For the Sake of People and Planet: climate, COP26 and the church

By Hannah Eves 04 Oct 2021

Leading up to the COP26 summit in November 2021, Jubilee Centre published a series of blog posts on various aspects of climate change. The different authors were on a panel together at our online Facing the Climate Crisis event in October 2021.

The urgency for climate action is heating up as COP26, the UN Climate Conference, approaches.

Climate activists often say things like ‘the planet is on fire’ to describe the catastrophic effects of climate change and the urgent need for international agreement for action at conferences like COP26. While this might once have sounded like doomsayer rhetoric, it is becoming increasingly literal: news images of the ocean apparently on fire in the Gulf of Mexico and wildfires in Turkey show that climate change is making it more likely that parts of the world will ignite due to increased heat and the overuse of fossil fuels.

A biblical view of creation recognises that Christians have a dual responsibility to steward (ie love) the planet and to love our neighbour. God declared creation to be ‘good’ even before humanity was created (Gen. 1:12) and commanded us to care for the poor and vulnerable (Proverbs 31:8-9). However, creation has been ripped apart and set alight by the effects of global heating, and our sisters and brothers in the Global South have faced the loss of homes and livelihoods due to the extreme weather events from a changing climate.

How did we get here? Although there are naturally occurring changes in the climate caused by very slow variations in our orbit around the sun and other phenomena, we are now experiencing an unprecedented rapid heating which is way beyond these natural cycles and is severely disrupting our climate system.

The earth’s atmosphere contains Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) which keep the temperature of our earth balanced by trapping heat in, but the proportion of GHGs has been going up since the Industrial Revolution, when the world began to burn fossil fuels on a huge scale. This led to the atmosphere trapping in too much heat, warming the earth’s surface and increasing the likelihood of wildfires and other extreme weather events. Furthermore, natural habitats such as forests, wetlands and grasslands absorb GHGs and lock them safely away (what is referred to as ‘carbon sinks’) and by clearing these wild spaces we’ve also damaged the Earth’s ability to absorb these gases – and hence further increased the GHGs in the atmosphere.

Scientists first started raising the alarm about this decades ago, which led to the signing of an international treaty – the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. However, since then, governments have been much too slow to act effectively, which has led humanity to a very dangerous point. In August 2021 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a new report with a clear and harrowing message: unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach. In 2020 the world passed one degree above what is called the ‘pre-industrial average temperature’; and with every year of inaction we drift closer to an absolutely catastrophic 3-4 degrees or more by the end of this century.

To avoid this existential threat to life on earth and to have a chance of keeping to the 1.5 degree limit, the IPCC has said we must cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40% in the next decade and act to restore the ‘carbon sinks’. Another recent report also suggests that nature-based solutions could provide around 30% of the cost-effective mitigation that is needed by 2030 to stabilise warming to below 2 degrees and could help protect vulnerable communities from the impacts of climate change.

This is where COP26 – the 26th ‘Conference of the Parties’ – comes in. It’s a summit of all the signatories of the 1992 UNFCCC treaty in which key decision makers will meet to agree their countries’ national commitments to tackling climate change.

At its core, COP is a negotiation, but there is a huge power imbalance between the countries represented. A successful COP requires diplomatic investment beforehand to ensure that the people in the right positions come to the right agreements. However, we are way behind on this: rather than using COP to take the lead on climate issues, there is a very good chance that the UK government will continue to take domestic action which flies in the face of international climate commitments. At the beginning of 2020, the Prime Minister said ‘unless we take urgent action, we will get 3°C hotter. As a country, as a society, as a planet and as a species, we must now act.’ Yet, just a month later, the Chancellor announced a £27.4bn road building programme which is likely to massively increase carbon emissions. In June 2021, the Committee on Climate Change published its annual review of the UK’s progress on its legally binding climate targets and found that in the previous year the government had made historic climate promises but had done little or nothing to deliver on them.

We must take steps to protect and care for creation. With COP26 happening on our doorstep, civil society is in a unique position to pressure the UK government to live up to its commitments, and Christians are getting involved in a number of ways: the Climate Sunday campaign is a coalition of UK church denominations and Christian organisations, mobilising churches and communities prior to COP26; there is also Christian input into the multi-faith group Make COP Count, while the Young Christian Climate Network is coordinating a pilgrimage from the G7 to COP26 in the name of climate justice.

All these campaigns express common messages to the UK government about our broken relationships with the natural world and our global neighbours. First, an end to the use of fossil fuels and a clean energy revolution to pave the way for a more sustainable future. Despite fossil fuels being the cause of two thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions, the UK government is still providing subsidies to them that make it cheap to pollute the planet. Second, all of these campaigns advocate for an increase in support for those who are most climate vulnerable. As those in low emitting countries are those least responsible for the climate crisis but are suffering the most, there is a critical justice issue at the heart of COP26: Christians are therefore calling on the UK government to reinstate the aid budget, which was drastically cut prior to the G7 conference, and increase climate finance.

Caring for creation and advocating for our more climate vulnerable neighbours in the Global South is a serious biblical mandate, and with our theology, prayer and community experience, churches have a distinctive and powerful contribution to make by calling on the government for justice for our planet and the people who inhabit it.

Hannah Eves is a Researcher at A Rocha UK, a member of the Climate Sunday Steering Group, and part of the Young Christian Climate Network. Hannah was part of Jubilee Centre’s first SAGE Graduate Programme.

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