negotiations (via national governments and politics) is the world beyond, with all its many different groups, networks and organisations. They have their own cultures, values, needs and stories about what really matters. Very little of this is really being discussed in the negotiations where climate change is mainly considered as a scientific, economic and technological challenge.

Figure 3. Narrative context for the negotiations

Quakers and Climate Change Figure 3

In this context negotiators have little power. They do not have the capacity to agree the measures necessary to stop climate change because they do not control the systems that are causing it. Although the COP high level segments may include some government leaders with the capacity to make decisions about economic, industrial, social and educational policy, most of the negotiations take place among officials with little or no influence in these areas.

2.Stopping climate change

Most governments have agreed that global warming must not exceed 2°C and there are still discussions about the need for a tighter, 1.5°C ceiling. The IPCC 5th Assessment places a new emphasis on the need for a global emission budget, cumulative from about 1850, and says that this must not exceed 800Gt carbon if warming is to stay below 2°C. With 530Gt of the budget already used we have less than three decades left at current emission rates of 10Gt/y. Since there are probably about 300 years of coal and unconventional oil resources, most remaining fossil fuels must stay in the ground.

Achieving this aim implies change in all of the systems, in particular:

  • Moving towards zero global net GHG emissions by the middle of the 21st
  • This requires both maximum possible rates of improvement in the carbon intensity of the world economy (improved energy efficiency, phase-out of fossil fuels and replacement by carbon-free energy) and a reduction in material consumption
  • The transition will require humanity as a whole to make a concerted effort both to develop and apply clean technology and to change lifestyles and behaviour. And this requires a complete shift in the priorities of national economic policies and innovation systems.
  • A legal framework is needed that clearly establishes rights and responsibilities. This would most naturally be based on the Polluter Pays Principle – i.e. it is the obligation of those responsible for GHG emissions a) to stop emitting them, b) to rectify any damage caused, c) to pay compensation for any damage that cannot be rectified.
  • The depth of reduction required, and the need for a fair approach to burden sharing, requires changes in the way power is managed and exercised, both empowering the vulnerable and enabling people currently in power with interests in the status quo to cope with the transition
  • This in turn requires a shift in human relationships and social structures
  • And all of this requires people to be motivated – to connect their personal purposes and values with the wider change.

There are also broader aims for Friends in giving expression to Quaker Testimony. This means that our witness on climate change is linked to our broader witness on peace and nonviolence, justice and equality, truth and integrity, simplicity and sustainability. In this witness, the ends are inseparable from the means. Central to the work must be a commitment to answering that of God in every one.



  1. What’s being done and what’s missing

Organisations addressing climate change are more likely to work within one of the five classes of system in Figure 1 than across them. The density of work decreases on the whole as we move from the bottom to the top of the illustration.

The bottom two layers (science, technology and economics) are the most mainstream. They are well-represented in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and that of many national and international organisations including universities, think tanks, government agencies and NGOs. People find technology and economics much easier to talk about than the underlying themes of power, values and social dynamics.

Explicit and open analysis of politics and power (the third layer) is largely excluded from the IPCC’s work, and from the work of many government and other institutions which have their own vested interests. There may be roles here for Quakers in creating safe spaces and processes in which some of these difficult issues can be aired.

The top two layers (social, cultural and psychological systems) are more rarely addressed in mainstream climate change policy work, but they are increasingly important for organisations involved in public and community engagement, marketing and communication. This is probably the most important gap because it relates to the issue of motivation. It needs to be understood and addressed if any real progress is to be made and it is probably the main area for Quaker engagement.

  1. Strengths, approaches and resources

Quaker spirituality is a spirituality of relationship and community, “answering that of God in every one“, I-thou relationship. Quaker worship involves a kind of communion of the individual, the gathered meeting and God (Figure 4).

Quakers and Climate Change Figure 4


Figure 4: The triangle of Quaker worship

It is the foundation for values and practices that support:

  • open listening and nonattachment to personal positions
  • valuing each individual and refraining from judgment
  • individuals taking responsibility for the whole
  • finding unity in diverse viewpoints and a way forward together

This approach is perhaps particularly suited to working with problems in complex systems, where nobody is ‘in control’ or ‘to blame’, and everyone must play a role in the solution. It is at the heart of what is needed in the social transformation to address climate change.

