Representatives from 197 countries are preparing to travel to the German city of Bonn for the 23rd meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP23) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Ahead of next week’s meeting, the Revd Canon Dr Jeff Golliher, programme director for the environment and sustainable communities at the Anglican Communion Office at the UN in New York, offers his thoughts.
Our attention must turn – urgently – to the climate and environmental crisis. There are some bright spots, but in truth the situation is more than alarming. We are facing the greatest challenge of any generation in all of human history.
For years, the UN has been trying to avert what it calls a “global catastrophe.” They mean that we will reach a point, by 2100 or sooner, when our political, economic, and social systems will likely lose the capacity to adapt – unless greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of environmental destruction are brought to a halt. The Earth’s temperature cannot rise more than 1.5 or 2 degrees C above the average before the fossil fuel era. It has already risen about 1 degree.
But, in parts of south Asia, the Pacific, and southern Africa, millions of people already experience forms of climate catastrophe. Poverty-stricken countries suffer the most. For them, the question is not whether an emergency will happen in the future, but whether help will arrive today.
One bright spot is that, by some estimates, the global rate of carbon emissions has begun to level off, and the use of renewable, clean energy is on the rise. However – and this is the crucial point – in the two years since the UN Paris Agreement on Climate (2015), scientists and policymakers have increasingly said that we must take action much faster. Emissions must not just level off, but take a downward turn by around 2020 – within two years.
Emissions are levelling, but carbon levels are still rising. The temperature of the atmosphere and the oceans is rising – deforestation is one of the many reasons. The crux of the matter is that we could reach “tipping points” or “thresholds” very quickly – points past which we cannot go without risking irreversible global warming.
A related challenge is that the whole web of life is deteriorating. Some debate is taking place about whether we’ve already entered an era in Earth history called the “Sixth Great Extinction”. The last time extinction rates were this high was 66 million years ago.
Coral reefs are bleaching from heat stress and rising levels of acidity in the oceans. And 30% of all mammals and 40% of amphibians are facing extinction. We frequently hear about large mammals: Arctic polar bears and elephants in Africa. But even small parasites are facing extinction: 30% of earthworms may be extinct by 2070 – one of God’s creatures that create healthy soil conditions on which food and agriculture depend. The reasons for this include climate disruption, water shortages, habitat loss, deforestation, overpopulation, and pollution.
As a matter of survival, we must work together to care for God’s Creation. The web of life is a life together, and so is human life. When we look at the big picture, we realise that what is endangered is, in fact, our whole life together. The solution, then, is to create a sustainable and just life together as the church, in the church, and of the church.