Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Representing Presbyterians for Earth Care at the Bonn Climate Change Conference


(All photos courtesy Fred Milligan)

Representing Presbyterians for Earth Care at the Bonn Climate Change Conference 

by Fred Milligan


The SB 56 Climate Change Conference took place in Bonn, Germany, June 6-16 as the U.S. suffered through yet another record-setting heat wave and Yellowstone National park was hit by a “Thousand year flood” that closed a great part of that wilderness area to tourism for the entire summer holiday season.  At the “Global Stocktake” session of the meeting, Hoesung Lee, Chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC) reported that human activities have warmed the planet at a rate not seen in the past 2,000 years, putting the world on a path towards global warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next two decades. The increase currently stands at 1.1 degrees.


Climate policy negotiators were convened by the United Nations Secretariat for Climate Change (UNFCCC) for ten days, to seek consensus on documents to be presented to the policy makers from 197 countries (officially titled “parties”) and additional hundreds of other interested persons  who will convene in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November of this year.

Yet there was very little progress in agreeing on how to manage (and pay for) the 50% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 that the scientists tell us is imperative in order to have any hope of avoiding a warming of the planet’s surface temperatures greater than pre-industrial levels by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. This lack of progress around mitigation, is matched by their failures in providing for adaptation in the face of current temperature increases and the irretrievable losses and damage all living things increasingly continue to suffer.  


In part due to the outcry at the 2021 Conference of Partners (COP 26) held in Glasgow last November, commitments have been made on behalf of the UNFCCC Secretariat (leadership) to listen more respectfully and inclusively to the concerns being expressed by civil society. Marianne Karlsen, the Chair of SBI wrote: “  . . . .[W]e have seen unprecedented engagement on the part of non-Party stakeholders who have a key role to play in helping governments achieve their climate goals.”

It was in this spirit that I had eagerly joined the ACT Alliance advocacy team efforts during the COP 26 in Glasgow last year where I represented Presbyterians for Earth Care in Official Observer status. ACT (Action by Churches Together) Alliance, is a global faith-based coalition of more than 140 faith-based member organizations working in long-term development, advocacy and humanitarian assistance in more than 120 countries. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is organizationally affiliated with ACT Alliance through the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance program.  As the date for the Bonn Conference approached, I inquired whether I might be of assistance as I would be in Europe at the time. The ACT leadership offered to provide me with official credentials and Presbyterians for Earth Care agreed to provide some financial support so that I could join their team in Bonn.


But the outcome there was, to say the least, disappointing. The United Nations Framework Agreement on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the parent treaty of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol. The ultimate objective of all agreements under the UNFCCC is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system, in a time frame which allows ecosystems to adapt naturally and enables sustainable development. UNFCCC partners at the most recent COP 26 in Glasgow last year, committed to the goal to “keep 1.5 [degrees centigrade] alive.” But there seemed to be a palpable lack of urgency around this goal as well as concerns for adaptation or loss and damage on the part of the developed country negotiators at the conference.


The designation “SB 56” refers to this being the 56th time such deliberations of what are referred to as “Subsidiary [decision-making] Bodies” have been held as part of (UNFCCC) process which began in 1992 at the now historic conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (The two Subsidiary Bodies are SBI, the body that oversees implementation of prior decisions and the SBSTA, the Subsidiary Body on Scientific Research and Statistics.) Thus, 2022 is the 30th anniversary of this effort to document and reign in the destruction of the planet resulting from human activities about which scientists have been warning us with increasing precision and urgency since the 1970’s and before.


Before arrival I reached out to the U.S. Department of State’s negotiating team and received an invitation to participate in an open dialogue being offered to representatives of U.S. based civil society representatives. There were around 20 or so in attendance at the quite intimate meeting. The Head of Delegation, along with several others who were present from their team, very open to questions posed by attendees. The most active and knowledgeable participants came from the Climate Action Network. (I would highly recommend that PCUSA and/or PEC become a member of U.S. C.A.N.)

