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A Reflection on COP26

by Paul Graham, OSA

The United Nations Climate Change Conference is coming to a close. Was it good or bad?  Like the curate’s egg, a bit of both. The fact that it happened is an achievement, and the presence of church groups was impressive and inspiring. The highlight was a picture of Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, giving Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez a can of Irn-Bru.  She had no choice, as Coca-Cola and Pepsi had been banned from the Glasgow Venue – perhaps COP26’s greatest achievement, and one in the eye for unbridled capitalism, the elephant in the room.

News about the perils of climate change can be overwhelming.  It is overwhelming. Frightening information about the future of our planet, unless we act now, is hitting us daily. We can be forgiven if at times we suffer from global warming fatigue. Between threatened biodiversity, species loss, bumble bees unable to find nectar, plastic in the fish we eat, energy-guzzling tumble dryers, and we may feel like screaming.  At one workshop I attended on climate change when I worked in a parish in Scotland, I said to the lady next to me that I use our tumble dryer only sparingly for no longer than half an hour. ‘What!’ she said, ‘you mean you have a tumble dryer!’  At the same workshop we were being shown how to darn socks. The point being that some of this climate change stuff can seem a bit ridiculous.

But we have to see beyond the ridiculous, and the frightening tales of young people in depression about the future, and Greta Thunberg’s humourless diatribes, and listen to Pope Francis.  As Catholic Christians, we have the spiritual resources to do something about it. We have ultimate hope that the final goal of creation is its fulfilment in Christ. God created life so that it may thrive, and although the forces of decline and death may seem to have their way as a result of the Fall,  they have been finally overcome by Christ’s death and resurrection. At the end of time creation will reach its full potential  in Him. That’s where we get our incentive from.  We are people of ultimate hope, and Laudato Si’ makes that clear. It is perhaps its most significant contribution to the climate change debate. Towards the very end of the encyclical we read, ‘Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope’ (244).  The ‘joy of our hope’ – that’s what keeps us going.

So by fixing our hope up above, we have set it like an anchor on firm ground, able to hold against any of the stormy waves of this world, not by our own strength but by that of the one in whom this anchor of our hope has been fixed. 

Saint Augustine (Sermon 359A, 1-4)

Let me tell you a story, my own story, and one reason why I find care for our planet so compelling. I was brought up in a mining town in the north of England, in north-west Durham. There were six mines in the town and many more in the villages nearby. The local economy was dependent on coal.  As kids we used to play on ‘slag heaps’, mountains of waste dug up with the coal and then dumped. They’ve all since been landscaped. My father wasn’t a coalminer, but his father and grandfather were. My great-grandfather died in an underground mining explosion that killed over 160 men and boys in 1909, leaving my grandfather as the only male working member of the family while still a teenager. And the impact of such devastating experiences in families is passed on from generation to generation. I know.

I actually went down a mine, arranged by my father through a friend of his while I was still at school. It was a frightening experience. As we got near the coal face, we had to crawl as there was no room to stand. When we got to the face, there were men stripped to the waist because of the heat, using machinery, or sometimes just picks, to strip away the coal, having to lie down as they hacked away at it.  There was so much dust in the air it was like a thick fog.  Water had to be sprayed on it to keep it down.  These were the conditions that men had to endure every day of their working lives. Many had to retire from working at the coal face in their forties, their lungs so full of coal dust they could barely breathe and work at the same time. Some died prematurely of lung disease. Yet the idea of coal being polluting was never mentioned, and this was only in the 1960s.  There is now not a single mine left in my hometown, thanks be to God, though it left a legacy of unemployment and economic depression.

This biographical aside serves as an introduction to the next point I want to make.  Fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – are collectively perhaps the biggest polluters on earth. And the more I read about it, the more clear it is that unless there is a massive shift away from fossils to sustainable fuels – electricity, wind, water, hydrogen, whatever – we can recycle all the plastic bottles in the world or get rid of all our tumble dryers and it won’t make a blind bit of difference.  Big business has to move away from investing in coal, oil and gas, one of the big issues at COP26.  And Big Money will not move out of sheer altruism or care for the common good.  The only voice it listens to is profit. Capitalism has to be convinced that it is in its interest, now, to shift immediately to sustainables. 

