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Faith-based organizations challenge climate change


By Catherine Ferguson, SNJM

On Nov. 13, 2021, the United Nations COP26 held in Glasgow, Scotland, ended with a negotiated agreement to deal with climate change—arguably the most important issue for our planet and one which organizations of most religious traditions believe requires an ethical and a moral commitment.

As such, faith-based organizations came to COP26 and had an influential presence there.

COP26 was the latest iteration of the annual climate change conference of parties (nations) that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a 1994 treaty renegotiated each year to respond to the climate crisis. In 2015 at COP21, negotiators reached the historic agreement called the Paris Accord where 197 nations made commitments to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.

Prior to the opening of COP26, nearly 40 figures from the world's major religions united at the Vatican issuing a joint appeal to government leaders at COP26, calling for "urgent, radical and responsible action" to drastically curb greenhouse gas emissions and for the world's wealthiest countries to lead in healing the planet. In their appeal, representatives from across the Christian denominations, both Sunni and Shi'a Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism and Jainism also pledged to increase awareness of the climate crisis and actions to address it within their own congregations.

"We are currently at a moment of opportunity and truth. We pray that our human family may unite to save our common home before it is too late," the declaration read. "Future generations will never forgive us if we squander this precious opportunity."

Faith-based organizations made significant contributions to the meeting.

Advocacy and public policy teams from the World Council of Churches, Lutherans, Evangelicals, Catholics, Muslims and Jews among others, provided updates and information on various events, and partnered in prayers and activities. They met and prayed with leaders who were at the conference and advocated with them asserting their faith teachings required them to meet certain outcomes for the good of the planet and its peoples.

They organized a grassroots march of more than 100,000 people to demonstrate the need and their desire for urgent action.

Some provided their own commitments to further net zero emissions. CommonSpirit, a large U.S. faith-based health care organization, committed to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and to arrive at net zero emissions by 2040.

"Urgent action is needed now to reverse climate change," said Shelly Schlenker from CommonSpirit. "We are committing to an ambitious, science-based goal that leverages advances in the pace and scale of renewable infrastructure."  

The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) brought 32 youth, 16 women and 16 men from 25 countries and 28 member churches to promote their climate justice work.

"Never before have we had such a broad representation of young people across the communion," said Elena Cedillo, LWF's program executive for climate justice.

Evangelical Alliance launched new resources to equip churches to respond to climate crisis with gospel motivation on their website:

What did the faith-based organizations want out of this year's COP26?

• To hold governments to the 1.5o C (2.7o F) target for global warming.

• To have developed nations begin to deliver long-promised funding of $100 billion annually to developing countries to adapt to climate change and reduce their own emissions.

• To have a new fund established to cover losses and damages already caused by climate change.

• To have the use of fossil fuels consigned to history.

What did they get?

Some progress, but not enough to satisfy them:

• A ramped-up commitment to submit new emissions reduction plans by the end of next year instead of in five years—perceived by some as a major disappointment because it does not address the needs of communities suffering from drought, heatwaves and flooding

• Commitments to cut methane emissions by 30 percent and end deforestation, both by 2030—not enough as projections show that even if the commitments are kept it would allow temperature to rise 1.8o C instead of the targeted 1.5o.

• Promise of money by 2023 instead of 2020.

• A push to double funding for adaptation by 2025 and a recommendation to provide further funding for loss and damages, but no financial mechanism.

• "Acceleration of efforts" on the phase-out of "inefficient" fossil fuel subsidies and a watered-down version of the language on coal, changing to "phasing down" of coal rather than "phasing out."

None of this is obligatory under the convention.

For the first time in the history of climate negotiations, it directly states the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels, though not as forcefully as activists and some delegations hoped.

A last-minute petition from more than 40 Catholic organizations pressed delegates to include in the final agreement "a clear and ambitious timeline" for transition away from fossil fuels. While "phase-down" language did survive in the final document, it did not specify a timeframe for that to happen.

Lutheran World Federation expressed the reaction of many: "As people of faith, we are disappointed but not disheartened by the lack of results from COP26. … We call on churches worldwide to keep raising their voices for creation and for climate justice."

Is anything happening in Spokane related to climate change?

350 Spokane focuses on building an effective movement for climate action in the greater Spokane area, promoting a just transition to 100 percent fossil-free energy and a low-carbon economy that works for everyone.

The Sustainability Action Plan approved by Spokane's City Council in 2021 provides a blueprint for local climate action. As reported in the May 2021 Fig Tree, the plan has three goals: reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 95 percent of 2016 levels by 2050, build a community and economy that are resilient to climate change, and prioritize people who are most at risk of health and financial impacts. 

For more information visit the following denominational sites:

Catholic/Mary Knoll
World Council of Churches

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December, 2021