Episcopal delegates to COP26 climate conference share lessons of hope and struggle with the church

By Egan Millard
Posted Nov 12, 2021

[Episcopal News Service] Delegates representing Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and The Episcopal Church at the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference presented a summary of their work to the church on Nov. 12, saying they felt empowered by their presence even though the ultimate outcome of the conference remained uncertain. Delegates said they were frustrated to witness political leaders’ ongoing obstructionism, but proud of the voices and religious conviction that they brought to the table.

“You are making the creation glad,” California Bishop Marc Andrus told the delegates during the presentation. “The groaning of the creation is being turned into the good news and the rejoicing of the creation by your work. There’s so much more to do.”

COP26, known officially as the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, took place in Glasgow, Scotland, and online from Oct. 31 through Nov. 12. Andrus led the Episcopal delegation alongside Lynnaia Main, The Episcopal Church’s representative to the United Nations. They were joined by 24 clergy and lay delegates from across the church, as well as staff members the Rev. Melanie Mullen, director of reconciliation, justice, and creation care; Phoebe Chatfield, program associate for creation care and justice; Rebecca Cotton, a fellow in the church’s Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations; and Nick Gordon, intern for the United Thank Offering.

Part of the delegates’ mission was to learn about the state of the climate crisis and efforts to address it, and to bring what they learned back to the wider church.

“The church is here to do this work not just for the 24 folks who were selected as delegates, but as a whole – as a body of Christ,” Mullen said.

As the Episcopal delegates gave their presentation, negotiators in Glasgow continued past their deadline of 6 p.m. local time for reaching an agreement on how to address the gap between current commitments and the actions needed to avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Current greenhouse gas emission commitments still fail to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement, in which almost 200 countries set voluntary goals aimed at limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, settling on a 1.5-degree target. At the time, the goal was meant to mitigate the catastrophic effects of rising temperatures on the Earth’s surface, which causes melting glaciers; rising sea levels; and more frequent and extreme hurricanes, droughts, snowstorms and wildfires. Since then, climate scientists have warned that climate change’s threat to humanity is at a “code red,” as warming is close to the 1.5-degree threshold already.

If current greenhouse gas emission commitments continue as they are now, it would lead to warming by 2.7 degrees by the end of the century, according to a U.N. report. A 30% cut is needed to limit warming to 2 degrees, and a 55% cut is needed to limit it to 1.5.

As a delegate, Colombia Bishop Francisco Duque said he was interested in learning about scientific advances and the national and international policies aimed at addressing climate change.

“Our commitment to the care of creation is fundamental as stewards of it,” he said, in a daily email digest sent by the church’s Creation Care team.

As the conference dragged on without a final agreement, negotiators were “mired in disputes over the rules for carbon markets, financial support for vulnerable nations and provisions calling for the phase out of coal and fossil fuel subsidies,” The Washington Post reported.

“We have seen very clearly these past two weeks that the U.N. is an imperfect system for dialogue and diplomacy,” Main said. “But it’s the only forum we have at the moment to address the magnitude and immediacy of the climate emergency.”

During COP26, the Episcopal delegates (as well as their Anglican counterparts) communicated their priorities to U.N. member states, participated in meetings and discussion forums, shared updates on social media and hosted events, including a “Liturgy for Planetary Crisis” and morning and evening prayer services. Episcopalians participated virtually from the United States, Europe and South America.

Though the lack of in-person interaction was disappointing to some, overall, the virtual format was “actually an advantage,” Andrus said. “We’ve been lighter on the Earth than if we’d been traveling there in person. But we’ve also been able to move from one meeting to another.”

Episcopal leaders have noted in their advocacy that the impacts of the climate crisis are not being felt evenly.

“The most impacted [are] Indigenous peoples, people who are tied to the land, poor people,” Curry said in a Nov. 12 ABC News interview. “We will see more mass migrations of people looking for food. … These will have an impact on the poorest of the poor.”

In the efforts toward climate change action, the value of our religious traditions and the knowledge of our scientific traditions “come together in common cause,” the presiding bishop said.

The Episcopal delegation’s four policy priorities were to accelerate ambition, increase support for communities experiencing loss and damage, protect human rights and affirm climate and eco-justice in addressing adaptation and mitigation, and boost climate finance and mechanisms. Each delegate focused on one of those areas.

Delegate Destinee Bates from the Diocese in North Carolina expressed frustration at the failure of the biggest polluters to pay for the damage they have caused, which often disproportionately affects countries that pollute less. She summarized the loss and damage segment succinctly by saying, “When you make a mess, you should probably clean it up.”

“The U.S. is responsible for an overwhelming majority of carbon dioxide in the world. Our carelessness is at the expense of the lives of vulnerable communities, and now we owe a debt. This COP saw many leaders dodging financial liability. But the people of the world deserve more than useless platitudes. It’s time to pay what we owe.”

The Episcopal delegation’s policy priorities aligned with an overarching theme of the conference: the past, present and future role of Indigenous peoples in caring for the Earth. Though Indigenous activists were highly visible at COP26, Episcopal leaders pushed for deeper inclusion of their voices at negotiations.

“Effective environmental justice advocacy anywhere in the world requires meaningful and useful partnerships with the Indigenous communities who have lived in those environments for millennia,” said the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, a delegate from the Diocese of Olympia and a member of the Shackan First Nation people. “We inhabit and steward 40% of vulnerable biodiversity environments on the planet, yet directly received only 1% of the international funds for climate mitigation projects.”

The presentation ended with a discussion on translating the experience of COP26 into actions that Episcopalians can take.

“The end of COP, like so many people have said, is really just the beginning of climate action,” said Cotton, the Office of Government Relations fellow. Cotton said that for U.S. Episcopalians, the Episcopal Public Policy Network keeps people informed about opportunities to advocate for the kind of legislation that is needed to stem the climate crisis. She pointed specifically to the Build Back Better budget reconciliation bill currently being debated in Congress.

“If it passes, it will be the largest investment from the United States on climate change and will be a method of making substantial progress towards the U.S.’s stated commitment of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030,” Cotton said.

Creation care has been one of The Episcopal Church’s three top priorities during Curry’s primacy, in addition to racial reconciliation and evangelism. General Convention has passed numerous resolutions on the issue, whether supporting federal climate action or pledging to mitigate the church’s own impact on the environment. Through the Office of Governmental Relations and the Episcopal Public Policy Network, the church has advocated for government policies in line with General Convention stances on climate change.

Throughout COP26, Episcopal delegates and leaders have emphasized that protecting the Earth and preventing human suffering are not merely political talking points but central tenets of the Episcopal faith – a message that Taber-Hamilton encouraged participants to take home to their churches.

“The faith of re-greening the world must become as central to our theology, and to our worship, as crucifixion and resurrection,” she said. “We must give nothing less than all we have and all we are in order to assure new life if generations are to follow us at all. The world to come that we pray for in our Sunday worship is ours to entomb or to liberate.”

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.