Reflections on COP28 by Marie South, official observer to COP28 week 2

Photo of a panel presentation at COP28
Fossil Fuel Extraction Harms – panel presentation: Photo credit Marie South

Have you ever been asked to introduce yourself to a group using just three words? I remember some years ago being invited to do just that, and discovered that it forces you to focus on what you really want others to know about you.  As I pondered how I could introduce you to what it was like to be an observer at COP28, I found my mind drifting back to that challenge. So, here are my three words.

Uncomfortable

No, I don’t mean the hotel room, the crowded metro trains or the heat of Dubai. I didn’t suffer physical discomfort, at least nothing compared with the physical discomfort caused by the erratic floods and sweltering summers which are already realities for many conference delegates and observers from the Global South. It is uncomfortable, however, to sit in the room with such resilient people and to hear first-hand their harrowing stories. It is even more uncomfortable when the accusations start to feel close to home. Living in the UK, I am a regular worshipper within a Church of England congregation. Listening to a COP28 panel in Dubai talking about environmental damage through fossil fuel extraction, I was not expecting to hear one speaker exclaim, “I had to write to Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.” The topic of the letter was the reported investment of money from the Church of England pension fund in an oil company responsible for considerable environmental damage in the Niger delta region. Whilst I understand this investment situation has since been remedied, I find myself thinking back 8 years to when I moved some of my own pension funds to a place where I could better control where and how they are invested. I was much less climate-aware then – what types of investment did I include and exclude? Maybe some of those need to change in light of what I know now. I’ve sent off an email to my financial advisor asking for a review. It can’t come soon enough.

Historic

As I flew home to the UK on December 13, reports were flying in about the final COP28 text agreed that morning. The words “historic” and “landmark” and “unprecedented” have all been used to describe the deal. Even before going to the conference, I had a feeling that we were indeed going to witness a historic moment. Something practical needed to happen this year to keep alive some hope of restricting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Now, it is a “historic” agreement in some ways. The operationalization of the Loss and Damage Fund to compensate the worst affected nations is something to celebrate. Likewise, the fact that the transition away from fossil fuels is explicitly mentioned alongside some (qualified) phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies. But was it really “agreed” when the Small Island Developing States were not represented in the room when agreement was pronounced? And are these directions of travel enough to meet the goal, without firm commitments to timescales, funding and other practicalities essential for speedy implementation? Change happens much more quickly when there are deadlines, rules and financial incentives, as all who live or work in London’s Ultra-Low-Emission-Zone, or ULEZ, will know. And yes, such rapid changes bring suffering as well as benefits, but in the case of the climate, we will ultimately pay a much higher price for delaying changes than if we act quickly. I fear that our children and grandchildren will look back on this deal and use the word “historic” in a less complimentary way than we would have liked.

Beautiful

dove decorations art installation

Despite all I have written above, there was much that was beautiful at COP28. The venue itself was beautiful, especially when you took time to look up and around; but deeper still was the beauty in so many people, especially young people and indigenous representatives, yearning to protect the planet which God has entrusted to our care. There was beauty in the young, single, female African climate activists I was privileged to meet. They take risks, especially the risk of being misunderstood. They live in a way that counters cultural norms in order to serve God in educating and empowering others, especially women and children, to address the climate crisis. Look up Dorcas Wakio Mugo, from Kenya, who was alongside me in Dubai as part of the Christian Climate Observers Program. She co-founded and is CEO of Mizingira Pamoja, an environmental initiative involving tree-planting, mangrove preservation and empowering of young African women and girls to play their part (You can read more and give on her Go Fund Me page).

picture of a building

Then consider Vanessa Nakate, author of “A Bigger Picture: My fight to bring a new African voice to the climate crisis.” When asked, as part of a panel in the COP28 Faith Pavillion, how to cope with resistance, she replied that you need to know your true identify, and be who you are. She spoke of her identity being first in Christ, and only secondly as a climate activist: “Even if the world decided one day to say ‘no’ to me, I will still find a space because God will say ‘yes’ to me.” The deep inner-beauty of these women, and others, gives me hope and courage to press on. COP28 was uncomfortable, historic and beautiful. My response is both to lament, and yet to declare hope.

Lord we lament

We lament the greed and injustice which destroys forests, poisons streams, and pollutes the air

We lament the false wisdom that separates man from the environment as if one can thrive without the other

Lord we lament

We lament the self-interest and fear of loss that leads to profit being prioritized over people

We lament the tragedy of islands disappearing into the ocean, whilst oligarchs swim in wealth

Lord we lament

We lament the damage to our youth, and the lack of a hopeful message for our grandchildren

We lament the suffering of the old who watch their ancestral way of life slip through their fingers

Lord we lament

We lament with those for whom the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vines

We lament with those for whom the olive crop fails, and the fields produce no food

We lament with those for whom there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls

And yet, we will rejoice in the Lord, we will be joyful in God our Saviour.

We will rejoice in young believers, hearing God’s call to rise up, and obediently standing on your promises

We will rejoice that Jesus is Lord, and not the oil chiefs or the coal merchants

We will rejoice that Jesus died for his enemies, and so can teach us how to love our enemies

We will rejoice because although in this world we have trouble, you have overcome the world.

Marie South was an observer at COP28 week two (8-12 December) for SIL International (All photos are Marie’s)

Marie presented her perspectives and reflections in a JRI webinar on 18th December. The recording of this webinar is available on the Webinars page of this website, reached via the Events menu above or this link.