Few people need to be reminded that the past year and a half have been particularly tough for the entire human community. A seemingly unending stream of crises have made exhaustion, confusion, and anger all too commonplace. At times, it feels like the best we can do is simply hunker down and ride out the storm. However, as the storm gets worse, even that strategy doesn’t work so well.
As Quakers, we are called to heal. A grand strategy to solve all our problems simultaneously would be most welcome. However, my invitation here is for Quakers to take advantage of our unique moment in history now to address one problem, a problem that underlies many of the others – the disruption of our planetary life support system at our own hands.
History: Carbon dioxide was first discovered in 1640. By 1856, it was clear that CO2 keeps the earth from being a frozen planet, making CO2 a good thing. By the 1890s, researchers began to recognize that the additional CO2 put into the air by burning fossil fuels would lead to a warmer planet, which might not be good.
Fast forward to 1988. NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen testified before the US Congress that rapidly increasing atmospheric CO2 was driving up global temperatures, which would result in a host of climate changes that would catastrophically impact both global society and the natural environment. In an effort to avoid such catastrophes, policy makers from the world community met a few years later and crafted a treaty that eventually became known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Fast forward again, this time to 2015. After nearly a quarter century of contentious debate at UNFCCC meetings, the international community agreed in Paris to strive to limit warming of the earth to no more than 2°C in the year 2100 above what it was at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Two years after that meeting, the President withdrew the United States from this agreement, claiming that it was a “bad deal for America.”
So here we are in 2021, reeling from a year and a half of global pandemic, four years of federal inaction on climate, worsening extreme weather events, toxic cultural conflict, and a very shaky global economy. Add to this, warnings are coming from the scientific community – most notably from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – explaining that we have less than a decade to make the changes we need to make to avoid potentially irreversible climate disruption.
Despite this history, we can see some light in this dark tunnel. 2021 brought a new Presidential administration to the United States, which reentered the Paris agreement. The world is now getting ready for a new UN climate summit – the twenty-sixth session of the “Conference of the Parties” or “COP26” – scheduled for November 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland.
The significance of COP26: Under the Paris agreement, the year 2020 was to be viewed as a starting line. Treaty signatories would update their commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, work out strategies to adapt to unavoidable climate change and assist developing countries to do the same, and they would all regroup in 2020.
The pandemic, however, changed that game plan, causing the summit to be postponed until 2021. The pandemic also put much of global society on hold, forcing us all to think about what our cultures might look like after an economically devastating year. One hopeful outcome has been that a number of countries have stepped up to the plate with pledges to reboot their economies in new low-carbon directions.
However, like all major moments in history, these signs of hope require nurturing from all of us. With the global pandemic still raging in mid-2021, the COP26 summit faces major questions about what it can look like and whether the delegates might simply “kick the climate can down the road,” claiming that other, more immediate needs must take precedence. Furthermore, many countries are still struggling with intense political and cultural divisions that pit economic well-being against environmental stewardship, as well as national sovereignty against international responsibility.
Most important, this process is at a critical turning point. Its success is dependent on the engagement of all of us, rather than just the actions of our political representatives.
Quakers and international climate action: A deep sense of the divine creativity residing in all things and the belief in that-of-God within all creation have inspired a great many Quakers to become players in climate action at a variety of levels. Groups such as the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) and Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW) regularly participate in UNFCCC and IPCC projects and events, while groups like American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and Friends Committee and National Legislation (FCNL) focus on climate justice advocacy and educational work on the national level. And of course, there are all those individual Quakers actively working on local climate-related issues through their meetings and other community groups.
In 2017 and 2018, my wife and I were privileged to be observer delegates at two UN summits (COPs 23 and 24). Participants to these events generally fall into three main groups: UN staff to administer the summit, delegates tasked with negotiating climate agreements, and observers who come to witness the negotiation process and speak for their communities. As such, observers come from nearly every country on the planet and represent the broad variety of the global populace - business, youth, indigenous people, farmers, research groups, scientific agencies, labor unions, faith groups, and so on. Observers also come to share solutions and learn from each other. Our experiences of “civil society” at COPs 23s and 24 were rich mosaics of exhibits, meetings, rallies, presentations, and serendipitous discussions while waiting in lines for lunch. These experiences often served as hopeful counterpoints to the frequently arduous and disappointing events taking place in the negotiation spaces.
A highlight for Annette and me was our involvement with the Interfaith Coalition. Representing a diverse collection of faiths, this coalition is united by the belief that the natural world is a gift that we are called to cherish and protect. In the midst of all the technical discussion and political bartering, the coalition provided both a moral compass and spiritual grounding. We helped remind the negotiators that no person or community is expendable, and we helped provide others with ways of finding hope.
The Invitation – A part to play for grassroots Quakers: We hope that more Friends can share in these experiences with us. Also, given the strategic nature of the upcoming COP26, it will be critically important to have as many voices as possible at the summit table. Historically, the number of attenders at COP sessions has been limited, due to concerns about expense and carbon footprint. However, in response to the pandemic, summit-planners are considering ways to move more COP26 sessions online. This would make it possible for significantly more people to participate in this international event.
Here are two suggestions of ways that Quakers could engage with COP26:
One: Organize a virtual bridge to COP26 in your local community. A virtual bridge is a local gathering that enables local people to be virtual observers at events like UN summits. These can be as simple or complicated as the organizers want to make them. A virtual bridge could be a single event at a meetinghouse, designed to connect Quakers with other Quakers involved with the summit. Alternately, a virtual summit could be a multi-day event involving a coalition of local community groups, each organizing or hosting events to coincide with the Glasgow summit. An online organizing guide, Building a Bridge to COP26, is available at: https://quakersandclimatechange.com/2020/10/26/building-a-bridge-to-cop26/
Two: Connect with Quakers in the UK working to support COP26. Since the in-person summit is scheduled to take place in Scotland, Quakers there are particularly active in organizing, facilitating events, and hosting events during the summit (e.g., panel discussions, featured talks, and youth delegate gatherings). The planners would like to add an online component to many of these events and use that component to link with Quakers around the world. This group is particularly keen to connect up with Quakers in North America. You can connect with these Friends by visiting: www.quakerscotland.org/cop26
You can find more useful resources by visiting: https://westernfriend.org/media/cop26-useful-links ~~~
Frank Granshaw is active in ecumenical efforts to increase public engagement in public decisions about climate change. He is a member of Multnomah Monthly Meeting in Portland, OR (NPYM).
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