As Quakers we also practise a kind of collective mindfulness combined with a commitment to engaging with the world; we are a reflexive and engaged spiritual community, learning from and communicating our experience. Some of that experience derives from work under other areas of Concern, on conflict transformation and nonviolent social change. Some of it derives from our emerging witness on climate change.



The call to answer that of God in others may take many forms. Figure 5 shows three broad categories of interventions, which could be seen as

  • ‘head-centred’, focusing on truth, knowledge and understanding
  • ‘heart-centred’, focusing on feelings, caring, recognising needs and values and
  • ‘gut-‘ or ‘action-centred’, focusing on will, motivation, power and capability.
 Figure 5: Engaging that of God in every one

Quakers and Climate Change Figure 5

In trying to engage others in responding to climate change (or perhaps any issue), there is a tendency to focus on just one of these categories which may be our own area of strength, or the area where we’ve had our own breakthroughs. Often there is an expectation that if people only knew the truth – the science of climate change, the emerging impacts on ecosystems and vulnerable people – they would respond. Some activist networks, including Quaker activists, are more focused on power dynamics (the realm of action and will), seeing the problem as lying in “corporate greed” and vested interests. Ecopsychology and related approaches have tended to diagnose emotional disconnection as the problem; their solutions involve bringing people into closer contact with nature and their local communities, and encouraging them to explore their feelings about climate change. In fact, we probably need all three of these approaches.

 Figure 6. Recognising the Shadow

Quakers and Climate Change Figure 6

There may also be a call to engage with the Shadow – what nonviolence theologian Walter Wink calls the Domination System. We need to recognise the Shadow when it is manifest in the people we engage with, and in ourselves (see Figure 6). We are called to trust “the leadings of God whose light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.” But our work with agents of the system must be to answer that of God in them – i.e. to work on mutual understanding, compassion and empowerment. Opposition may be part of this but unless it occurs within a well-developed positive relationship (Gandhi exemplified this) it is likely to lead to a breakdown in communication.

In Quaker work there may appear to be a choice between working with agents or victims of the system. It is usually easier to befriend and influence victims. We may be able to furnish them with resources (knowledge, skills) to improve their power within the system. However, achieving change probably requires us to engage those in positions of power – and in nonviolent spiritual activism we recognise that the people who act for the system are themselves victims of the system. This includes the fossil fuel industry, media and financial institutions.

Quakers have been developing our witness on climate change as individual Friends, local meetings and yearly meetings. Some Friends have made radical changes in their own lives, and are involved in local and national work to ‘engage the powers’, including the Transition movement and political campaigning. Quaker organisations have been greening their buildings – like the FNCL building in Washington, but also many local Quaker meeting houses. And local and yearly meetings have a huge range of initiatives including disinvestment in fossil fuels, support for nonviolent social change, engaging politicians and so on. There may be opportunities:

  • For Quaker organisations and Yearly Meetings to work together in developing shared understanding, mutual support, collaboration and a co-ordinated approach
  • To gather written accounts of Quaker experience in their engagement with climate change – both the practicalities of reducing our emissions and the community processes of working through tensions and conflict
  • To use briefings to engage Friends in influencing local and national decision-makers

To have a significant impact on any wider transformation, Quakers would clearly need to form partnerships with organisations beyond the Religious Society of Friends. Some of the most interesting potential connections are:

  1. Organisations working with multi-stakeholder, community and other group processes
  2. Organisations focused on heart- and soul-centred or more psychologically informed approaches to climate change
  3. Organisations experienced in facilitation, through approaches ranging from scenario building to spiritual activism.

Perhaps the hardest challenge is to engage opponents of progress, such as the fossil fuel companies, and organisations that seem to be at odds with Quaker values, such as financial institutions and the military. All of these need to be part of the solution. Part of a Quaker witness must be to befriend organisations like Shell and Exxon Mobil.


