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COP28: Humans of all faiths (and no faith) have a limited window of opportunity to act on the climate crisis

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Bishop Geoff Davies, 'The Green Bishop', is the founder and honorary patron of the Southern African Faith Communities Environmental Institute, and retired Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Umzumvubu.

A crucial global meeting is being held from 30 November to 12 December 2023 in Dubai: the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – better known as COP28.

The question is whether the “World” will bite the bullet of global warming this time, or whether we continue on the path of further disaster.

What is quite extraordinary is that we have known what a perilous path we are on for more than 50 years, yet we have failed to take the steps needed to move off this path. 

ExxonMobil presented a report in November 1965 to US President Lyndon Johnson which accurately spelt out the consequences of burning fossil fuels, but publicly denied their very accurate findings.   

In the late 1970s, the department of environmental studies at the University of Cape Town was already warning of the potential consequences of burning fossil fuels

In 2006, I attended COP12 in Nairobi. South Africa had a strong delegation, including our Minister of Environment. All the forecasts we heard then are coming true now. All the warnings are being fulfilled. 

In 2010, the SABC aired a four-episode documentary on global warming titled, “A Vision of Paradise”. The programme’s blurb went like this: 

“Across the world, nature’s warning is clear and unambiguous. Planet Earth is warming. Its climate is changing. The weight of swelling populations, wholesale consumerism, massive industrialisation, and the exploitation of creation’s resources is causing the environment to buckle. Climate change is a threat to humanity as a whole, but those who are least responsible, the poor, will suffer the most.

“And Africa will be hit the hardest. With world temperatures expected to rise by at least 2°C on average this century, many crops will fail, water will become even scarcer, and for many communities, death is inevitable.

“Public awareness of global warming and its consequences has increased significantly in the past few years, and it seems as if governments worldwide are starting to take it seriously.

“But what are the world’s religions doing to increase awareness of the greatest crisis ever to face humankind? All say Earth must be treated with respect and we should be thankful for its fruits and its beauty, and that humans are here as caretakers.

“Then why is it that the wanton destruction of the planet goes on unchecked when more than half of the world’s population are active members of one or other religion?”

In 2011, COP17 was held in Durban. 

The Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute, with representatives of many religious groups in Africa – including the All Africa Conference of Churches – organised a great civil society movement.  

A youth “caravan” made its way from Kenya to Durban, gathering young people en route. We hired the old rugby stadium in Durban and Archbishop Desmond Tutu led the event – with little impact on the conference. 

All that was forecast has now come about, with greater ferocity and devastation. 

Just look at the Canadian and Australian fires, the floods in Bangladesh, the Sudanese drought, the heat in Brazil, our own floods and the prediction of our weather belt moving south, which threatens our unique botanical centre of endemism, never mind our fruit and grape industry in the Western Cape. 

This will result in less rain in the Western Cape and severe floods in the Eastern Cape. So, we have had plenty of warnings and now face serious environmental consequences. 

Yet we don’t see the “World” responding in the way we need it to, except among some young people with organisations like Extinction Rebellion. 

We had high hopes at COP15 in 2009 in Copenhagen. COP21 in Paris in 2015 produced some progress, but only in the form of voluntary commitments that were never fulfilled. COP26 in Glasgow in 2021 again failed to meet our expectations.

All this, in spite of warnings from major institutions. 

Faith communities can also invoke the authority of a creator God, however that God is seen, who has given responsibility to humankind to care for, protect and keep for future generations this amazing planet, our only home. 

Be reminded of the words of the UN Secretary-General António Guterres in April 2022 on the launch of the third Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:  

“The jury has reached a verdict. And it is damning. This report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a litany of broken climate promises. It is a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unliveable world.

“We are on a fast track to climate disaster. Major cities under water.  Unprecedented heatwaves. Terrifying storms. Widespread water shortages. The extinction of a million species of plants and animals. This is not fiction or exaggeration. It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies.

“We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5°C limit agreed to in Paris. Some government and business leaders are saying one thing, but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic. This is a climate emergency.

“Climate scientists warn that we are already perilously close to tipping points that could lead to cascading and irreversible climate impacts. But, high-emitting governments and corporations are not just turning a blind eye, they are adding fuel to the flames.

“They are choking our planet, based on their vested interests and historic investments in fossil fuels, when cheaper, renewable solutions provide green jobs, energy security and greater price stability.

“We left COP26 in Glasgow with a naïve optimism, based on new promises and commitments. But, the main problem — the enormous, growing emissions gap — was all but ignored. The science is clear: to keep the 1.5°C limit agreed in Paris within reach, we need to cut global emissions by 45% this decade.

“But, current climate pledges would mean a 14% increase in emissions. And most major emitters are not taking the steps needed to fulfil even these inadequate promises. Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But, the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.               

“Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness. Such investments will soon be stranded assets — a blot on the landscape and a blight on investment portfolios. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.”

