COP26: A missed opportunity, but scope to build momentum for climate justice

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Operation Noah trustee Shilpita Mathews – an environmental economist and official COP26 observer – and Bright Now Campaign Manager James Buchanan share their experiences and reflections from COP26 in Glasgow.

Operation Noah Trustee Shilpita Mathews at COP26 in Glasgow

By Shilpita Mathews and James Buchanan

Like many other climate activists from the UK and around the world, we spent several days in Glasgow during COP26, participating in events and praying and acting for climate justice, especially for the vulnerable communities most affected by the climate crisis here and now.

Shilpita spent a week in the Blue Zone (where official COP26 negotiations took place) with the Christian Climate Observer Program (CCOP), while James represented Operation Noah as a panellist at various events, spent time with a group of ‘Pilgrimage2Paris’ pilgrims and organised a webinar with faith partners from across the global divestment movement.

Life in the Blue Zone (Shilpita Mathews)

Climate change is a spiritual issue: My COP26 highlights included meeting former US Vice President Al Gore and his daughter Karenna Gore (Director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York) as part of the Christian Climate Observer Program (CCOP). The Gores listened to our climate journeys, shared their experiences and gave advice on connecting faith with climate action. One thing that resonated between this and the talk by Bill Mckibben (see below) was the need for recognising the climate crisis as a moral, ethical and spiritual issue reflecting a crisis within our hearts, one that is manifested in environmental injustices. 

Transition is inevitable, justice is not: This phrase resonated from negotiation rooms, to climate marches, to talks by campaigners, to CEO presentations. Despite this, COP26 was a microcosm of larger global injustices. In the Blue Zone, after shadowing the Renew our World campaign for a day, I saw first-hand the rejection indigenous communities received behind closed doors, or how representatives from developing countries were often excluded from discussions on topics most important to them, like loss and damage. 

We need to build bridges during a time of crisis: It was very encouraging to spend time with Operation Noah partners at the COP26 Climate Sunday stall in the Green Zone, and to celebrate all of the successes to date. I was particularly inspired by ambitious ecumenical and interfaith climate action at COP26, which was on display at numerous events. In fact, if people of faith, who represent more than 80% of the world’s population, came together, a just transition to limit global average temperature rises to 1.5°C could become a reality.

Shilpita Mathews (front row, far left) with members of the Climate Sunday coalition: a group of over 30 Christian charities and most UK denominations.

Finding hope in the road ahead: This was my first COP, and what was most overwhelming for me was the polarisation between the Blue Zone, where negotiations took place, and the fringes of COP26. This is what Lorna Gold of the Laudato Si’ Movement and FaithInvest calls, ‘a tale of two COPs’. While there have been glimpses of hope, with various Blue Zone leaders meaningfully engaging and representing frontline communities, there is a long road ahead. But what gave me hope was the action across non-governmental communities, from the unity shown amongst faith communities, to commitments made by the private sector and academia, to go beyond what has been agreed.

For more of my reflections, you can watch the videos I made from the Blue Zone at COP26 on the Operation Noah Twitter and Facebook accounts.

On the fringes of COP26 (James Buchanan and Shilpita Mathews)

Some of the most encouraging and prophetic actions took place on the fringes of COP26. One major highlight was joining the final day of the Young Christian Climate Network (YCCN) Relay to COP26 and the closing service at St George’s Tron, in the centre of Glasgow.

It was an amazing achievement – the result of incredible commitment demonstrated by Christians aged 18-30 to organise the Relay to COP26 from the G7 in Cornwall in June to COP26 in Glasgow at the end of October.

Members of Young Christian Climate Network (YCCN) arrive in Glasgow for COP26.

We also had some excellent meetings, both planned and unexpected, with partners, campaigners and supporters, as well as old and new friends. Following a multi-faith vigil in George Square in the centre of Glasgow, we were delighted to meet Jonathan Wittenberg, Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism UK. We also met one of our heroes, Bill McKibben, who co-founded 350.org and initiated the fossil fuel divestment movement, as he delivered a lecture at the University of Glasgow.

