Did COP26 Have Spiritual Implications? Yes, Says One Attendee.
Seven takeaways—plus a reminder that the global church is mobilizing on creation care.
A lot was at stake last month in Glasgow, Scotland during the UN Climate Conference (COP26).
The summit brought together the nations of the world to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions—to keep the crucial threshold of 1.5°C of warming in reach—and move financial support pledged to the countries most harmed by climate change.
Thankfully, that’s not all there is to say. Based on what I witnessed in Glasgow, I want to share some observations that I hope are helpful as we move forward from the event:
Leadership took many forms—both inside and outside the halls of power.
At COP26, I saw my neighbors who are most harmed by climate impacts—Indigenous people, Black and brown people, disabled people, women, and young people—most creatively and consistently pressing negotiators for greater ambition. Indigenous people overcame great obstacles to participate in talks and lead marches. Delegates from small island states spoke truth to power. East African church leaders shared about how they educate their congregants to care for creation (despite contributing only 3% of global emissions). I was repeatedly struck by how much those of us who live in high-polluting countries and lead less-affected lives owe to this collective effort.
People of faith turned out in Glasgow.
Besides the many activists of faith present with secular organizations, Christian groups were well represented. They carried their banners through the rain for hours during the People’s Climate March. They performed peaceful demonstrations in the delegate zone. They attended daily prayer and worship services throughout the week, gathering to receive God’s and one anothers’ sustenance for their advocacy. In short, in Glasgow I witnessed a convergence of the global church, uniting in the struggle for a healed creation. This might surprise some who are used to climate politics in the U.S., where white evangelicals have polled lowest on climate concern of any religious group. My time at COP26 reminded me that the global church is, in fact, mobilized on creation care.
Of course, figuring out what is owed to whom is contentious. But to not honor agreements or make amends for harms is to shirk responsibility, leaving the people already most impacted and least responsible even more vulnerable. This trend, if continued, will deepen climate apartheid—separating those who can afford to adapt to the ravages of a changed climate from those who can’t. Governments of high-polluting countries, like the U.S., will not change tack and make restitution without constituents like us pressuring them.
Advocates used moral language.
At this COP compared to past ones, climate change was spoken of in moral terms, reflecting an understanding of how we got into this crisis and its consequences on real people. This is thanks to environmental justice trailblazers, but also regular people—especially people from most affected communities—connecting the dots, seeing what is at stake, and speaking the truth. Truth-telling at a COP reached a new level in Glasgow. Throughout COP26, advocates called out greenwashing and reminded delegates that pledges are not results. Going forward, as climate solutions are proposed and evaluated, it is important for Christians to follow their lead, critically asking how proposals relate to practice and how they will affect people, and then speaking truthfully from that knowledge.
Injustice is often banal.
COP26’s slick professional appearance and decorum masked the uncomfortable reason there have been decades of these conferences: the slow violence that is climate change. As we see more climate effects on life and livelihood, particularly on the most vulnerable, and how those who have power and comparative security are choosing to respond, even after decades of delay, it is becoming clearer how the climate crisis is built on and continues injustices that do bodily harm to our neighbors. This slow violence is perpetuated by industries, countries, and institutions in which most of us unwittingly participate.
This is not to provoke unproductive personal shame; it’s to place the climate crisis in an old story. Climate destruction is sin playing out on a planetary level: humans rebelling against God’s intentions for creaturely life and refusing to responsibly care for all we’ve been entrusted with, in ways that harm ourselves and our neighbors—even if we don’t directly see or intend them. What often seems normal, natural, or necessary to us can harm others who are out of our sight, mind, or concern. Once we do see, we are called to change course with God’s help.
A spiritual crisis offers opportunities for transformation.
What I saw at COP26 confirmed that the climate crisis is also a political, economic, public health, and racial justice crisis. Of course, it’s also a spiritual crisis. While I was at the COP, Gus Speth’s enduring observation often came to mind: “I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.” We certainly do. Clearly, we need God’s help to move away from the selfishness, greed, and apathy that tempts us in uncertain and fearful times and toward faith, hope, and love.
All over Glasgow, I saw signs reading “the world is looking to you, COP26.” Now the conference is over, the signs have come down, and the news has turned to other worthy concerns. And we must move forward from COP26. But how?
First is coming to terms with the results.
If you, like me, were also looking to COP26 to alleviate the burden to act, to prove that leaders have finally put us on the right track and climate change no longer requires sustained collective efforts, we have to face reality: it did not. After COP26, we remain largely where we were before COP26: within the decisive decade to drastically reduce emissions and thereby save untold lives, which requires each of us to help to the extent we can. We are in danger. And only we who are alive today can do anything to change the perilous course we’re on. This is both a weighty responsibility and an opportunity to serve.
Second is to act faithfully.
The challenges are real, but they do not negate the call to act faithfully. There have never been so many ways to do so. There are many solutions available to protect lives—our own and others’—and responsibly manage the gifts of creation. We don’t need to be a politician or scientist or attend a COP to “do our bit,” as the Scots say. Each of us can practice climate leadership in ways we uniquely can (including at work), and in ways most of us can: talking about climate, taking collective political action to stop the beating and robbery, and of course, caring for those harmed on the road.
Regardless of its results, COP26 was always going to require new climate Samaritans stepping forward, stepping up, and stepping into solidarity with their neighbors. As we step forward into an unknown climate future, good news: we do so together, as part of a global body.
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Nate Rauh-Bieri attended COP26 as part of the Christian Climate Observers Program. He attended Wheaton College (B.A.) and Duke Divinity School (M.Div.) and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.