Episcopal delegates share, seek solutions at UN conference to solve climate change crisis

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Dec 6, 2023

Activists hold placards and shout slogans during a protest, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 6, 2023. Photo: Thaier Al-Sudani via REUTERS

[Episcopal News Service] The United Nations is six days into its annual climate change conference, and Episcopal delegates have been busy advocating for stronger public and private actions to help solve the global climate crisis.

Since Nov. 30, a record 90,000 registered world leaders, policymakers, climate scientists, activists, corporate executives and interfaith representatives have been participating in the 28th U.N. Conference of Parties of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, or simply, COP28. Of the 21 Episcopal delegates participating on behalf of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, nine of them are attending the conference in person. The remaining 12 delegates are participating virtually. COP28, underway in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, will conclude on Dec. 12.

Susie Faria, policy analyst for the church’s Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations, is traveling to Dubai to attend the second half of COP28 in person. She said she’ll be paying particular attention to what U.S. State Department officials and members of Congress attending the conference will say.

“I’m going to be keeping an eye on what the United States is doing … and then seeing how we can then find out the middle ground between what they speak on, and then what the church believes in, and working towards helping shape policy to reflect those goals ultimately,” she told Episcopal News Service.

Some progress is already being made at COP28. On the first day of the conference, the UAE and Germany both pledged $100 million to assist the world’s poorest countries that are most vulnerable to climate change’s irreversible damage.

COP28 is the first conference to include a faith pavilion, where participants can engage in faith-based sessions with stakeholders, political delegations and other leaders to promote climate action. The Episcopal Diocese of California is one of more than 50 faith organizations that collaborated to establish the faith pavilion.

“Everything we do has the foundation of Earth care. It is God’s beloved planet … What happens to it happens to humanity,” Kansas Bishop Cathleen Bascom, a delegate who will participate in the second half of COP28 in person, told Episcopal News Service.

On Dec. 5, Episcopal delegates hosted a panel discussion in the faith pavilion called “A Case Study in Faith-Based Advocacy and Witness: The Episcopal Church, The Gwich’in People and “The Place Where Life Begins.” Speakers included California Bishop Marc Andrus, chair of the Episcopal delegates; the Rev. Melanie Mullen, the church’s director of reconciliation, justice and creation care; Delia Heck, an environment science professor at Ferrum College in Virginia who serves on the church’s Task Force on Care of Creation and Environmental Racism; the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Everett, Washington, and vice president of the church’s House of Deputies; and Faria. 

During the session, the panelists addressed The Episcopal Church’s efforts to stand in solidarity with Gwich’in Episcopalians in Alaska who for decades have fought against oil and gas drilling on their sacred lands in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The panelists also described efforts to stand in solidarity with the people of Kivalina, a Native Alaskan village that is sinking because of the loss of permafrost and whose population will be forced to relocate to higher ground. Like the Gwich’in, most Kivalina residents are Episcopalians.

“The Indigenous people, The Episcopal Church are providing a kind of leadership for all of us — that we’ve had a longing for — in terms of how can Christian tradition, which has a long history of being weaponized through colonialism, become part of the healing of the planet and the healing of people? There are lessons from Indigenous communities that have been a part of their landscapes and their environments for thousands of years,” Taber-Hamilton, who is Shackan First Nation, said during the Zoom panel.

Taber-Hamilton credited subsistence, a lifestyle that consists of hunting, gathering and fishing for survival, as one such lesson.

“Subsistence, or living with the land, living with animals and the plants that are there, I believe, is the primary relationship to which all people need to aspire,” she said. “It is the way of life that holds the values not only of Indigenous people, but it holds the values of Christian people or at least those who would like to say that they are respecting God’s creation.”

Andrus and Mullen also spoke at a panel about faith-based climate action, called Faiths for a just transition: bottom up and systemic approaches from affected communities,” on Dec. 6.

The first Episcopal delegation to the COP attended the 2015 summit in Paris. Since 2016, The Episcopal Church has held U.N. observer status, which allows delegates to brief U.N. representatives on the church’s climate policy priorities and to attend meetings in the official zones.

The delegates are separated into two groups — one group directly participates in the first half of the COP while the other group participates in the second half. However, everyone participates in virtual check-in meetings daily to discuss what they’ve learned and how they can apply those lessons personally and within their congregations. The delegates may also participate in a virtual Compline every Monday and Thursday during COP28 that’s open to the public.