James Buchanan and Shilpita Mathews with writer and activist Bill McKibben (centre), founder of the global divestment movement and of the environmental charity, 350.org.

Reflections on our COP26 event: Fossil Fuel Divestment, Climate Justice and a Just Transition for All (James Buchanan)

Operation Noah’s main event at COP26 took place on Monday 8 November and was organised in partnership with Laudato Si’ Movement, Green Anglicans, World Council of Churches, GreenFaith, CAFOD, Christian Aid, Tearfund, SCIAF and Eco-congregation Scotland. The event was entitled, Fossil Fuel Divestment, Climate Justice and a Just Transition for All.

The panel of speakers included Lorna Gold (Chair of Laudato Si’ Movement), Mark Campanale (Founder and Executive Chair of Carbon Tracker), Rt Revd Olivia Graham (Bishop of Reading), Pastor Ray Minniecon (Australian indigenous Anglican pastor) and Sally Foster Fulton (Head of Christian Aid Scotland). I also joined the speaker panel.

The event included several inspiring and challenging contributions, especially from Pastor Ray Minniecon. Lorna Gold, Chair of Laudato Si’ Movement, wrote about the event: ‘Everyone should watch this – from start to end. Most honest and uncomfortable event I attended at COP26.’

COP26 conclusions: A missed opportunity, but scope to build momentum in 2022

The world needs to phase out of all types of fossil fuels: The outcomes of COP26 have been widely covered in the media, with much of the focus being on the last-minute proposal from India and China to ‘phase down’ rather than ‘phase out’ coal. Yet the world needs to phase out oil and gas too, not only coal – starting with the wealthiest nations that have contributed most to the climate crisis. Furthermore, the US and China had already agreed to the ‘phase down’ wording in a joint agreement issued days before.

There has been less attention given to the hugely disappointing announcement days before COP26 that the $100 billion in climate finance promised to developing countries would not be met until 2023, despite the wealthiest nations having pledged at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 to meet the target by 2020. This is an abdication of moral responsibility and did little to build trust with nations most affected by the climate crisis. Many of these countries said that they would reluctantly sign the Glasgow Climate Pact, in spite of inadequate financing for loss and damage.

One of the most positive developments during COP26 was the launch of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, an alliance launched by Denmark and Costa Rica to phase out oil and gas production. Among the countries to sign up were France, Ireland, Portugal and Sweden, as well as Wales, Quebec and Greenland. The group has committed to setting an end date for oil and gas extraction.

The time is now for Churches to divest from fossil fuels and invest in climate solutions

There has never been a more important time to call on UK Churches to divest from fossil fuel companies and invest in climate solutions, such as renewable energy. This will send a clear signal to our governments – here in the UK and around the world – about the urgent need to move beyond fossil fuels and rapidly cut emissions.

There are signs that the pressure is working. Just days after COP26, Nicola Sturgeon spoke out against the new Cambo oil field off the west coast of Scotland. The Cambo oil field, led by Shell and Siccar Point Energy, would lead to emissions equivalent to the annual carbon pollution from 18 coal-fired power stations. If the UK government is to act with integrity and retain any credibility following COP26, it must bring an immediate end to new oil and gas projects, starting with Cambo.

In 2022, Operation Noah’s Bright Now campaign will continue calling on UK Churches – including the Church of England, the Scottish Episcopal Church and Catholic and CofE dioceses – to join the vast majority of UK Churches in divesting from fossil fuel companies. We will continue our collaboration with partners around the world and seek to amplify voices from the global South, including indigenous communities, especially ahead of the Lambeth Conference that begins in July 2022.

How you can respond

Thank you to all of you who have supported Operation Noah and our Bright Now campaign in 2021. We are grateful for your support as we continue the campaign for fossil free Churches and investment in climate solutions in 2022! Here are three practical ways to respond: 

Divest your church with Operation Noah’s Bright Now campaign: Read our reflections on what COP26 means for Church investments in fossil fuel companies on the Bright Now website.