There may be opportunities between now and the next COP 27 to engage with the U.S. negotiating team. If that occurs I will certainly keep all informed. And yet, they were clear that apart from the political will of the American people expressed through pressure on our elected leaders, their options for productive action is quite limited. This is why the active engagement of Civil Society with these processes is crucial.

As with the COP, our ACT team was comprised of on-site as well as off-site participants so we began each day with an 8:00 a.m. check-in on-line Teams Meeting to go over the schedule to see who would be attending and reporting back on what meetings.

The top areas of concern are still: Mitigation, (stopping and sequestering emissions, which are the root cause of climate change), Adaptation, (adjusting patterns of agriculture, livelihoods, housing stocks, early storm warning systems, etc.) and Loss and Damage, (replacing fish stocks decimated by bleaching coral, moving populations out of land being overwhelmed by sea water, etc.). But the biggest elephant in the room is how this will all be paid for. The structuring of an equitable and just system of finance. At the time of the Paris agreement, the developed nations committed to make $100 Billion per year available for just the first two categories of mitigation and adaptation. But for years, those in solidarity with the poor of the world have been insisting that there needs to be a separate fund that deals with L and D. But the developed nations, including the U.S. have persisted in dragging their feet to even discuss it.

I whole-heartily support the recommendations presented in our Act Alliance team’s closing press release which states:

“To restore trust in climate negotiations and ensure further progress in the climate talks we also urge developed country parties to arrive at COP27 with the following: 

·         Concrete finance pledges for loss and damage, so that the lack of these funds does not continue to block the negotiation process.   

·         Concrete finance pledges for adaptation. This would show they are keeping their Glasgow promise to double adaptation support. 

·         New and more ambitious positions for COP27 to ensure that negotiations can deliver a successful result. No one should be left behind when the world addresses the climate crisis.  

·         A commitment to ensure meaningful and effective participation of observer organizations in the UNFCCC climate conferences.”  (from Act Alliance Press Release)


Perhaps the most gratifying moment of my time in Bonn came on my first day in a casual conversation with a staff person for one of the negotiating teams. Upon learning that I am a minister, the young woman asked, “How do you deal with the fact that so many of those who are activists and civil servants in this cause of Climate Justice seem to be non-religious?” She then proceeded to confide in me that she is a devout Christian and had been, in fact, reading her bible that very morning, but that she has not revealed this to any of her colleagues for fear they will judge her negatively in some way. She said that she attempts to allow her faith to radiate through her actions and presence in ways that influence without dogmatizing. I assured her that I understood the discomfort she felt but that, I do not condemn her for her reticence to reveal her faith to those in her work setting. Given the bad reputation the word “Christian” has taken on in certain circles, especially among the educated and science affirming portion of the population, I told her I might make the same choice were I in her shoes. But that was my pastoral mode kicking in.


As I continue to reflect on this issue, it seems to me more imperative than ever for those who profess faith in a spiritual reality not only draw on that faith to endure the ravages of climate change-induced storms but engage with all the resources of our various traditions, to bring about the changes that will be needed to correct the course of history for the sake of life on earth.


This process of acquiring the tools for engaging the political power structures requires a lot of effort. As I have learned in my experiences at COP 26 and now the Bonn Climate Conference, it requires learning a new language and a huge vocabulary of acronyms, each with its own history. It also requires walking among the “natives” of that rarified world of diplomacy where we are the novices and yet not lose our voice of prophecy to cut through the prevarications and foot-dragging and at times perhaps, even risk screaming out for action like Greta Thunberg.


It may require us to shout that it doesn’t matter if every comma and sentence is perfect because God’s creatures are drowning and starving and burning and dying while such debates over who pays and how much they pay, continue. Some would argue that our world would be much worse off than it currently is if these meetings had not been going on for the last 30 years. But slowing the boiling isn’t enough. And the church must stand with all people of faith and call our leaders to action.


So, as difficult and frightening as it may be, we must be present there, as people of faith, and demand the changes come and come quickly for the sake of the world we know God loves and calls us to serve.


Grace and peace,

Fred Milligan