At the moment the main oil companies – Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, Aramco (Saudi Arabia), Shell, BP, Total – are admitting the problem, some more slowly than others, and they are spending money on research into renewable energy.  But this investment is still only a fraction of what they are continuing to spend on extraction and future development.  It’s known as ‘greenwashing’, symbolised by the earthy colours of the BP logo and its advertising about how much they care for the environment. And then you have countries like the United Kingdom and Australia trying to convince the world how ‘green’ they are while, in the case of the UK, they are selling licences to extract gas in the North Sea, and in the case of Australia, digging huge amounts of coal to sell to China, one of the few countries left in the world, together with India, that is still dependent on coal for energy.  Thankfully, most of the rest of the world is getting the message about coal, though not yet about oil and gas.

But there are signs of hope. Mark Carney, the ex-Governor of the Bank of England, a Canadian and Harvard-and Oxford-trained economist – and a practising Catholic – is now, with some success, getting big investors, and we’re talking here in trillions of dollars, not mere billions, to put their money into renewable energy and its development.  When he retired from the Bank of England in 2020, he was appointed as the United Nations special envoy for climate action and finance, an indicator of the way in which his interests were moving, even while he was Governor of the Bank of England.  So much so, Boris Johnson, the British PM, asked him to act as finance advisor to COP26, at which he recently made the important announcement that green finance has now, for the first time, 130 trillion dollars at its disposal to replace dirty energy with clean. Such a sum dedicated to investing in care for the environment would have been unthinkable up to recently.  Carney worked hard in his role as the UN envoy on climate change and as the co-chair of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) to bring this about. 

So big money is on the move, which gives the world hope. Capitalism may be a dodgy economic model, but it’s the least worst one, as Churchill said about democracy. Indeed Carney has written a well-received book, Values, published earlier this year, on how capitalism needs to invest more in the things that we value most, from frontline nurses to education, to feeding our children and care for the natural environment, instead of valuing solely economic benefit. The financial markets need to factor in the values of sustainability, solidarity and responsibility, and not just short-term profit. In fact, there has been something of a publishing bonanza of books similar to Carney’s, with ‘common good’ either in their titles or subtitles.  The ground is shifting, even if The Economist sounded a sceptical note in its November 6th edition by saying that a shift in private finance is not enough. Governments have to be brought on board as well, mentioning in particular the state-owned Coal India and Aramco, the world’s biggest oil producer and owned by the Saudi government.

But what can we humble Augustinians do about it?  We have no clout in the financial world.  All of this seems way beyond our immediate concerns and resources. But we can do something.  The ground has been shifting in the financial world because people, ordinary people, are now more aware than ever about the need for change if we are to save the planet.  And financiers have families, wives and children, who share the concerns of most of us about the dangers of climate change. We, the little ones, must continue to show our concern and in small but significant ways make a difference.

We have taken vows of poverty.  We should therefore be at the forefront of living as sustainably as possible.  How do we heat our houses and churches?  Are they properly insulated? Can we install solar panels to provide clean energy?  The Maltese Province has put them on its large convents, and now generates so much spare electricity, it is sold to the national grid.  The Vatican has covered the roof of its vast indoor audience hall with solar panels and intends to be net zero in energy consumption in a short period of time. All its vehicles are already electric. Make your next car an electric one, or at least hybrid.  What about our use of water?  Do we use it sparingly, or leave the tap running while we brush our teeth and stay in the shower for an eternity?  The German Augustinians are building a new house at their shrine to Our Lady near Munich and are planning to trap rainwater for domestic use.  The shrine is dedicated to Maria Eich, Mary of the Oak, which already lends itself to an ecological purpose. Indeed, the friars have received a reward for the sustainable way in which they manage the woods surrounding the shrine in order to increase its biodiversity.

