I just came back from five days at COP 26, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. ‘Discombobulated’ is how Graham Usher, the Bishop of Norwich and Church of England’s climate change lead, described his feelings. I agree; I feel shaken.
Climate isn’t a subject I was disengaged from beforehand. But it’s different when you sit on a panel with a woman from Greenfaith working in Kenya who says: ‘When you’ve walked 7 kilometres with a pregnant mother who’s got a child on her back just to fetch water, then you understand what climate justice means.’
I stopped by a poster ‘COP welcomes Climate Criminals.’ Protest is necessary; 100,000 people are expected at demonstrations in Glasgow this weekend. Without the voices from the streets, many leaders would do much less. Anger has a role too, if controlled and directed, especially with hypocritical boasts or insincere promises about what this country or that business is doing for the climate. But the poster didn’t capture what I feel, and the worst climate criminals didn’t even show up in Glasgow.
What affected me deeply were the multi-faith meetings. At the interfaith vigil, live-streamed globally as COP began, prayers, – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Bahai, Buddhist, pagan, – didn’t focus on ‘against’. They were pleas for the earth, its peoples and leaders; they were prayers that those who bore huge responsibilities for the future of life itself would open their hearts and use all the skills and powers they have for good. For just as there’s only one planet, there’s only one team here. We’re all in it and we need each other to do our utmost, and more.
I sat with my friend Andy Atkins from A Rocha, a worldwide Catholic group focussing on NSBs, Nature-based Solutions. (I’m interviewing Israel’s NSB lead next week). ‘What are you here for?’ he asked me. ‘I’m with EcoSynagogue,’ I said. (Our stall in the COP green zone for NGOs went well.) But he was after something deeper.
So I asked him the same question. ‘What are you here for?’ ‘To lobby,’ he replied. He’s a COP veteran. ‘Deforestation ended by 2030 sounds great. But what does it mean? If there’s no detailed plan how to get from here to then, no measuring, no monitoring, no powers to implement and supervise, it amounts to nothing, or worse, a ten-year licence to exploit even faster. We need to hold feet to the fire.’
I was deeply affected by representatives from Africa, South America and the Pacific. Daryl Botu from Ghana was at the stand opposite EcoSynagogue. ‘I’m here about the Atawa Forest. It’s one of the most biodiverse places on earth. It provides water for five million people. Chinese investment wants to turn it into a bauxite pit. We’re campaigning to have it protected.’
Such voices were few: costs, Covid and vaccination recognition made it hard for people from the global south to get to Glasgow. I learnt a new term ‘recognition justice’: there can’t be climate justice or climate solutions without the voices, imagination, leadership and resilience of those who’re suffering the most.
I’m back in London, eager for our Eco-Shabbat, vegan Kiddush, ‘consume less’ and ‘waste less’ projects and glad about EcoSynagogue and Jtree.global (All I learnt indicates we’re planting trees with the right groups).
Being at COP was a success for EcoSynagogue. It was wonderful to be together with colleagues across the denominations and work with the Board of Deputies, and the Jewish community in Glasgow welcomed us warmly. Ever more synagogues are committing to the journey.
It was great, too, to be part of Faiths for the Climate, and to meet the leaders of Hazon, America’s Jewish environmental organisation.
But the real issue is: will COP 26 be a success for the planet?
There’s that personal question too: ‘Why are you here?’ I don’t yet know how, but this experience has, and has to, change me.