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Why Care About COP26?

As you’ve probably heard, COP26, the UN Climate Conference intended for the world’s nations to take coordinated global action on the climate crisis, is happening in Scotland right now. Why is it worth our attention? I’ll get there, but first I want to start with a more basic question someone asked me recently. 

“Why is creation care a concern for you?” 

It was asked with genuine curiosity, and I appreciated that. 

But I admit, I didn’t know quite where to start my answer. The climate crisis, once you’ve heard the devastating stories of those who’ve experienced it firsthand, understood its overwhelming scientific basis, and finally admitted it into your mind as reality, is almost impossible to unsee. It touches nearly everything. It is a challenge that can seem paralyzing—and difficult to talk about. 

So I started with my story. 

As a young person in the 90s, I knew there were threats to the Earth and its beauty, but these seemed manageable, like litter or whale hunting. It was only in adulthood, somehow, that I began to hear more about “global warming.” But it was nebulously “out there” somewhere, maybe affecting the arctic (?), and I thought: “there’s nothing I can do about it, but I’m glad smart people are working on it. There were and are smart people working on it.” 

Climate change, I’ve come to learn, is not just about polar bears…but essentially about people.

This was an understandable conclusion to draw from how the people and cultures around me were relating to reality. But it wasn’t the full story, and it didn’t leave me with either urgency or agency. 

I thought there were other issues to focus on, global development issues that concerned actual people. This was partly the luxury of my life as  a white, middle-class U.S. American to that point: environmental problems did not seem personal—they didn’t touch my existence, I thought. I realize now how shortsighted this was.

It started to dawn on me that climate change and the ecological crisis was way bigger than I'd imagined, the powerful were letting it happen and, in some cases, actively abetting it for profit, and it was already and would massively affect living, breathing people. In fact, it affects everything and everyone we love.

Climate change, I’ve come to learn, is not just about polar bears, not just about particles in the sky, not just about politics, but essentially about people. People: each of us, and everyone we love, but especially the poor—the people to whom, throughout scripture, God demonstrates and commands special care.

Climate change is a clear matter of justice: those who have done the least to contribute to climate change are suffering and will suffer the most from it. And the climate crisis can only exist because some people and places have been and still are considered disposable, acceptable sacrifices. This is what Black and Indigenous environmental justice leaders have been saying for a long time in the United States, to anyone with ears to hear. 

Yes, this kind of neighbor-love does require politics.

So, caring about creation is about caring about our fellow human creatures. Caring for creation through responding to climate change is about protecting one another. It is about loving our neighbors. 

Yes, this kind of neighbor-love does require politics. The famous, variously attributed line applies: “Justice is the language that love speaks publicly.”

So, why is COP26 important? Much needs to be done, and rapidly, and on a global scale, to reduce and then virtually eliminate emissions by 2050 if we are to limit overall global warming to 1.5°C (and as low as possible). But often lost in all the charts and forecasts are the impacts on those who are affected first and worst by the climate and ecological crises.

So COP26 will take up questions that Christians can understand as theological questions: What does it look like to stop going the way we are going and change course? And then, what does it look like to make amends for all the damages done and losses suffered already and that are forthcoming?

This is why the outcomes of COP26 matter for us as Christians, even if we are skeptical about international diplomacy, discouraged by the trendlines, or unsure how to get involved to make a difference: because the underlying story of this year’s Conference of the Parties (COP) is what leaders are willing to do—which depends on what their constituents will push them to do—to preserve human lives, to choose what one commentator called “the difficult right over the easy wrong.”

The work ... in which life and hope can flourish, is work that happens at all levels of society

Thanks to the courageous efforts and voices of Indigenous people, people from the global south, and island nations, and youth activists, delegates at this year’s summit must contend with questions of justice. No longer can questions of climate justice be treated as separate questions from questions of climate action, in general.

I am going to COP26 as an observer with the Christian Climate Observers Program. I look forward to sharing reflections with you again after COP26 concludes. But in the meantime, I encourage you to pray, attend Climate Vigil this Saturday (a global vigil and virtual concert, which I’ll be joining from Glasgow), and advocate to your elected leaders to increase their ambition on climate justice (the Climate Witness Project is a great resource for engaging your elected representatives). 

Just like doing justice doesn’t happen only in courts, acting for a more just climate future isn’t limited to a UN summit. Local, cultural, and individual actions also matter. The work of regenerating the earth, of living within our ecosystemic limits, of creating a future in which life and hope can flourish, is work that happens at all levels of society, down to each of us as individuals with our own set of vocation, skills, and yes, stories to offer. It is work for all of us who have been called to be co-creators with God. 


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