Donate to Operation Noah: Find out more about making a donation or give regularly to support Operation Noah’s work.

Apply for new roles at Operation Noah: Finally, watch this space for exciting developments as we scale up our work on investment in climate solutions and nature-based solutions! We are currently recruiting for a new Bright Now Campaign Manager and Bright Now Campaign Officer to join our growing team. You can find out more about both of the roles and how to apply here.

Operation Noah in 2021

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We’ve made it to 2021! We’re still living in a time of great uncertainty, but we also have hope. In November, leaders from across the world will meet in Glasgow for COP26 and have the opportunity to take the urgent action we need to tackle the climate crisis. Before that, in June, the G7 will meet in Cornwall to discuss a number of issues, including the climate crisis.

Operation Noah’s work this year aims to make sure that our leaders make the most of these opportunities. So what’s coming up at Operation Noah in 2021 and how can you get involved?

Climate Sunday

In the lead-up to COP26 we’re encouraging all churches to hold a Climate Sunday service. This is an opportunity to hold a service exploring the theological and scientific basis of creation care, to commit as a local church to take action, and to call on other churches and wider society to push our government to take bold action in advance of COP26. 

Tenants of the King update

Last year, churches and individuals bought more than 600 copies of our four-session Bible study resource in the lead-up to Lent. This study series is designed to help you and your church consider what the Bible has to say about the climate crisis. We’re currently working on an update to the final session of the study and it will be ready in time for Lent 2021. We’re also going to make all the resources you need for the study downloadable, so you don’t have to wait for us to post them out to you (although the postable version will still be available if you’d prefer it). Lent begins on Wednesday 17 February, so start making plans now to be sure you’re ready to run Tenants of the King in your church. If you’d like the updated version please ensure you are signed up for our monthly newsletters to be informed when it is available.

Global divestment announcements

Divesting from fossils fuels is powerful both as a practical and prophetic step as we approach COP26. It takes money away from the fossil fuel industry while also moving us towards the future we want to live in. In the last few years dozens of churches and Christian organisations across the UK, and many more across the world, have committed to divest from fossil fuels. As part of our Bright Now campaign, we’re planning at least two Global Divestment Announcements this year, likely to be in May and early autumn. If your church would like to make a divestment commitment as part of these announcements, please get in touch.

Climate Emergency Toolkit

We’re encouraging churches to make use of this great resource from Tearfund which helps churches to declare a Climate Emergency and then take simple but powerful actions that have an impact beyond your own walls or community. This is a great way to show leadership on the climate crisis in the lead-up to COP26. We’d love to hear from anyone who makes use of it.

Pray and Fast for the Climate

Prayer fuels our action to care for creation. Why not join in with Pray and Fast for the Climate this year. Operation Noah was involved in setting up this initiative and it provides prayer points every month to help guide your prayers.

Show the Love prayers

Green Christian has a number of prayers especially written for The Climate Coalition’s Show the Love campaign in February. Why not choose one to be read at your church’s service on Sunday 14 February?

Keep up to date with all we’re doing by signing up to our newsletter and following us on Twitter and Facebook.

Are Faith and Climate Action compatible?

Posted in: Blog, Uncategorized

Shilpita Mathews, a Research Assistant at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, believes that the climate crisis requires faith communities to be catalysts for change, as she writes in this guest blog for Operation Noah.

A person standing in front of a building

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The main square of Nui Island in 2015, still under water over a month after Cyclone Pam created huge waves. Photo credit: Silke von Brockhausen/UNDP/Creative Commons via Flickr

As UK faith leaders call for an environment focused economic recovery post Covid-19, there have been great strides in faith-based climate activism. Yet Christians are often perceived as an obstacle to climate action with climate denial or apathy frequently attributed to religious communities. Within the Church, questions persist. By reflecting on my personal journey and addressing common scepticisms I argue that Christians play a key role in leading climate action.

