In the 17th century, Madrid was nicknamed the “New Babylon” as a result of the influx of peoples, nations, and cultures that gathered in the political capital of the then-Spanish empire. As Charles Dickens once wrote, “it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.” It was a time of new industrial, technological, and cultural advancements. It was also a time of great inequality and these achievements came at the great cost of colonialism in the Americas.
More than four hundred years later, thirty thousand people from approximately two hundred countries gathered in Madrid for the UN COP25 climate conference this December. They represent a variety of cultures, religious faiths and belief systems, walks of life, worldviews, and ages.
We face the climate crisis in a century where poverty reduction and human development worldwide has accelerated faster than no other century in the history of civilization; we have numerous technological advancements in all aspects of society; and yet there has also been an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few while many are vulnerable to economic volatility.
Yet, one thing remains true in 17th century Madrid and 20th century Madrid – we all still share this Earth, our common home.
The numerous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change document the complexity of interactions occurring in our atmosphere, terrestrial ecosystems, and cryosphere. Systems are interconnected. Climate change impacts know no national boundaries. Coal-fired power plants in Canada and the USA produce carbon dioxide pollution that contributes to rising global temperatures that melt Antarctican ice-caps that increase sea-level rise in Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, and the Seychelles. Transportation policy that enables solo driving in combustion-engine vehicles in a gridlocked city like Detroit, Michigan can result in air pollution affecting the elderly and children with asthma in Toronto, Ontario. There are many more of these inter-related connections.
As a Canadian Christian navigating through COP25, I am prompted to reflect on two questions: What does it mean to be a good steward, both personally, and as the church? And what does it mean to love our neighbours? Like Cain in the Old Testament narrative, we ask the question, “am I my brother/sister’s keeper?”
The main message of this COP25 is the urgency of now. The latest IPCC report states that emissions must be net-zero carbon by 2050 with 40% of emissions reductions needing to occur in the next ten years. UN climate negotiations have been in progress for over two decades – to ensure a livable climate, they cannot drag on for another two decades without climate-sincere emissions reduction targets, strategies, and plans. There has been decades of failed commitments and perpetual relief packages.
This week, I have heard pastors and church leaders share as they navigate theologically through a world of rapidly changing climate. Church leaders in small island developing countries (e.g. Tuvalu, Fiji, etc.) face the theological task of leading churches that will need to move and relocate because of rising sea levels. Another denomination has been preparing resources called “Pastors and Disasters”, focused on relief and development. Another church leader has been providing spiritual care to an elderly lady who has lost her home to flooding and has been without a home for two years. In light of climate change, “loving our neighbours” must involve more than halfhearted efforts to reduce emissions or platitudes. The Bible commands us to make our love for our neighbours real with actions and not just words.
As a Christian and a member of the church in the global North, I continue to work through the question of what it means, both in orthodoxy and orthopraxy, to be a good creation steward and a good neighbour.
I am a citizen of Canada, which is in the top ten global emitters and where the average citizen has a carbon footprint ten times the world average. While Canada has made progress in carbon pricing, set a regulatory framework to address greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in various industrial sectors, and made international commitments to the Green Climate Fund, there are areas to grow and improve. Canada still needs to accelerate its decarbonization in the transportation, manufacturing, and energy sectors, where our substantive sources of emissions lie. Climate action in those sectors will require boldness and ambition, thoughtful policy development, inclusion of transition plans to support workers and ensure inclusion; and commitment to follow-through to action.
Rather than avoiding the issue of climate change and pleading ignorance or staying silent, what would it look like for the churches of the global north to advocate for ambitious climate targets and goals, accompanied with climate sincere policies? How could that help us “love our neighbours” in a tangible way?
Many Christians are responding to this call – including the World Council of Churches and Caritas International. However, there is an opportunity for more Christians and churches in the global North to join in.
Several decades ago, Martin Luther King Junior reminded us that the “arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. However, as Bill McKibben added to that saying several years ago, “the arc of climate change is short.”
At the end of this decade, as a Christian in the global north, I will be asking myself, “Did I do everything I could, as a disciple of Jesus, and within my scope of influence and resources to bend the arc of climate change towards justice?” I invite us all to reflect upon this question and our actions as we go into the last week of COP25 negotiations.
Photo credit – “The children. “ Varias Obras – Siro Lopez. Exhibit: Violencias Silenciadas. O_Lumen Espacio para las artes y la palabra, Madrid