Empty Chairs – Missing Voices at COP26
By the Rev. Melanie Mullen, Director of Reconciliation, Justice, and Creation Care, Episcopal Presiding Bishop’s Office
There’s an empty chair in the room at the UN COP Scotland – and it’s not for Elijah.
Due to the pandemic, the two-week worldwide gathering for international negotiations crafting global responses to climate change convened in hybrid form. The participants are government officials – but also scholars, farmers, indigenous elders, city builders, NGO advocates, and activists of all stripes.
That is why The Episcopal Church is here, to speak truth and witness to our Baptismal creeds compelling us to leave no one behind on paths to a global response to climate change.
It’s because of that baptismal and biblical lens that the “empty chair” campaign caught our eye. The intentional empty chair in rooms at COP is not for the prophet Elijah but to remind us of the most affected people who cannot be in the negotiating rooms.
“A lot of the elders are not here because they are afraid of carrying COVID back to the island” – South Pacific Youth Delegate
In the COP negotiations, important actors are missing. We notice who’s not at the table from countries without vaccine access to women sidelined from the high political offices.
We highlight the empty chair in honor of young people and future generations that will bear the burdens of climate inaction. Holding up an empty chair is, in fact, a reconciliation practice and a constant reminder of the future we are trying to save.
Fortunately, there is already good news for the empty chairs at our climate negotiating tables. The new UN Secretary-General’s report ‘Our Common Agenda‘ proposes one step towards protecting the rights of those who are absent. It lays out a possible social contract for the future generations that repurposes the UN Trusteeship Council to form a place to protect the interests of future generations.
The reconciliation and justice practices of The Episcopal Church have taught us to look at our tables differently. Therefore this COP bids us hold out an empty chair in recognition of our hope to transcend the sharp divisions of our age that make the vulnerable invisible and to come togetherfor the sake of God’s world.