Episcopal Church and the United Nations

Present in Prayer with Climate-Vulnerable Communities: A Reflection on COP 24

December 24, 2018
Episcopal UN

Andrew R. H. Thompson, Ph.D. is visiting assistant professor of theological ethics at the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee. He served as lay representative with the Presiding Bishop’s delegation to the 24th Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held December 2 – 14, 2018 in Katowice, Poland. The delegation was led by Bishop Marc Andrus of the Diocese of California.

“Was it worth it?”

I was asked this question, in one form or another, on various occasions after I returned from the United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP 24) in Katowice, Poland. COP is the United Nations’ annual meeting to negotiate concrete steps and commitments among nations to try to slow climate change and cope with its effects. I attended as part of the delegation representing the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, as an official observer.

The question I received spoke to a general uncertainty about the role of churches in an event like this one. Moreover, it noted the considerable expense of time, money, and energy (both human and fossil fuel based) it took to send a delegation to Poland. Why should the church go to such lengths to participate in a conference where most of the action was taking place in closed negotiations among official parties?

Presiding Bishop’s delegate Andrew Thompson, Ph.D. speaks to participants during an Episcopal event at COP24

It’s a good question. If we are serious about halting the advance of climate change, we need to think twice about the financial and environmental costs involved, no matter how important they may seem. (It may be worth mentioning that members of the delegation offset the CO2 emissions caused by their participation by contributing to various sustainable-development projects.) Yet during my time in Katowice and afterwards, I began to consider the question differently: What would it mean if the church were not present?

Some of the most arresting discussions I heard at COP 24 centered around three themes: loss and damage, adaptation, and human rights. Loss and damage refers to the significant harms already being experienced by vulnerable communities around the world, and to the responsibility of developed nations (who typically have done more to cause climate change) to help compensate for those harms. Adaptation is the communities’ ability to cope with and recover from those harms. And in this context, concern for human rights has in mind specifically those rights most endangered by climate change – rights to sustenance, a livelihood, safety, and cultural inheritance.

These themes were being raised by those for whom they are most critical: women, young people, indigenous peoples, and vulnerable nations. And these groups spoke with particular urgency because their concerns were being undermined in the negotiations by more powerful nations, including the United States – nations that are unwilling to accept responsibility for protecting rights, supporting adaptation, and defraying damages.

What would it mean for the church to be absent from these discussions? When those most responsible for climate change threaten the ability of vulnerable communities to cope with its effects, the church must be present, standing with those communities. The other themes addressed at COP 24 – mitigation (working to reduce emissions) and financing structures to support the various efforts – are obviously essential to countering climate change on all fronts. But especially in the areas of adaptation, loss and damage, and human rights, Christ’s words in Matthew 25 represent a clear mandate: “whatever you did for one of the least of these members of my family, you did for me.”

Yet the church has a more distinctive contribution to make by its presence. In the midst of the inexorable advance of climate change and the unrelenting struggle for climate justice, despair is a constant companion; hope and conviction are indispensable commodities. In this context, there is nothing more needed from the church than prayer – personal and corporate. If faith communities do not pray in and for these negotiations, who will? This is not to say that faith communities have a monopoly on prayer in these areas. Rather, if we believe that prayer is needed – and if prayer is not needed in the face of climate change, it’s hard to imagine where it would be – then the church should be leading the litany.

Andrew Thompson, Ph.D., second from left, with the Presiding Bishop’s delegates for COP24’s second week

The church should be present and vocal in climate change negotiations. Of course, much more is needed. We must amend our lives and urge others to do the same, and the church is uniquely suited to this task. We must insist that our institutions – including our churches – implement responsible policies, such as divesting from fossil fuels. We must continue to reflect critically on how we use our resources by asking if it is indeed worth it. And, alongside these steps and others, the church must be present in prayer and witness alongside those most vulnerable to climate change all over the world.

Ms. Lynnaia Main

Episcopal Church Representative to the United Nations