‘Every action matters’: Episcopal delegation recaps participation in COP27 climate summit

By David Paulsen
Posted Nov 30, 2022
California Bishop Marc Andrus

California Bishop Marc Andrus speaks in a Nov. 30 webinar about the Episcopal engagement with the COP27 climate summit.

[Episcopal News Service] United Nations member states ended the recent COP27 climate summit with an agreement to offer financial assistance to countries and communities struggling against the greatest impacts of global warming. Since then, Episcopalians who participated at the summit have returned to their dioceses to share what they’ve learned from summit with their communities.

“It has the potential to help millions and millions of people restabilize their lives,” California Bishop Marc Andrus said Nov. 30 in a webinar about the results of the summit, officially known as the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was held Nov. 6-20 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Andrus, alongside Lynnaia Main, The Episcopal Church’s representative to the United Nations, led an 18-member delegation of Episcopalians on behalf of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, with most of them participating online. They received additional support from the church’s Offices of Creation Care and Government Relations.

The first Episcopal delegation to the COP attended the 2015 summit in Paris, where close to 200 countries reached the Paris Agreement to set voluntary goals aimed at limiting global warming below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, settling on 1.5-degree target. Since 2016, The Episcopal Church has held U.N. observer status, which allows members of the Episcopal delegations to brief U.N. representatives on General Convention’s climate resolutions and to attend meetings in the official zones.

Because of the pandemic, this month’s COP27 was the first time in three years that some of those Episcopalians attended the climate summit in person, in addition to the others attending online. Many of those delegates were among the more than 130 people who joined the Zoom session recapping the delegation’s work.

“I just want to offer thanks on behalf of Bishop Curry, on behalf of our whole church,” said the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, the presiding bishop’s canon for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care. With the hybrid delegation’s participation in COP27, she said, “the network, the Episcopal network for climate care is so much stronger.”

The Rev. Melanie Mullen, the church’s director of reconciliation, justice, and creation care, emphasized that point, while also holding up the Episcopal delegation’s work in Egypt alongside the church’s ecumenical and Anglican partners. “The faith community internationally has something to say,” said Mullen, who was among the handful of Episcopal delegates who traveled to Egypt for part or all of COP27. “The presence of faith communities really made it possible for activism to happen.”

The primary theme of COP27, “loss and damage,” focused on how poorer countries around the world are struggling to face the effects of climate change, including melting glaciers; rising sea levels; and more frequent and extreme hurricanes, droughts, snowstorms and wildfires. The summit also highlighted the often disproportionate impact felt by those counties and the wealthy, industrial nations that have produced the greenhouse gases causing global temperatures to rise.

Under the agreement reached Nov. 20, the United Nation members will create a fund “for assisting developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.”

The Episcopal Church and other non-governmental organizations at COP27, Andrus said, played a vital role supporting the cause of small countries on the frontlines of climate change, like the Pacific island nations of Tonga and Samoa. They “are way outmatched in terms of power and money, but staying together, we can amplify their voices,” Andrus said.

Some countries and climate activists, however, said COP27 didn’t go far enough to address the underlying causes of global warming, with no binding plan for phasing out fossil fuels. A central purpose of each COP since 2015 has been to track implementation of the Paris Agreement, and since then, climate scientists have a warned that warming already is approaching the 1.5-degree threshold, with potentially disastrous results.

“There is much work to do,” Andrus said. “This is a long emergency, and our commitment must be a marathon commitment.”

General Convention has passed numerous resolutions on these issues, whether supporting federal climate action or pledging to mitigate the church’s own impact on the environment. Through its Washington, D.C.-based 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.

In its latest action, the 80th General Convention approved a resolution in July reaffirming the church’s support for delegates to participate in the climate conference and its engagement with member nations on ways to address climate change and seek environmental justice.

The Episcopal delegation at COP27 drafted a letter that it conveyed to member states during the summit. The issues raised include the need to accelerate global efforts to reduce emissions while protecting the human rights of those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. It also distributed prayer cards encouraging summit participants to think about these issues from faith perspectives.

Despite the escalating global climate crisis, Episcopal delegates who spoke during the church’s Nov. 30 webinar said they were encouraged by their experiences attending COP27, and they remain hopeful that The Episcopal Church and individual Episcopalians can make a difference.

Emily Hennen of the Diocese of North Carolina said she followed the topic of biodiversity at COP27 and learned of an Ecuadorian initiative that sought ways to harness the ecological value of the Amazon River’s headwaters region without depleting its resources.

“Nature already holds many of the answers we are searching for in our climate questions,” Hennen said. She plans to share some of what she learned through church youth programs in the coming months.

Coco de Marneffe, who serves with an Episcopal Service Corps program in the Diocese of New York, focused her attention at COP27 on the impact of climate change on women. She is scheduled to speak about her experiences at the summit in an upcoming presentation at a library in the Hudson Valley.

“I did find it very encouraging to speak with so many different types of people around the world that were at this conference,” she said. “Just to know that the Episcopal community is not alone in having these conversations and being concerned about these issues.”

And Kelsey Larson of the Diocese of Massachusetts described attending COP27 online, which entailed “clicking between a lot of YouTube screens.” Her focus was mitigation – steps that humans can take to lessen human-caused climate change.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task, Larson said. “What we need to do is everything. Keeping warming low is going to mean an enormous amount of change,” she said, though she sees reason for hope rather than discouragement.

“Every action matters, because every action is needed. … Every act we take to fight climate change is an act of faith,” she said. “There’s a lot to do, but the good thing is, none of us has to do it alone.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.