Some of our provinces, Ireland and England/Scotland for instance, have divested from shares in fossil fuels through the campaign organised by the Laudato Si’ Movement, formerly the Global Catholic Climate Movement.  Have we joined the Laudato Si’ Movement, which gives very helpful tips on living sustainably? Have we tapped into the excellent website of the Vatican Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development and its Laudato Si’ Action Platform? The Villanova Province recently made the Laudato Si’ Pledge. How about other provinces following suit? Are we paying attention to Pope Francis and his frequent exhortations linking care for the natural environment with the human one, what he means by ‘integral ecology’. 

Everything is interrelated in our world: the food we buy, the clothes we wear, the transport we use.  All these things have an impact on others.  Is the jumper I recently bought made in Bangladesh helping someone in that country, or is its cheapness preventing a worker in a clothing factory from getting a decent income?  These are the questions we should be asking ourselves. Should we buy more food locally, even if it may be more expensive, rather than food that has been transported around the world, damaging the environment?  The friars in Würzburg have made the decision to buy locally wherever possible. How about our meat consumption (cows emit methane and grazing consumes valuable land)? As for plastics, where does one begin? A factory in northern Ireland is now going back to manufacturing clothes in linen, instead of synthetic fibres, the most used fabric before the advent of mass cotton (blame slavery) and then polyester.

Inevitably, what would Saint Augustine have to say about all this?  The short answer is, we don’t know. Climate change was not an issue in his day.  But we do know he appreciated the natural world and spoke about it eloquently.  It is clear that he had a strong sense of the beauty of God’s creation. Towards the end of the Confessions he writes:

‘We see the beauty of the waters gathered in the expanses of the sea, and the dry land, whether bare of vegetation, or given form so as to be “visible and ordered”, the mother of plants and trees.  We see the lights shining from above, the sun sufficing for the day, the moon and the stars to cheer the night… We see wet nature on all sides, a rich source of food for fish and sea monsters and birds. For the flight of birds is supported by the density of the air, which is increased by the evaporation of water…

Saint Augustine (Confessions, Book XIII, xxxii, 47, trans. Chadwick)

These words indicate an acute awareness of the world around him and of the interrelatedness of things.  As Augustinians we need to learn from his sensitivity to the world and apply it to our own lives.  

Finally, to go back to Pope Francis, ‘Let us sing as we go,  May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope’.

When I asked the earth, it responded ‘I am not God.’ When I asked the water and the deep, they resounded: ‘We are not your God. Look above us.’ When I asked the heavens, the sun, the moon, the stars: ‘Nor are we the God you seek,’ they said. To allof them I said: ‘Speak to me of my God. If you are not he, tell me something about him.’ Loudly they exclaimed: ‘It is he who made us.’ The heavens, the earth, and everything that is in them, all these things tell me to love you

Saint Augustine

Confessions 10, 6

This post is based on a talk originally given to formandi in the Philippines on 9 November 2021
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Sheila
24 days ago

This week I participated in a webinar: Archives Supporting Sustainability. It was hosted by the National Archives of the UK, and I took away from it a handful of ideas for practical use as a professional archivist, including: share more Environmental Monitoring data with decision makers | plan for Capital investment going forward to make change happen (some suggest appointing a Sustainability Officer) | plan for Extreme Weather risks | draft a Climate Change Action Plan | use items from the archive collections to tell stories about how we can adapt | add Archives Supporting Environmental Sustainability to the Annual Report | review the claims made by Cloud Storage Providers concerning their carbon emissions | collaborate with Venue Managers on the cost of utilities | create Digital Resources that are sustainable from the outset | create a Digital Asset Register to calculate the carbon emissions of storing digital records.
In the feedback survey we were asked if there were any other networks that we’d like to mention that hadn’t come up in the webinar, so I included the Laudato Si’ Movement (formerly the Global Catholic Climate Movement).
Thank you, Fr Paul, for this insightful Reflection on COP26.