This past Sunday evening, November 27th, high winds and heavy rain brought disaster to the area surrounding Durban, South Africa. In addition to over one-hundred destroyed homes and massive levels of property damage, six people lost their lives as a result of collapsing structures. Over the past two weeks a total of eleven people have died as a result of extreme unseasonable weather.
A few hours after tragedy struck Durban, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) opened at the International Convention Center. In recognition of what had taken place just hours before and only a few miles away, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres remarked: “What we witnessed last night was unseasonable weather … of the type we are seeing all over the world as greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise”. In other words, the UNFCC gathering opened with a vivid reminder that climate change is real, it has dramatic consequences, and a delay in action will lead to a continued loss of human life.
Since the UNFCCC came into force in 1995, the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNCCC has met annually to assess progress in dealing with global climate change. From November 28 until December 9, the COP has met again, for the 17th time, thus the common title “COP17”. Among other things, COP17 has brought together various world leaders in order to adopt decisions and resolutions, publish reports, and attempt to establish legally binding legislation for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Within the initial days of COP17, the following issues have risen to the forefront:
1) There is serious debate as to whether or not industrial countries will extend their commitments to further reduce the carbon emissions that lead to climate change. As negotiations continue, it appears that most financially wealthy countries will not commit to reductions unless developing countries like China, India, and Brazil do the same. In a similar fashion, developing countries refuse to commit to reductions unless the wealthy countries, such as the United States, also agree. All together, a “you go first” standstill is the result.
2) An additional primary point of debate centers upon whether or not progress will be made on a “Green Climate Fund” to help financially poor countries deal with climate change. A committee that included forty counties worked for the past year on developing a method to administer the fund, but agreement on the final paper was blocked by the United States and Saudi Arabia, and the final contentious issues will have to be settled.
As one could imagine, with such a large gathering of world leaders comes a diversity of interests and bureaucratic agendas, thus significant progress on such massive issues is extremely difficult to achieve. In many ways, the negotiation process includes various nations trying to sacrifice as little as possible while attempting to use power and influence to require the increased sacrifice of others. As a result, the various tracts of negotiations taking place inside the International Convention Center of Durban are slow and complicated, responsibility for climate change is rarely acknowledged, and a growing level of pessimism from the global community is a result. In other words, there is a growing concern that COP17 in Durban will fail to produce any amount of valuable legislation.
With the above thoughts in mind, one of the most striking observations to be made surrounding the COP17 negotiations is the level of activity and sustained energy outside the International Convention Center. In addition to street protestors and the large international media contingent, there are countless gatherings of traditional leaders, youth movements, advocacy associations, faith-based councils, and so on. In various public gathering spaces people are meeting to discuss ideas about how to tackle the large-scale issues surrounding global climate change. All in all, when one passes through the streets of Durban and witnesses the thousands of people gathered to consider solutions, it would appear that the most meaningful progress is more likely to come from those outside the International Convention Center than from those within it.
One of the many activities currently taking place outside the International Convention Center is Youth for Eco-Justice, which is sponsored by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and Lutheran World Federation (LWF). Among other things, Youth for Eco-Justice is a transformational training program for young Christians from around the world between the ages of 18-30, and it includes a two-week training and immersion period in the context of COP17 in Durban. In the months following the experiences in South Africa, the twenty-five participants will initiate and implement projects in their home countries on a volunteer basis. All together, Youth for Eco-Justice will equip its participant-learners as “multipliers” for eco-justice by studying and unfolding the complex links between Christian faith, environmental issues, and socio-economic structures and processes.
Among other things, the Youth for Eco-Justice program includes: theological and biblical studies, workshops and meetings with various experts, training sessions on communication, and varieties of lessons on campaigning, project management, development of resources and activities for promoting eco-justice, cultural and artistic activities, common prayer, and participation in events surrounding COP17. In addition, one cannot underestimate the massive power of Christian fellowship and relationship building within the larger group, as participants recognize their common connections and learn more about how God is working through various people in different locations around the world. With all of these activities and new friendships in mind, one is given hope that the future of the Earth is in good hands, yet one is also given urgent motivation to ensure that the Earth left to these future generations is one that is capable of sustaining life in its fullness.
While one can easily grow pessimistic as a result of what is taking place inside the International Convention Center, the participants within Youth for Eco-Justice – and the countless other global citizens who have gathered in Durban to advocate for sustainable life – serve as significant inspiration for those throughout the world who care for God’s Creation and wish to see meaningful developments in global climate change legislation. As United Nations negotiators gather at COP17 and childishly argue over who should take responsibility for cutting carbon emissions, those assembled on the streets of Durban reminds us that we must refuse to accept a world where human identity is based upon levels of production and consumption, and we must affirm that self-worth is ultimately grounded in being Children of God who are called, gathered, and sent-out as participants in God’s mission of reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment. While United Nations negotiators at COP17 try to persuade others and find deals that are most favorable to their specific political interests, the protestors and activists gathered throughout Durban refuse to accept the status-quo of a fragmented world where humans dominate creation through over-production and over-consumption, and instead seek God’s calling to be stewards of the Earth through responsibility, respect, and sustainability. All together, while many within the International Convention Center may have already forgotten about the tragic and preventable deaths that took place surrounding Durban on November 27th, those who are not blinded by power and prestige recognize that all God created is sacred, one death as a result of climate change is far too many, and the reality of injustice anywhere calls us to seek justice everywhere.
As COP17 in Durban enters its second and final week, we recognize that the scientific evidence surrounding climate change is clear and the implications are significant and numerous, thus the response from the global village needs to be persistent, organized, and profound. In a world that continues to experience hardship and death as a result of reckless pollution and environmental exploitation, we as Children of God cannot sit idle and passively hope that politicians and negotiators will find solutions on their own. The time has come to participate in the negotiation process by voicing our concerns and refusing to accept global structures that take life for granted. With God all things are possible, but without our hands the solutions to climate change are not probable. As a result, the time has come to take responsibility for the world in which we live, answer the call to be faithful and fruitful stewards of the Earth, and ensure life in its fullness for all that God has created. The time is now.