The reality today is spelt out by the 2023 State of the Climate Report

“Life on planet Earth is under siege. We are now in an uncharted territory. For several decades, scientists have consistently warned of a future marked by extreme climatic conditions because of escalating global temperatures caused by ongoing human activities that release harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, time is up. 

“We are seeing the manifestation of those predictions as an alarming and unprecedented succession of climate records are broken, causing profoundly distressing scenes of suffering to unfold. 

“We are entering an unfamiliar domain regarding our climate crisis, a situation no one has ever witnessed first hand in the history of humanity.”

Pope Francis has written his Laudate Deum for the upcoming COP28 and he is going to encourage decisive action.  

The question is whether the “World” will bite the bullet and not only make the right decisions but take the action required?

I am apprehensive. Look at the present state of the world, and world leadership, with wars and global environmental crises and collapse happening around us. Yet what are we doing? 

The Ukraine and Gaza wars are the utmost nightmarish of scenarios. Trillions of dollars and precious resources are being expended, never mind the horrendous destruction of life and property. 

The US has provided more than $130-billion in aid and weapons to Israel – the largest ever. 

And we have the ongoing influence and stranglehold of fossil fuel companies who have us in their grip. 

We are all dependent on fossil fuel for our transport, our electricity, our fertiliser. And now we have heard that the fossil fuel countries hindered agreement to reduce and control the pollution of plastic, all made from fossil fuel. 

But it doesn’t have to be like this. I like to say that God has given us the solution to our energy needs – it is shining on us every day, and blowing in the wind every night.  

Why does it not happen? This is the fundamental question. The answer is “money”. In our contemporary world, money is clearly more important than life, even the life of the planet.

The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.

Our goals and objectives in our lives should be to work for the wellbeing of people and planet, not money. Money is the resource, the tool. All our decision-making should ask the question: “Will this be for the good of people and planet?” At present we ask, “What profit can I make from this activity?”

The Guardian on 21 November highlighted an Oxfam report which, among other important issues, said: 

“In the US … one in four members of Congress reportedly own stocks in fossil fuel companies, worth a total of between $33-million and $93-million. The report says this helps to explain why global emissions continue to rise, and why governments in the global north provided $1.8-trillion to subsidise the fossil fuel industry in 2020, contrary to their international pledges to phase out carbon emissions.”

The extravagant carbon footprint of the 0.1% – from superyachts, private jets and mansions to space flights and doomsday bunkers – is 77 times bigger than the upper level needed for global warming to peak at 1.5C.

The corporate shares of many super-rich are highly polluting

This elite also wield enormous and growing political power by owning media organisations and social networks, hiring advertising and PR agencies and lobbyists, and mixing socially with politicians who are also often members of the richest 1%, according to the report.

Oxfam is calling for hefty wealth taxes on the super-rich and windfall taxes on fossil fuel companies to support the worst affected, reduce inequality and fund a transition to renewable energy. 

It says a 60% tax on the incomes of the wealthiest 1% would raise $6.4-trillion a year and could cut emissions by 695m tonnes, which is more than the 2019 footprint of the UK.

Oxfam International’s interim executive director, Amitabh Behar, said: “Not taxing wealth allows the richest to rob from us, ruin our planet and renege on democracy. Taxing extreme wealth transforms our chances to tackle both inequality and the climate crisis. 

“These are trillions of dollars at stake to invest in dynamic 21st-century green governments, but also to re-inject into our democracies.”

The main gist of the Oxfam report is that the richest 1% of humanity is responsible for more carbon emissions than the poorest 66%, with dire consequences for vulnerable communities and global efforts to tackle the climate emergency.  

Africa is responsible for 4% of global emissions and South Africa accounts for 50% of Africa’s emissions.

This points to the source and nub of our crisis: the pursuit of wealth and our self-centred nature. 

The Bible is clear in saying we should seek justice and equity, and the last of the Ten Commandments is that we should not covet. Our present-day politics and financial systems seem to be premised on inequity and consumerism to promote the goal of constant economic growth, on a finite planet. 

The Oxfam report highlights the urgent need for greater justice and equity.

The biggest challenge is to reign in the billionaires and megabillionaires, who, in their arrogance, believe they are entitled to such wealth. Oxfam’s suggestion of a wealth tax on the super rich makes enormous sense for our future wellbeing.

Consider how we mine our minerals, as if there were no future generations. 

Consider how we have exploited our wildlife and natural resources. 

The oceans used to be filled with marine life. Where are the whales and pilchards and yellowtail? Here in Kalk Bay, you could once catch an abundance of fish from the harbour wall. Now, there is virtually nothing.

We recently visited the island of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic. This egalitarian community has strict limitations on the amount of crayfish and fish they may catch. On a trip to Nightingale Island, the crew of the rubber dinghy dropped three crayfish traps. On our return four hours later, all three traps were crawling with crayfish. Yellowtail caught around the island were nearly a metre long. 

