When did you last lie on the ground and simply look up into the sky? I have a childhood recollection of doing that one sunny summer’s day, mesmerised by the infinitude into which I was staring. I’ve chosen today’s image of a cloud to focus reflection on the atmosphere.
The earth’s atmosphere is a vital element of the creation without which life in its current form and diversity, and certainly human life, could not exist. Earth is the only planet we know which has a life-sustaining atmosphere. As well as being the air we breathe, the atmosphere re-distributes life-giving precipitation and moderates temperature; protects against deadly radiation and meteorites, and allows for radio communication as waves are bounced around the globe.
The colours of the sky, as sunlight interacts with the atmosphere and the water and dust particles it holds, produce a visually stunning canvas which lifts the human spirit. In most traditional understandings of the world the sky has been the domain of the divine and in many languages the word for sky and heaven is one and the same. In the Christian faith, drawing on its Jewish heritage, there are strong metaphorical associations between wind, air or breath and the Spirit of God. In stories of the Creation of the world contained in the Bible’s Book of Genesis a wind from God sweeping over the formless void is the antecedent to the creative command; and Adam the first human is brought to life by receiving the breath of God.
Today it is the impact of human activity on the atmosphere which is the cause of greatest concern for the future well-being of human societies and all other communities and species of life on earth.
The local pollution of air in and around urban areas is more widespread and more detrimental than often reported. London was well-known in the nineteenth and early 20th century for its deadly smogs or “peasoupers” culminating in the worst episode of this in 1952. It was reckoned an additional 4000 deaths were attributed to the Great Smog of that year; resulting in the implementation of the Clean Air Act. Today many city smogs especially in hot climates under certain weather conditions are caused by the build-up of vehicle engine exhaust. The worst episodes of smog today are found in the megacities of modern China where astonishingly high annual economic growth rates in recent decades have been sustained by rapid industrialisation.
Even where smog is not visibly evident poor levels of air quality should remain a cause for concern in Britain. The UK and more than half of the other countries of the European Union consistently register levels of air pollution higher than the safe limit recommended by the World Health Organisation. Some experts lay the blame for failure to reduce air pollution in the UK on the rise in the number of diesel cars which contribute to the increased levels of nitrogen dioxide particulates in the atmosphere.
As well its local impact on air quality there is a global impact of human activity on the atmosphere leading to climate change. Increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have intensified the greenhouse effect whereby more of the warmth of the sun is trapped in the atmosphere causing average air temperatures to rise. The incidence of carbon dioxide has risen from 280 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution, to over 400 parts per million in 2016. This is a result of the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests. Raised levels of methane from intensive livestock farming have also contributed to global warming. Climate change is reckoned to be the single biggest threat to human well-being and security as well as ecological stability.
International efforts to co-ordinate action to combat climate change have reached a new pitch with the agreement signed at the 21st Global United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris in 2015. However there are many political and economic as well as some ideological barriers to the effective and timely implementation of the necessary measures. Civil society and campaign groups including spiritual leaders are called upon to press for the changes human societies need to make if climate change is to be restrained.
“A consensus has emerged about the need to move to a low carbon economy.Whatever the scientific, economic and political difficulties, at root this is a spiritual problem.” Rt Rev’d Nicholas Holtham, Bishop of Salisbury and Church of England Lead Bishop for the Environment