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Towards COP 26

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the winners of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, is the UN body for assessing the science related to climate change. On 9 August 2021, the IPCC published its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of scientific, technical and socio-economic information relating to climate change. Who, in their right minds, will read the 1300 page document? they asked themselves. So they conveniently published a Summary for Policymakers. This 42-page document covers the current state of the climate, comparison of possible future scenarios, information for risk assessment and regional adaptation, and most importantly, how to limit future climate change. For the really parochial reader, there is a series of regional fact sheets. There is also an interactive atlas which permits anyone to look at possible climate futures from the perspective of temperature and precipitation when the global average temperature has risen 1.5° or 2° or 3° or 4°C above the pre-industrial levels.

From 31 October to 12 November 2021, the Summit of the UNFCCC COP26 (or “Glasgow Climate Change Conference” for short) will “bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.” As in the COP 21 meeting in Paris in 2015, shortly after the intervention of Pope Francis at the UN General Assembly, there will be great unanimity about the necessity to act with determination. Unfortunately, probably inevitably, most of the negotiators gathering in Glasgow will not have had the time to digest the 1300 page AR6. They might be familiar with the Summary for Policymakers, the regional fact sheets, and possibly the interactive atlas. Between now and then, these several hundred persons who will hold the future of the world in their hands, should do nothing apart from read the full report. But they are certainly already involved in the preparatory haggling, politicking, and horse trading to ensure a successful outcome for the conference.

Whichever version of the report YOU choose to engage with, it makes for chilling reading. The report presents climate change as “widespread, rapid and intensifying.” In response to the report, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres stated that the report is a “code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk. Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible.” In the same vein he tweeted on 22 September: “Scorching temperatures. Shocking biodiversity loss. Polluted air and water. My message to every member country of this #UNGA is: Don’t wait for others to make the first move. Do your part.” He continued: “This is a planetary emergency. We need coalitions of solidarity – between countries that still depend heavily on coal, and countries that have the financial and technical resources to support their transition. We have the opportunity and the obligation to act.”

Although it is not clear from the context of his tweet, Guterres might have been responding to disappointing news on 17 September, when the OECD Secretary-General Mathias Corman stated that “climate finance continued to grow in 2019, but developed countries remain USD 20 billion short of meeting the 2020 goal of mobilizing USD100 billion.” Effectively, richer countries are helping poorer countries to move away from carbon-based (oil, coal, natural gas) economies. This global solidarity to reduce the production of greenhouse gases (GHGs) requires that less developed countries be subsidized to migrate to the use of renewable sources of energy. The stakes are so high, and the effects of global climate change so pervasive, that enlightened self interest drives state actors towards the virtue of global solidarity.

Coming from one of the so-called less-developed states (as though development implies industrialisation and consumption of technology) I would gladly see my country being less dependent of foreign funding, and more proactive with regard to appropriate earth-friendly economy. There is so much desire to ‘catch up’ with the perceived material wealth of the ‘developed’ nations, that we are sometimes blinded to how harmful this development can be to society and to our planet. Depending on international donor funds to prevent us from going down the same inappropriate route strikes me as most ironical.

The scale of the global challenges can easily make us feel overwhelmed, despair, detachment and disempowerment. Indeed, what can one person, community, parish, or country do to make a significant change to the trajectory of global climate change? In his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius of Loyola would call this lack of hope and sense of agency ‘desolation.’ It is can lead us to give up on our vocation to love our neighbour, no matter how physically distant or temporally removed they may be. We can abdicate any responsibility and leave it all to the professionals at COP meetings to negotiate and legislate on our behalf. And then we comply to the barest minimum of our ability.

In Chapter Six of Laudato Si’ [216-221] Pope Francis encourages us to undergo an ecological conversion. We begin to think and feel with and pray for Our Mother Earth. (This is so much broader than St. Ignatius’ sentire cum ecclesia – or thinking and feeling with the Church.) In our conversion, we develop personal ecological virtues of solidarity with our planet and its vulnerable people and creatures, of discipline with regard to our own carbon footprint, and of moderation in our consumption. We unlock ourselves from the logic and economy of consumerism, understanding how much it damages our common home.

Every exercise of personal agency gives the sense that we are making a contribution. Our individual contribution may be minuscule on the grand scale of things, but it is neither insignificant nor illusory. Every prayer we raise for the COP negotiators reminds us that the world is ultimately in God’s hands, but that we have a stake in the outcome, an obligation to participate. Every ‘political’ intervention we make, even as small as adding our name to an Avaaz petition, allows our voice be heard that we are not satisfied with the status quo, that it is so far from the Reign of God. As our wings are clipped by the global pandemic, let us see this as a moment to reconsider the real necessity of our frantic activity and travel.