The super-rich don’t “create” wealth; they manage it. Did they create oil or marine life? What is their contribution to the wellbeing of people and planet?

So, what do I foresee for the future?  

If we don’t take meaningful decisions at COP28, which are implemented, I foresee the planet taking further action. By that, I mean the planet will say, “Because you humans are not treating me fairly, after taking 4½ billion years to get to this state of perfection and beauty, you will see increasing droughts, floods, fires. There will be massive starvation. Millions will die, conflict will increase.” 

Do I need to spell it out further? Already we see the unseasonable weather. Already we see that the glaciers have melted in the Alps, Greenland is melting, the Antarctic is melting, the oceans are rising. We can’t reverse that, but we can halt it if we stop burning fossil fuels.

Remember how the air cleared so much during the lockdown that the Himalayas could be seen from India? 

We have a limited window of opportunity. If we don’t act now, following COP28, that window will soon be closing. 

We can’t bring back the glaciers and the melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica, but we can stop further melting and stop further rising of the oceans.

So, let us be optimistic and hopeful, and start recognising that we have responsibilities. For a start, to recognise as a fundamental that we humans have a responsibility to care for the natural environment, and to recognise that we are part of the natural world and that all life, not just human, is sacred – all life! 

Pope Francis in his Laudate Deum has written:

“Human life is incomprehensible and unsustainable without other creatures. For ‘as part of the universe … all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect’.” 

He also wrote:

“The demands that rise up from below throughout the world, where activists from very different countries help and support one another, can end up pressuring the sources of power. It is to be hoped that this will happen with respect to the climate crisis. 

“For this reason, I reiterate that unless citizens control political power – national, regional and municipal – it will not be possible to control damage to the environment.”

At the recent WWF AGM, I was encouraged by the presentation by Crispian Olver, executive director of the Presidential Climate Commission, who said that over the past five to 10 years, the cost of solar energy installation had dropped 85% and wind by 75%. 

These are well below the cost of new-build coal, oil and nuclear. 

In five years, 80% of cars could be electric. Olver saw huge possibilities for greater sustainability. This would, of course, require flexibility and endorsement from government to allow the flourishing of renewable energy. 

James Gustave Speth, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defence Council and ex-administrator of the UNDP, has said: “I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that 30 years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. 

“The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

This is why I believe faith communities are so important. They can bring a spiritual transformation of values and goals in life, and a reaffirmation of adhering to ethical guidelines. If all faith communities recognise that their calling is to mobilise the faithful to love and care for one another and the planet, imagine the transformation.

And to recognise that their primary job is not to get people to heaven, but to do God’s will, here on Earth. Do Christians not say daily in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is already being done in heaven?” 

The Church of England has provided a guide to COP28 in which it says there are four important outcomes we need to see:

  1. Cutting emissions in order to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C.
  2. Making sure there is the money available to make the changes needed and to support countries already facing irreversible loss and damage.
  3. Putting nature, people, lives and livelihoods at the heart of climate action.
  4. Making sure everyone’s voices are included, especially those who are not usually heard.

Faith communities can also invoke the authority of a creator God, however that God is seen, who has given responsibility to humankind to care for, protect and keep for future generations this amazing planet, our only home. 

They can also call to account the rich and powerful in the world, who in their arrogance seem to think they are above ethical behaviour.  

In 2005, Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai launched the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute to promote the care and love for this incredible planet of such beauty, wonder and abundance. 

All people, of all faiths and no faith, need to rise up and demand responsible decisions to ensure a habitable planet for future generations. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Gordon Bentley says:

    What are you suggesting we should have faith in??

    Religeous myths with no evidence or any bearing on the truth – No educated person can accept this type of mis-information anymore.
    OR
    Scientific Facts and Truth supported by tangible evidence obtained from science and mathematics.

    Many thinking people of “no Faith” are now rejecting the “Faith” of people who persist in believing in the Dangerous, religeous stories and myths despite all the evidence to the contrary.

    The Church of England should add a Fifth amendment to their “Cop 28”:

    5. Telling misinformed people of “Faith” of the dangers of overpopulation – mankind took the command of “Go forth and multiply” as literal truth. And are breeding in an uncontrolled manner until they will have destroyed our whole planet in terms of space, resources, food, air, water and the other beautiful forms of wildlife…. How sad, it will never cross the mind of greedy mankind until it is too late… Does mankind really think that they were made in the image of God… More truthful – mankind made God in their own image.

    I dispair and apologise for my own species – greedy, lying, nasty, Homo Sapiens, who is single handedly is destroying this planet and themselves AND the other innocent species who share this planet with them

  • peter selwaski says:

    The sun is entering a Grand Solar Minimum and has already lost about 22% of its radiation. The past 50 years of climate predictions have all been wrong. Don’t confuse weather with climate.

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