New Quaker Network on Human Dimensions of Climate Change

Climate change is mostly addressed as a problem to be solved through government policy, technology and practical action. However, progress in implementing solutions is too slow. Irreversible and catastrophic change is increasingly likely unless humanity (individuals, communities, systems and societies) can address the psychological, social and spiritual challenges in developing an effective response. These include:

  1. acknowledging the truth of our situation and living with the feelings it arouses
  2. developing insight into the processes and forces that shape human behaviour – our own and that of other people, groups and institutions
  3. acknowledging and living with our responsibility and complicity
  4. understanding what can be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the changes that are happening
  5. discerning how we can contribute
  6. developing and sustaining the motivation to act
  7. observing the outcomes of our actions and learning to improve them.

Each of these challenges applies to individuals, groups, communities and institutions including companies, faith groups, NGOs and governments.

If we, our civilisation and our planet are to flourish, we need to get beyond denial, guilt, blame and debate, to change ourselves and be part of a wider movement for nonviolent change. We need insight, forgiveness, reconciliation, vision, hope, discernment, motivation and energy. And we need the skills to develop collaborative relationships addressing climate change and creating a sustainable way of life.

Quaker faith and practice, along with other disciplines and traditions, has a great deal to offer and needs to be brought to bear in responding to climate change.


The network seeks to support its members in developing

1) insight into the processes of personal, social and organisational change that are shaping our world, and that are needed to respond to climate change

2) spiritual and emotional resources, including compassion and acceptance for ourselves and others and skills in discernment to recognise Leadings and choose how to act

3) empowerment to take practical steps in our lives, communities and organisations.


The network exists as a forum for sharing and discussing experience, insights, approaches, resources and questions, primarily by e-mail. It will meet for day workshops and residential gatherings, and may also make use of online conferencing.

Areas of work

The network focuses particularly on three areas:

  1. working constructively with the social, psychological and spiritual causes of climate change in ourselves and others, and in communities, systems and societies

A first step here is the recognition that our darkness can be the passage to new life. We may need to address themes such as denial, blame, guilt and shame; or the Buddhist idea of the three kleshas or poisons of ignorance, desire and aversion.

Shedding light on our areas of personal and collective unconsciousness may help to free us from the forces that lock us into an unsustainable way of life. This means addressing individual habits and social norms, as well as the social, economic and political structures that reinforce them. It means confronting harmful and unconscious patterns like addiction, compulsion, coercion, exploitation and violence.  Acknowledging our own involvement may be a step towards compassion for others whom we have seen as part of the problem.

  1. embracing difference and reconciling the value systems, worldviews and priorities of different people and groups

Even when people agree on values, goals and visions, practical action often gets mired in tensions and conflict. The roots of conflict may lie in differences in personality, culture, circumstance, resources and needs.  The Quaker commitment to answer that of God in the other can be the foundation for working constructively with difference, by developing a) mutual understanding – insight into our various approaches and contributions, b) mutual compassion – caring for each other and being sensitive to each other’s needs, c) mutual empowerment – a willingness to support others in spiritual and ethical paths that may differ from ours.

The network may function by sharing our different experiences, our insights into differences and commonalities, and our experiences of approaches to reconciliation, inclusion and collaboration.

  1. developing moral community

Developing communities, and a wider society, with shared values and ethics and a collective will for collaborative action, is vital in responding to climate change. This is partly because everyone is needed for an effective response, but also because individuals’ values, ethics, lifestyles and choices are shaped by their social context (including family, friends, schools, workplaces, faith groups, the media and politics).

In a fast-changing world, collective understandings, ethics, choices and policies need to respond and adapt. This implies a kind of collective alertness and intelligence, and an ability to re-direct the collective will.

Quaker corporate discernment offers a particular approach that may be of wider value. The network may be able to articulate our experience of using Quaker process, and find ways in which it could be made relevant to wider society.

We will draw on the theory and practice of organisational learning, leadership and transformation, make the connections between these on the one hand with spiritual disciplines and experience, and on the other hand with change processes in politics and community. We will explore the relevance of different spiritual approaches and the ways they are supported in different religions. We will consider the role of psychotherapy, group therapy, individual and collective mindfulness practices, and approaches to conflict, co-operation and collective decision-making.

We will also draw on what other spiritual traditions have taught about nonviolence, explore connections with sustainability and ask what nonviolence means in practice.