Reflections on COP26: Part 2

Rev Dr Daniel Button

This is a continuation of Dan Button’s personal story from COP26. Part 1 is here.

Christian Presence at COP26

The Christian presence was very evident at this COP26 – highlighted by the strong emphasis on ‘climate justice’, humanitarian issues like water, refugees, debt relief, and the plight of poorer nations bearing the worst effects of climate change. ‘Climate’ was the key buzzword holding together a myriad of interconnected issues, from plastic pollution to sustainable energy solutions, but faith groups often had a different emphasis. ‘Saving the planet’ (for whom?) is not quite the same as ‘caring for all God’s creation’ and ‘loving your neighbour as yourself’. International organisations like Tearfund, Christian Aid, A Rocha and WEA were there in force, as were numerous other Christian groups such as Green Christian, Operation Noah, Eco Church, and Creation Care. Science & faith groups were also represented: JRI, Faraday, and Christians in Science.

YCCN boat

Most impressive was the impact of a new generation of young, impassioned Christian climate activists often leading the way, or bringing ‘new’ groups, notably the Young Christian Climate Network. Saturday’s enormous ‘Climate Justice’ march of 100,000 people through the streets of Glasgow with every manner of flags, placards, clothing and creative display was preceded by a ‘Fridays for Future’ march nearly as big, organised entirely by Scottish young people in partnership with Greta Thunberg. Saturday’s march included a large Christian faith-based contingent alongside a myriad of other organisations (Extinction Rebellion were by far the most organised block with a truly impressive percussion section). Our CCOP group hosted speakers, gave interviews, did news broadcasts to various countries; we heard from Ruth Valerio (Tearfund), Katherine Hayhoe (climate scientist) Bishop Graham Usher (CofE) and Dr Thomas Schirrmacher (WEA) amongst others.

Optimism vs Hope

‘Are you optimistic about COP26’ I was asked more than once? My response was… ‘no – I’m not optimistic – but I do have hope’. It seems paradoxical, but there was a great deal of discussion about the nature of hope – in particular our Christian hope. Reports coming from the political deliberations were as expected – some encouraging decisions, future promises, new targets set, but nothing remotely matching the scale and urgency of the crisis, the immediate implementation of policies that could hold global warming within 1.50C – we’re still on a trajectory toward a catastrophic 2.4-2.70C. So where is the hope? Christian hope is rooted in the faithfulness of a loving God who will not abandon his creation. Hope is a discipline, not an emotion; a duty, not a luxury. Hope is putting our faith into action, persevering no matter the cost. As Paul wrote, ‘we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character, hope’. I’ve never understood that sequence as clearly as now.

Bearing Witness

CCOP at climate vigil

The most inspirational aspect of my COP26 experience were the incredible, passionate, young, multinational, Christian climate activists in the CCOP group itself. They represented nations and movements around the world, coming from Philippines, Argentina, Zimbabwe, India, Hong Kong, Burundi, France, N. Macedonia, the USA, Canada etc (and a number from Britain as well). In our devotional time we spoke of the biblical meaning of ‘bearing witness’ – that a witness is not merely one who ‘sees and observes’, but one who bears witness, just as Jesus’ disciples were commissioned to do to the ends of the earth.

Like the disciples, most of the CCOP group were young – several were still university students, others were working in forestry, environmental science, engineering, and climate advocacy. These were not COP26 tourists soaking in the atmosphere and dazzled by the expositions; they were not taken in by the ‘greenwashing’ rhetoric or manipulations of leaders showing off the ‘youth’ involvement for photo-ops. They were setting meetings with their national delegations, world leaders and MPs – with John Kerry, Obama, Justin Welby… they were lobbying for an agenda of justice and action, writing articles, doing interviews, sending reports… one was the main organiser of the Climate Vigil service which was simulcast to several cities around the world from our Tearfund base there at St George’s Church, with 100,000 people participating. The CCOP group were a profound example of being 21st century witnesses to a gospel of hope directed toward the whole of creation.

Many will have come away from COP26 with disappointment, feeling it was as Greta predicted, just ‘Blah, blah, blah’. I came away feeling absolutely inspired and motivated by what God’s people are doing. As Christians we must never give in to despair nor the false hope that God will simply step in and fix everything. This is our mess, and it’s ours to clean up. Things will most certainly get worse, but we have a sure and certain hope in a faithful God who will accomplish his plans for this world as he always has – through his people, not instead of his people.

Rev Dr Daniel Button is a theologian and director of Gateway Theology School in Gloucester. He has a particular interest in eschatology and a love for God’s creation. He has been involved in Christian higher education for nearly 25 years in several countries – mainly Zimbabwe, Uganda, and now the UK – though he originally comes from Minnesota (USA).

Photos: all photos courtesy of Dan Button