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Climate change: a stage for world political leaders—and a question of our hearts

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*By Peter Pavlovic

COP26 in Glasgow started this week, offering a stage for world political leaders. For most of them, it was an opportunity to share their vision of the world they are leading. For some others, despite being among the most powerful, COP26 is also an opportunity to express their position on the major challenge of humanity in the 21st century by their absence. What did we hear in the first two days of this COP?

Underlining the urgency of the issue was obviously an oft-repeated phrase. Listening to the words repeated during COPs for several decades, it is right to ask: How seriously can we take statements like this? The tone has been set already at the beginning of this year’s COP by the opening address of the UN secretary general and unmistakable underlining of the focal point: “We are heading toward climate catastrophe. Young people see it. Every country sees it. Pacific islands and some developing countries experience it. For them, failure is unacceptable. Failure in our action leads to death.”

The simple fact is that pledges of the Paris Agreement signed six years ago are not being fulfilled. Revision of national contributions undertaken on the run-up to COP26 make clear that only about half of the parties of the Paris Agreement are fulfilling what they signed and consequently ratified in their own national legislative procedures. 

Having that in mind, perhaps the best one-word expression characterising the COP in Glasgow is that this year COP is, first of all, about credibility. It is calming that quite a number of heads of the states and governments see it in this way. They have been calling for honest introspection, and they are aware that especially the young generation knows that time is running out.

Some leaders—more sincere than others—were ready to state openly: “It is difficult to convince those who vote for us that we are serious.” Unfortunately—especially the most powerful countries of the world and major carbon emissions polluters—at the G20 summit just before COP26 once again missed an opportunity. Outcomes of the G20 meeting did not produce any ban on coal power stations, nor was anything said about the end of carbon subsidies.

Coming back to opening statement of COP26, we can only agree with statements like: “Not acting now means it will be too late to act for next generations.” However, credibility becomes throughout the whole negotiations process the most valuable currency. We know what needs to be done. Science is increasingly clear about causes of the global warming, as well as about the aims we need to achieve in order to avoid climate disasters. 

Besides calls for action and expressing general expectations about what needs to be done, the opening statements did not offer encouraging listening. The whole process of facing up to climate change is endangered by running into enormous complexity and the hardly comprehensible amount of details. With slow closing of the window of opportunity for a meaningful action on climate change before it is too late, the positions of many governments become hardened. The chance to find fair and efficient ways forward that would be acceptable for all is increasingly difficult. 

Churches and faith-based communities have become, over the years, visible actors on the scene. Religious leaders and faith groups are vocal in expressing their concerns. The opening days of the Glasgow COP have been marked by an interfaith meeting in a Glasgow synagogue on 31 October. It was an opportunity to make clear the existential dimension of the climate crisis. Credibility of governments and global political leaders is at stake. But, at stake is more than that.

In the powerful intervention of James Bhagwan, general secretary of the Pacific Council of Churches, he reminded all assembled in the synagogue as well as followers of the meeting through online platforms, the question God posed to Cain right after he committed his horrible crime: “What did you do?” And Cain’s answer: “Am I the keeper of my brother?”

The question, although centuries old, stays with all of us up until today. Especially in the situation we are facing right now. It is not possible to limit discussions of climate change and global warming to the acceptance of science and credibility of the politics. As much as both of them have the role to play, climate change is at the bottom line the question of our attitude and the question of our heart. In times of rising sea levels and sinking Pacific islands, in times of climate change-induced droughts causing people to die from starvation, the question that is with all of us, more than ever, is: Am I keeper of my brother? Climate change is the question of relationship and, indeed, of our heart.

*Rev. Dr Peter Pavlovic is the Study Secretary of the Conference of European Churches. At the same time he is leading the European Christian Environmental Network and is member of the World Council of Churches working group on climate change.

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