The Rev. Melanie Mullen, The Episcopal Church’s director of reconciliation, justice and creation care, and Destinee Bates, one of the 21 Episcopal delegates representing Presiding Bishop Michael Curry at the 2023 United Nations climate change summit, participate in a call for gender justice. The 2023 summit, known as COP28, is taking place Nov. 30 – Dec. 12. in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Episcopal Creation Care/Facebook

Episcopal delegate Logan Crews, a seminarian at Yale Divinity School who served this summer as an Episcopal Church Ecojustice Fellow, will virtually participate in the second half of COP28. Crews told ENS he’s particularly interested in joining any event that involves young people’s voices.

“I think that the other delegates and I have a sense of urgency that is severely lacking in a lot of places within environmental justice work and climate work,” Crews said. “Everyone who is paying any attention to COP28 hopefully has an understanding that the climate is unraveling at a speed that we’re struggling to catch up with — and hopefully they know that that’s a big concern for humanity — but I don’t think anyone knows it like the young people who are preparing for a long future ahead that is going to be marked by climate change like no other generation. I think that gives us a sense of urgency, a sense of responsibility that is slightly different.”

A central purpose of each COP since 2015 has been to track the implementation of the Paris Agreement, which laid out the initial approach to slowing the rise of the Earth’s temperature, which has now reached 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. [perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]In the eight years since the signing of the Paris Agreement, global dependence and investment in fossil fuels continue to dominate the energy sector over renewable sources. At current levels, emissions are expected to increase by more than 10% from 2010 to 2030, in large part because fossil fuel companies invest 97.5% in oil and gas and 2.5% in renewable energy sources, according to the International Energy Agency, a global energy watchdog.[/perfectpullquote]

“My goal is to find concrete things through the events that I attend, and also the check-ins with the delegation and any other faith participants, that would be of genuine value to people in the church who are not necessarily connected to this work at all,” Crews said. “I think that there is an increasing need for everyone to be climate literate and understand what is happening to our Earth and how the church has been wrapped up in climate change and also is trying to stop it.”

Climate change is exacerbating the number and severity of natural disasters, from wildfires to increasing numbers of hurricanes and tropical storms, heavy rain and flooding, and 2023 temperatures are the hottest ever recorded. Weather-related disasters have caused 43.1 million internal displacements of children in 44 countries between 2016 and 2021, according to a report published in October by the U.N. International Children’s Emergency Fund.

The Episcopal Church’s climate policy priorities include pushing to accelerate efforts to keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels; increasing support for communities most harmed by the effects of climate change; protecting human rights and affirming climate justice in adaptation and mitigation efforts; and fulfilling pledges to international climate finance mechanisms — including support for a $100 billion mobilization goal towards climate action — and increasing transparency.

The policy priorities are based on General Convention resolutions ranging from support for federal climate action to pledging to mitigate the church’s impact on the environment.

“At this point, you can’t be in The Episcopal Church — a church that is pioneering the way for other churches to be at the front of the fight against climate change — and not be aware of the problem we’re trying to address,” Crews said.

In October, Executive Council — The Episcopal Church’s governing body between meetings of General Convention — voted to voice the church’s support for the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. The proposed international treaty would complement the Paris Agreement by laying out a guideline to phase out fossil fuel exploration and expansion while supporting countries in their ethical transition to renewable energy sources. Andrus wrote Executive Council’s resolution to support the treaty.

“The main thing is that The Episcopal Church has officially endorsed the official phase-out of fossil fuels as an energy source, and right now that is something that is a talking point at COP28,” Faria told ENS. “A lot of countries have agreed to it, but in terms of whether or not they’re actually going to make the types of commitments that would actually do that is kind of still being determined as the conference goes on.”

Katie Ruth, executive director of the Pennsylvania chapter of Interfaith Power & Light — a national nonprofit that helps faith groups respond to climate change by minimizing their carbon footprint through energy-saving efforts — told ENS they were “really excited” to see The Episcopal Church support the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. As a delegate participating in the second week of COP28, Ruth said the treaty’s implementation would ask everyone to “imagine a world that moves beyond the destructive economy we’ve created.”

“I thought that was a really important step for the church,” they said. “It’s going to take cooperation across different parts of our society — whether that’s government, civil society, corporations — we’re all going to have to work together to figure this out and consider our own contribution.”

After COP28 concludes, Episcopal delegates will gather Dec. 15 via Zoom to share what they witnessed at the conference and provide summaries of the results of their negotiations. They will also discuss how Episcopal advocacy around climate change can proceed moving forward.

Episcopalians can learn more about the church’s commitment to addressing the global climate crisis on its website.

 -Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.