Our writer attended the UN conference in Scotland and shares his reflections
The church sanctuary in Glasgow resounded with the familiar hymn, "All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing." After a hectic week at the United Nations conference COP26, it was refreshing to pause, reflect and worship.
COP26 (the 26th Conference of the Parties) brought thousands of people – including some Christian leaders – from around the world in November 2021 to discuss and agree what to do in response to climate change. I was there representing Canadian Foodgrains Bank and the organization I work for, Tearfund Canada, eager to learn and gain a better understanding of how Christians and churches should respond to a changing climate.
The sheer scale of the event was overwhelming – thousands of leaders, politicians, media representatives and members of civil society bustling between events spread across a stadium, a conference centre and multiple temporary buildings. The first chaotic day we had to shuffle for two hours to get into the venue.
The opening speeches conveyed a strong sense of urgency. Over the first few days more than a hundred countries pledged to end and re verse deforestation by 2030. And 105 countries pledged to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent.
At midweek I spoke with Paul Cook, head of advocacy at Tear fund UK. This was his fifth COP. He was optimistic about the progress being made, but re-emphasised the urgency.
For him, justice and equity play a large part. "We know climate change is affecting the world’s poorest the most," he says. But history is also important. Countries like Canada and the U.K. have had 250 years to use fossil fuels to grow their economies, and so it’s unfair to pull out that ladder from underneath other countries. "That’s why climate finance is so important. To help those countries leapfrog fossil fuel technology and develop their economies in a green and sustain able way, to build a fairer, more equitable future."
Improvement will ultimately require a sustained push from normal people, including church goers and church leaders, he says. "No one here is going to do a deal they don’t want to do, and they will only want to do it if there is pres sure at home. It comes back to us, in our churches. It’s less about the corridors of power than about the churches’ halls of power. How are we going to speak truth to power?"
As the week progressed the announcements dropped off. Signs of frustration started to show as national government negotiators continued to battle it out. On Friday in that darkening situation I met someone working at a different level – Laura Young, a 25-year-old Christian who speaks with U.K. youth on climate issues.
She thinks not enough is being done. She points to the way politicians continue to push targets and promises further into the future. "Around half the world’s warming has happened in my lifetime. For many young people the climate crisis is the only reality we’ve known," she tells me. She mentions that young people, including churchgoers, refuse to accept the future reality that the current generation is leaving for them.
Young adults are often not even being consulted or involved, she says. Even at COP26, "There aren’t enough young people inside and that needs to be addressed." She found it ironic COP26 organizers labelled the day we met as a youth day – "The irony is that there are barely any youth that could gain access to this event."
For young people this isn’t just about the environment. It’s about people. It’s about love. And we’re called to love our neighbours.
What about church youth in particular? Young refers to a U.K. survey suggesting 9 out of 10 young evangelical Christians think climate change is a huge issue, but only 1 out of 10 think churches are doing enough. "For young people this isn’t just about the environment. It’s about people. Climate change is already pushing millions back into poverty and resulting in deaths. It’s about love. And we’re called to love our neighbours. What is the Church doing about it?"
That brings me to Friday night, back to the hymn in one of the local churches in Glasgow. I was there for something called a creation care service. I’d never attended such a service and wondered what it would be like. It was powerful.
It opened with prayer and an exhortation from 2 Chronicles 7:14 – "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land." The pastor reminded us involvement and human actions are good and necessary in this world, but that God is ultimately sovereign. We were challenged to make prayer our first and ultimate tool.
But what came next had every one speechless. It was an interview between Dez Johnston, director of Alpha Scotland, and Kuki Rokhum, director of training and mobilization at the Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief. Her organization engages with poor communities across India in both training and disaster relief.
Rokhum says disasters have become more severe and have come more often. Farmers across India, especially in poorer areas, are becoming increasingly desperate. "For many people living in India, climate change means death. The crops have failed again and again and again for these small-scale farmers. It isn’t just an in convenience. It is their livelihood. If the crops fail, there is no plan B, and so we’ve seen a huge number of farmers committing suicide."
This resonated with the congregation. You could see it on people’s faces. Climate change, which can feel like an issue far off in the future or something we can ignore by turning up our air conditioning, has already become a matter of life or death for many – including our Christian brothers and sisters.
To make it real, Rokhum says, we have to put a face on the problem. She describes a tribal family in Eastern India. "This family of a husband and wife with two children lives with no electricity, and use ox and carts for transportation and labour. Farming is their only source of income. When the rains stop or become erratic, it is difficult to survive."
One of the new terms I learned is eco-anxiety. For those who don’t believe in Christ, the future looks bleak.
I left the service thinking about the different perspectives I had heard over the week. How I’d never really heard churches in Canada talk about climate change (or even creation), but how many Christians around the world take it seriously.
After the conference I was still mulling over the issues, even during some time touring Scotland (the landscape of the Scottish Highlands is definitely worth seeing). I wondered, How should we respond as Christians? What should churches do regarding a changing climate?
How should we respond?
I suggest first of all we need to learn more. Dig deeper. COP26 and participating churches opened up many new perspectives I didn’t know existed. This is a relatively new topic for many people, and it’s natural to have lots of questions. We can explore what we hear, especially in terms of biblical principles. Learn from a variety of sources and views. Once we feel comfort able with the subject, why not talk about it? We can talk about it in our church communities. At least these issues can encourage us to do more Bible study on our responsibility for creation and what creation care can look like.
Secondly, as the pastor said on that night, we should pray. Prayer is one of the easiest and most powerful ways we can make a difference. God sustains our world and is all-powerful, and He has invited us to come to Him with our petitions.
Thirdly, we can discern what to do personally or as a church. Thankfully, there are many great Christian organizations we can partner with, either to help people more vulnerable than us adapt to the challenges they face, or influence public policy or start church initiatives. Living with integrity also means considering how we personally can create positive en vironmental impact or do things more efficiently.
Lastly, we need to recognize the opportunity, even in this situation, to point others to Christ. One of the new terms I learned at the conference is eco-anxiety. For those who don’t believe in Christ, the future looks bleak. But Christians have tremendous hope. We trust not in our own weak actions, but in our all-powerful God who loves and walks alongside us, and we try to co-operate with God’s Kingdom purposes in ways that point to God.
People, especially young people, care about this issue. And we should too. Creation is God’s good gift. How we view it and treat it tells others about the God who made it, sustains it and redeemed it in Jesus Christ.
Matthew Schroeder is director of marketing and communications at Tearfund Canada (www.Tearfund.ca). Photos: Matthew Schroeder. Opening illustration: Shutterstock.com