The journey thus far

Having witnessed the Asian Tsunami in 2004 and the Bangkok floods in 2011, I have seen first-hand the devastating impacts natural disasters have on the poorest communities, especially in the global South. The strong relationship between environmental and social justice is evident, as climate change continues to impact the most vulnerable in our society.

Amidst eco-anxiety and dismal climate forecasts, faith serves as a reminder that ultimately, climate action is not about us saving the world, but fulfilling a God-given mandate of environmental stewardship. This view is shared by Christians working in conservation and climate change, from the former Chair of the IUCN to leading climate scientists.

Whilst recent actions by Christian leaders has been promising, from the Pope’s Laudato si’ to fossil fuel divestment by the Church of England, there is a long way to go. For this to ensue, key scepticisms must be addressed.

Shouldn’t poverty alleviation be the biggest global priority?

  1. Western-centric humanitarianism: Ironically, this thinking has been most prominent in post-industrial countries. Conversely, Christians in developing countries, often comprising of agrarian communities, are most attune to the dependence on nature for human flourishing. To ensure a sustainable future for subsequent generations, climate action and poverty alleviation must go hand-in-hand.
  2. Delinking of creation from salvation: God’s redemptive work has been the motivator behind Christian humanitarianism. But one of the biggest danger in churches today is overlooking His creation. It is important to remember that the ultimate act of redemption was motivated by God’s love for the world, or the entire cosmos, as argued by Peter Harris, cofounder of ARocha.
  3. A myopic view of climate action: The urgency of climate action is often lost in discussions around mitigation technologies as climate adaptation policies lag behind. Yet not only is climate change disproportionately affecting developing countries today, its worst effects are endured by the poor, women, children and ethnic minorities.
  4. Biblical commitment towards creation: Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rev Rowan Williams calls for a Jubilee year as we seek an end to social and environmental oppression. There are stark parallels between the Jubilee 2000 campaign, recent calls for debt forgiveness and the need for greater climate adaptation financing in developing countries.

Isn’t the world going to end anyway?

  1. Creation care and eschatology: There are numerous theological arguments presenting a comprehensive case for creation care and its alignment with eschatology, or the end of times. This presents not only an intergenerational vision, but an eternal vision for the world. A compelling argument for climate action, regardless of the outcome, comes from God’s ongoing work in reconciling all things on earth and heaven (Colossians 1:15-20).
  2. An eternal home: The promise that one day the earth will be renewed, reinvigorates the call to not only love our neighbours but love the eternal home in which we will dwell. If anything, the promise of ultimate restoration should make Christians the strongest proponents of climate action!

Are climate activists trying to play God?

  1. Stewardship v Sovereignty: Climate solutions are often deemed to usurp God’s power, particularly ideas like geo-engineering. Whilst criticism is healthy, and more rigorous research is required, this must be separated from overarching dismissals. Human environmental stewardship is different from divine sovereignty. Fighting for climate justice is out of reverence for the Creator and His world as opposed to insolence against His will.
  2. Climate change as a consequence of sin:  A relationship with God helps unearth the root cause of the climate crisis – a crisis of greed and overconsumption within our hearts. From this perspective, our current lifestyles, sustained by lordship over natural resources, may themselves be regarded as an attempt at playing God.
  3. Beyond climate activism: Climate action as embraced by today’s youth, calls for an attempt to live in harmony with our Creator and His world. This change in mindset means everyone has a role to play. The neighbourly love that is the foundation of faith needs to be at the centre of climate solutions.

With 84% of the world’s population identifying with a religious group, Christians must be onboard to spearhead a 1.5 °C world. In a world where religion is often the cause rather than the solution to problems, faith communities can be catalysts for change.

About the author

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Shilpita Mathews is a Research Assistant at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and is currently completing a MSc in Environmental Economics and Climate Change at the London School of Economics. She also writes as a Climate Correspondent for Youth Ki Awaaz, an Indian youth media platform and serves in the student ministry of her home church, All Souls Langham Place in London.

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