A big win but still lots to do

A group of seven people poses for a photo.
Simon Chambers and members of KAIROS, For the Love of Creation, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and Canadian Foodgrains Bank meet with Catherine Stuart, Canada's Climate Ambassador (centre, in white jacket) at COP27.
 on December 29, 2022

Faith groups play important role at climate change conference

Each year I spend two weeks in a new city, rushing from the moment I wake up until I collapse into bed 18 or so hours later, working with an amazing network of Christians and other people of faith from around the world to advocate for climate justice at the UN climate conference.  Why do I do this? And what were the results of this year’s conference? Read on!

For 30 years, climate experts and representatives of governments have gathered through the UN’s framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) at the Conference of the Parties, known as COP. COP27 was held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November, and I was attending on behalf of the ACT Alliance, a global, ecumenical humanitarian, development and advocacy network.

Some people might wonder why faith groups are attending the climate conference each year. For me, the answer is very simple. Faith communities are on the front lines of climate change around the world, working with the most vulnerable people who are already facing the brunt of climate change. We are on the front lines because faiths are part of every community.

Faith groups believe that there is a moral and spiritual responsibility to care for the poor and vulnerable. As a life-long Anglican, I have always heard about and believe in God’s “preferential option for the poor.” My faith formation within the youth ministry of the Diocese of Toronto instilled a strong call to justice in me, and my work with ACT – which stands for “Action by Churches Together” – is how I live out that call.

In my work over the last 15 years, first with the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund and then ACT, I have visited communities that have been devastated by typhoons and cyclones – powerful storms that scientists warn us will get more extreme and frequent as global temperatures rise.

I have seen the devastation and spoken with survivors. People like Joaquina Jose in Mozambique, who spent three days clinging to the top of a tree with her baby on her back after Cyclone Idai inundated her village with three-metre deep flood waters in 2019. Her family lost everything to the floods, and it was the churches who provided food, hygiene and other items, including seeds to plant new crops.

Joaquina Jose plants seeds supplied by churches after a flood wiped out her village in Mozambique.

At COP, my work is to help bring the voices of people like Joaquina into the negotiations, to share concrete stories of the impact climate change has in countries like Mozambique, or in Tuvalu, a Pacific island state that is in significant danger of disappearing entirely due to rising sea levels.

Our advocacy at COP takes many forms, from meeting with negotiators and leaders to holding prayer vigils and dialogues with representatives of other faith groups. We often work together in broader groupings to amplify our messages and show the strength of civil society through our collective efforts.

One example of this is the work of the Interfaith Liaison Committee (ILC), a wide range of faith groups ranging from the World Council of Churches to Brahma Kumaris. At the beginning of COP27, the ILC hosted a Talanoa dialogue. Talanoas were introduced to COPs in 2017 when Fiji held the COP presidency. In the Pacific islands, when major decisions need to be made, all stakeholders come together to discuss the situation, answering three questions:

  1. Where are we at?
  2. Where do we want to get to?
  3. How do we get there?

The interfaith Talanoa discussed these questions around climate justice, and the results of the discussions were collated into a call from faith groups that was, in turn, shared with the UNFCCC Secretariat, as well as with media, negotiators and faith groups around the world. The call focused on issues including loss and damage (supporting communities who will lose their homes, livelihoods, culture and more to climate change), gender and youth (looking at the impact of climate change on vulnerable groups who are even more heavily impacted by climate change), and finance (how to fund climate justice work globally), among others.

While our work as ACT Alliance focuses on global outcomes and advocacy at COP, global outcomes require individual countries’ support of the decisions. To that end, we work with many countries, lobbying developed countries and supporting developing ones’ calls. At this COP, I worked with KAIROS and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, and together we had a meeting with Catherine Stewart, Canada’s Climate Ambassador. With KAIROS and a young person from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, I met with Mike Morrice, the MP for Kitchener.

In both meetings, we shared our experiences of climate change work around the world and our hopes for Canada’s improved engagement in justice-focused work, particularly on the issue of loss and damage, both for developing countries and also for Indigenous communities in Canada.

Prayer is an important part of the life of faith communities, and being at COP is no different.  ILC hosted an interfaith prayer service as part of the Talanoa dialogue. The World Council of Churches hosted an ecumenical service in the middle Sunday of COP. Both services were held at the Coptic Cathedral in Sharm el-Sheikh. The murals painted throughout the cathedral are stunning, and for me the wall devoted to Moses was particularly moving, as we were on the Sinai Peninsula. In addition, faith leaders often host times of meditation and prayer, spend time praying for and with negotiators, and we have held prayer vigils in the dying days of COPs.

So what was the outcome from this year’s COP and all the lobbying, media actions and prayers? From my perspective, we had a big win in the final hours of the conference, but that was the one high point of the overall results.

Our win was that the conference agreed to financing for loss and damage, something that churches and others have been advocating for for years. Loss and damage is one of the three key pillars of response to climate change that are outlined in the Paris Agreement. The first pillar, mitigation, is our work to limit the rise of the global temperature. The goal is to keep it to 1.5C, although each year that passes without major increases in ambition make that goal harder to reach. The second pillar is adaptation, helping communities and countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change, including droughts, storms and changing growing seasons. Finally, loss and damage is an acknowledgement of the economic and non-economic impact that climate change can have on people and communities when it is impossible to adapt to the impacts of the changing climate on their homes.

Since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, the focus of climate funding has been on mitigation and adaptation, and while there were discussions about loss and damage finance, no agreement had been made to create a methodology for funding the work. That changed in Sharm el-Sheikh, and is a big cause for celebration, as the needs of the most vulnerable are closer to being met.

Of course, there is lots of work to do in the coming months and years to define this financing – who will pay into it, how will it be offered to communities, how to define “vulnerable,” and much more.

The downside to achieving the breakthrough in loss and damage was that increased ambition on mitigation was lost in the give and take of multilateral negotiations. While we celebrate the inclusion of loss and damage finance, the lack of movement on phasing out fossil fuels is a cause for alarm, as it is increasingly urgent that humanity moves away from these sources of energy towards renewable ones.

Human rights, gender, and Indigenous rights were sidelined in the negotiations. Only 34 per cent of the negotiators at COP were women, and Indigenous people’s rights, knowledge, and experience are far too often missing. Climate justice requires centring the rights of all people, and particularly of vulnerable groups, and COP again failed to deliver.

One final bright spot in COPs in the last several years has been the increasing presence and role of young people. Greta Thunberg has become a household name, but she is only one of millions of passionate, committed young people who are working tirelessly to address the climate emergency. The Lutheran World Federation each year uses the majority of its spaces at COP to bring young people from around the world, and it is a joy and a privilege to work with them.

With a big win under our belts, but lots more work to do, people of faith will be part of the work of achieving climate justice at the local, national and global levels throughout the next year, and I will be there alongside them, continuing the work into COP28 in Dubai next November. Your prayers and actions, at all levels, are greatly appreciated and will help us to care for the Creation that God put into our care.


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