Episcopal delegates leave UN climate change conference disappointed yet hopeful

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Dec 18, 2023

On Dec. 5, 2023, Episcopal delegates hosted a panel discussion in the faith pavilion at the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, called “A Case Study in Faith-Based Advocacy and Witness: The Episcopal Church, The Gwich’in People and ‘The Place Where Life Begins.’” Delegates Delia Heck, left, and the Rev. Melanie Mullen, right, led the discussion. California Bishop Marc Andrus, back, was one of the presentation speakers. Photo: Lynnaia Main/Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] After 13 days of advocating at the United Nations’ annual climate conference for stronger public and private actions to help solve the global climate crisis, Episcopal delegates said they left feeling disappointed yet hopeful.

From Nov. 30 to Dec. 12 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, a record 90,000 world leaders, policymakers, climate scientists, activists, corporate executives and interfaith representatives registered and participated at the 28th U.N. Conference of Parties of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, or simply COP28. Twenty-one Episcopal delegates participated on behalf of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry — nine in person and 12 virtually. California Bishop Marc Andrus has been chairing the Episcopal delegation every year since 2015.

The first day of the conference started out promisingly with the UAE and Germany both pledging $100 million to assist the world’s poorest countries that are most vulnerable to climate change’s irreversible damage. The conference concluded with U.N. member states agreeing that fossil fuels are a major contributor to climate change; however, the agreement didn’t include an explicit commitment to phase out fossil fuels, resulting in widespread criticism from climate scientists and activists.

Lynnaia Main, The Episcopal Church’s representative to the United Nations, told Episcopal News Service that compromise and disappointment are both inevitable at U.N. conferences.

“There is no U.N. meeting that I’ve ever been to where it is not both an advancement and a setback on whatever the goal is, but always compromise,” she said. “There’s always some disappointment because you’re not going to get everything. We’re talking about 193 countries [in the United Nations].”

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 an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

In the eight years since the signing of the Paris Agreement, global dependence on 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.

The United States alone is on course to extract more oil and gas than ever by the end of 2023. Days before the conference was scheduled to commence, leaked documents obtained by the BBC revealed that the UAE planned to use its role as host of this year’s COP to make oil and gas deals.

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. During COP28, more than 100 cities and subnational governments endorsed the treaty.

Seán Hansen, a graduate student in divinity at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, participated in the first week of COP28 in person. It was his second time serving as a COP delegate from The Episcopal Church, focusing on areas of loss and damage — economic and non-economic climate change impacts, including harms to livelihood and poverty, as well as losses of life, cultural heritage and biodiversity. Hansen told ENS that he thinks the Episcopal delegates “did a very good job” in terms of engagement at the conference despite feeling “somewhat disappointed” in certain parts of COP28’s outcome.

“I wish that the member states had gone somewhat further than what they’ve done, but I commend the fact that the global community was able to come together and ratify a loss-and-damage from the very first day of the meeting, as well as to articulate a collective understanding of transitioning away from fossil fuels,” he said. “Those are good things, even if there’s more work to be done yet.”

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; 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.

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

“The faith pavilion was a wonderful place to gather, to feel a sense of calm to your spiritual homing, in that kind of very chaotic space that we found in Dubai,” delegate Kara Lyn Moran, a graduate student at Yale University’s School of Environment, said during a virtual closing event Dec. 15, when Episcopal delegates reflected on what they learned at COP28 and how Episcopal advocacy around climate change can proceed further.

“Having a space for faith leaders and having people that are really supportive of us and willing to walk alongside us during this time of uncertainty is really impactful,” Moran said.

During the closing event, Barbara Okamoto Bach, canon to the Diocese of New Jersey’s anti-racism commission and anti-racism training team, announced that a creation care caucus has been established to coordinate and advocate for awareness and support for creation care work across The Episcopal Church during General Convention in 2024 in Louisville, Kentucky. General Convention will also have an eco-grief prayer space for climate anxiety. Additionally, Bach said The Episcopal Church’s upcoming Love God, Love God’s World film-based curriculum will launch soon.

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.