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Why are the churches at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Cancun?

13 December 2010

LWF and WCC delegates to COP16*

After the failure of COP15 in Copenhagen in reaching a fair, ambitious and binding deal to effectively address the climate change crisis, many in the churches and the civil society at large have asked: why should we go to COP16 in Cancun? What for? Is it worth going?

Churches have been actively engaged in the UNFCCC negotiations since the late 80's in a process that led to the adoption of the UNFCCC in Rio in 1992. When the Convention was ratified and parties started to meet yearly in COPs, the WCC has had a delegation participating at all COPs.

The core of churches' engagement is to remind the negotiators that beyond the technical aspects of mitigation, adaptation, technology transfer and funding, there is an ethical responsibility which ought not to be overlooked.

In various ways churches have emphasized the various aspects of  the climate change crisis: ecological, social, economic, cultural and political. These aspects  should be addressed in a holistic way taking account of their interrelationship. On the basis of biblical teachings and  theological convictions the churches have especially reiterated the  the ethical and spiritual implications of  the challenge of climate change.

The UNFCCC already affirms  some ethical considerations in the Principles stated in the UNFCCC. Article 3 of the Framework Convention reminds all parties what should guide the international community when responding to climate change challenges. In the turmoil of technical negotiations, unfortunately, these principles are often overlooked or ignored.

Principle 1 refers to the following critical points: a) the concern for present and future generations;  b) equity as a basis for climate measures; c) the “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” and d) the role of lead developed countries should have in combating climate change. Principle 2 focuses  special attention to the needs and circumstances of developing countries and vulnerable communities. These deserve particular consideration. The “Precautionary Principle” is addressed in Principle 3, stressing the importance of anticipating, preventing or minimizing the causes and mitigating the effects of climate change.  Interestingly, the principle already responds to climate skeptics, affirming that “the lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures”. The right to development, specifically sustainable development,  is addressed in Principle 4, while links between climate change and economics are highlighted in Principle 5, reminding how intertwined they are.

In the churches' perspective, justice must be the basic criterion of applied ethics in all decisions concerning the measures to cope with climate change[1].  Although climate change is a global issue affecting all peoples and nations,  those who are and will increasingly be affected by negative climate change consequences are the vulnerable communities who have contributed the least to global emissions. These include women and children,  indigenous peoples, poorest communities, people with disabilities  and inhabitants of coastal low lying areas. Vulnerable communities and states are also much more dependent on natural resources for their subsistence and do not have the means to mitigate emissions  and  to adapt to climate change. Their survival is at risk, and justice requires that the nations most responsible historically for the adverse ecological conditions should take the greatest responsibility towards the adaptation of these vulnerable communities and nations. The churches have echoed this principle of justice in statements to earlier COPs, and repeat it here at COP 16 in Cancun.

The call for eco-justice and the recognition of ecological debt[2] are part of the church’s  witness for the care of Creation. The formulation of demands to repair and repay the climate debt to the poorest, the most vulnerable, future generations and the Earth itself has become the prophetic stance of the churches as it confronts the most serious of ecological crises, the ethical and moral crisis of climate change.

Climate justice should undergird the present negotiations. Churches, through lobby work, side events and statements to the plenary, recall once again this forgotten dimension.                                                              

The holistic approach to climate change that churches proclaim also includes the spiritual dimension which must not be overlooked or ignored in the deliberations over political and economic interests. The hosting of ecumenical or interfaith celebrations during the COPs, as well as other explicit expressions like demonstrations and messages from local congregations and communities, stress the particular contribution that faith based groups and organizations can and must bring to the debate. It is our hope that the ethical and spiritual considerations will be taken seriously in the follow-up deliberations after COP 16.

There is, therefore, a moral obligation for the churches and faith communities to participate in the negotiations  of the international community in Cancun and in the future. Their contribution is twofold: to urge the world to act for a more just and equitable world and and the same time, rooted in their spiritual teachings, convey a message of hope to the whole world. 

* LWF and WCC delegations to COP16 in Cancun include the following: Lic Elias Crisostomo Abramides (Ecumenical Patriarchate, Argentina); Lic Abraham Colque (ISEAT – Bolivia); Rev Freddy De Alwis (CCA – Thailand); Rev Henrik Grape (CoS – Sweden); Joy Kennedy (UCC – Canada); David Le Page (SAFCEI – South Africa); Lic Juan Luis Loza (FUMEC – Mexico);  Prof Dr Jesse Mugambi (Anglican Church of Kenya); Sister Patricia Nagle, IHM (USA); Lic Sergio Rios Carrillo (LWF – Nicaragua); Prof Dr Barbara Rossing (LWF – USA); M. Abdus Sabur (AMAN – Thailand); Rev Bill and Rev Carol Somplatsky-Jarman (PCUSA); Dr Larisa Skuratovskaya (Academy of Medical Sciences – Russia) and Dr Guillermo Kerber (WCC staff  - Uruguay/Switzerland).


[1]     WCC Minute on Global warming and climate Change, WCC Central Committee, February 2008.

[2]       WCC Statement on Eco-justice and Ecological Debt, WCC Central Committee, Geneva, September 2009

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