Reflections on a disappointing climate conference—and a commitment of love
I’ve been involved in the Anglican church’s response to the climate crisis for a few years now. At one point, early on, I proudly told my teenage daughter Hannah that I had said no to an invitation to sit on my diocese’s climate response committee. It is so important to role model not over-committing!
My beautiful daughter interrupted me. Actually, she said, if there was one thing she really wanted from the church, it was for it to be active in this discussion. So off I went back to the church and agreed to be on the committee. (Turns out I was the first person to agree, so maybe—if I could also chair the committee?)
This work has turned into one of the most beautiful, most challenging and most faith-forming activities I do. I have journeyed with the committee through the process of creating a series of recommendations to guide our diocese in recognizing and responding to the current climate emergency. I met with people I would never have otherwise been honoured to meet. And I learned. I learned a bit about climate science and something about emissions reductions. And I am still learning a lot about justice in relationships with people and with Creation.
And so, when For the Love of Creation, a grouping of Canadian faith communities and organizations concerned with climate justice, put out a call for volunteers to serve as virtual delegates at COP26, the UN’s conference on climate, I applied. As my warden proofread my application, I told her it was unlikely anything would come of it—but then they picked me.
Pollutants from aircraft engines are particularly harmful to the atmosphere, and our choice not to fly to a conference about reducing emissions from human activities came out of our desire to align our actions and values. So I was happy that our participation did not add to the emissions problem. But I also discovered that virtual participation in a conference like this is difficult.
The strangest part was flicking between screens, without the time to walk my body between rooms—without the time in corridors and pubs to let the multiplicity of truths settle into bones and breath. One minute, I watched a parade of world leaders make carefully worded statements about commitments they could safely make. The next second, in the flick of the screen, my heart was taken to hear Indigenous leaders from the islands of Panama explain that some of these islands are now gone. My body remained still (except, of course, for the pilgrimage to the kitchen to boil my safe-from-the-tap drinking water and turn it into coffee). Flick—my heart was with a new screen. This time, Canadian Indigenous leaders talked about their small-scale renewable energy projects done in right relationship with the land and the people. Flick—now a Chinese official in military uniform with national flags prominently displayed is sending his message about compromises he could not make. Flick—now a Fijian minister is broadcasting himself entreating the global North to step up and take responsibility in action and finance while standing knee-deep in the ocean.
Then, at the end of every day, the For the Love of Creation delegation met to debrief and share our observations over another cup of coffee. (This was in fact at 9:00 a.m. British Columbia time; as the conference was in Glasgow, Scotland, I started most days at 3 a.m.) We lit candles and we prayed for Creation. We wrote blogs to share our experiences and process the truths we heard from all over the world. And we talked about faith and power.
Our fellow delegate the Rev. Tony Snow, an Indigenous United Church minister, told us about the struggles to have Indigenous voices raised. Globally, Indigenous peoples are most impacted by climate change and are most often protectors of the land. But we did not see many Indigenous delegations on the official stages of power influencing the final decisions.
On the Saturday after COP26, there were authorized announcements of agreements. For the first time since UN climate change conferences started in 1995, fossil fuels were named as a major cause of climate change, and the need to wind up their use in human power generation was expressed. But the final wording was carefully dampened, and, disappointed, I snapped shut my screen. I cried and watched the rain.
And it rained. And it rained.
As I write this in late November, I click on the news. British Columbia has declared another state of emergency. The last one was in response to this summer’s heat dome that killed people, plants, and animals—this summer of wildfires when all Creation moaned. Now there are floods; the water raced through tree roots that no longer lived to absorb the rain. Mudslides and floods wreak havoc in the province.
I am looking at my screen again. Click—the news, with a reminder that most of British Columbia’s dairy products come from the flooded area. Stories of food shortages circulate and the grocery store shelves empty. Click—a social media post from a friend to say they are safe but trapped between mudslides. Click—a screen full of billowing toxic smoke over a flooded recreational vehicle storage area. Click—more news of people, plants and animals killed. Creation moans again.
This land holds the stories of the Indigenous peoples who never ceded it—for example, stories of Sumas Prairie, which used to be a lake and supported the people and creatures who lived there before the farmers.
And now, everybody—my family, friends, church and neighbours—asks, what does COP26 mean? What have you learned? My heart groans.
I believe the answer to our climate crisis is going to be love. Not the glib, easy, greeting-card-quote kind of love. I mean being introduced, correctly, to the Earth. Meeting the Earth like a mother, like someone you might have a complicated mess of feelings for. Keeping that mixed-up family feeling of gratitude for all that is received and accepting the duties and obligations required to stay in right relationship. I mean that love that requires calling and listening even when the message is hard to hear.
I think it means my daughter was right. The climate conversation will define us and the church needs to faithfully engage.
The Rev. Alecia Greenfield is vicar of Holy Cross Anglican Church, Vancouver. She is also chair of the diocese of New Westminster’s Climate Response Committee and a member of the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia’s Social Eco-Justice Committee. From Oct. 31 to Nov. 13 she attended the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, often referred to as COP26, online as a member of the ecumenical initiative For the Love of Creation.