Never mind the world leaders, Greta is here! The young Swedish founder of Fridays for the Future arrived at Glasgow Central Station on Saturday evening to be greeted by a crowd of ecstatic, mostly young people, along with the media and police who now accompany most of her travels. In her song ‘China’, American singer and activist Joan Baez, addressing her son, sings ‘you had no one you could call a hero of your age, now you have the rainbow warriors of Tiananmen Square’. For an uncountable number of young people across the world, Greta Thunberg is the rainbow warrior of their age, who saw the moment of Kairos, of threat and opportunity and responded, in a way that all of us could, but she did.
Earlier yesterday afternoon, many other young people, and many older ones too, arrived in Glasgow as pilgrims, having walked hundreds, and sometimes thousands of miles through storms, sunshine, setbacks and much encouragement from those they met along the way. The distances walked are incredible; from Scandinavia, Germany, Belgium, even as far away as Poland they came, moved by their passion for climate justice, by love for their children and grandchildren, reverence for the earth in all its myriad splendours and complexities, by fear and hope for the future.
Some of the pilgrims joined in the Interfaith Vigil taking place in George Square, the city’s main square, whose built environment and many statues are really a monument to the British Empire and the numerous merchants who grew rich on the proceeds of plantation slavery in the Americas. It’s where the city’s Cenotaph is, and it’s been a place of political gatherings, protest and prayer for well over a century, sometimes of all three simultaneously. Sunday’s vigil was a peaceful occasion, with prayers from ten different faith leaders, and attended by about 500 people of many faiths and none, and the same again online.
Indeed, if COP26 cannot come to workable agreements which are actually implemented, it will not be for want of praying; this is a thread woven throughout the whole conference. There has been a great mobilisation of Scottish churches in support of action on the environment in general, and climate justice in particular, and all over the country, congregations have been making banners for the March for the Climate on 6th September, holding Climate Sunday services and creating artworks and gardens expressing a shared concern.
This mobilisation for COP26 has been driven in particular in Scotland by a number of organisations. International aid agencies like Christian Aid, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, and Tearfund, are long established here, and their partners in countries of the global south are painfully familiar with the adverse and extreme consequences of climate change. They have been advocating for climate justice for many years. Their events at COP26 are strongly focussed on giving a platform and a voice to indigenous communities in the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, who are frontline climate defenders, on social protection strategies in the aftermath of disasters, and a new Loss & Damage financing facility paid for by polluters.
At a local, parish level, Eco-Congregations Scotland is an ecumenical movement of congregations committed to addressing environmental issues through their life and mission, and they offer support in integrating practical solutions on such things as energy use, biodiversity and wildlife in church and community grounds and gardens, waste reduction, trade justice in purchasing, as well as encouraging individuals to reduce their own carbon footprint and raising awareness on global international environmental damage. There are now hundreds of Scottish Eco-Congregations, and many in the Iona Community networks will know member David Coleman, their chaplain, who is their delegation leader at COP26.
Western Christian churches have a somewhat inglorious past, with theologies of dominion over the earth and centuries of Christian imperialism having given enthusiastic authorisation to untold human suffering and environmental damage, and by no means all churches have moved away from doing their science from the Bible, or truly embraced an understanding of humankind as a species among species, all dependent on the earth as our habitat. To recognise that ‘the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects’ (Thomas Berry) is a conversion of mind and heart that many have not yet made. But Western Christians are being schooled by their Eastern and Southern sisters and brothers, churches are divesting from fossil fuel investment after long campaigns, and Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si, and in his public statements, takes seriously the disciplines of science, the experience of those who are poorest and the voices of the global South, and the witness of other spiritual traditions.
In Scotland, faith groups have happily worked alongside secular organisations as part of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland in campaigning and activism, embracing the importance of a shared commitment to climate justice and care for our habitat because, regardless of motivation, this is a good in itself. We take care of what we value, and the intrinsic value of the earth is different from, and far beyond, its utility to humans.
Meantime on Day One, the world leaders arrived quietly in their helicopters, hundreds of delegates were stuck in trains all over the UK by weather-related disruptions, and there are not enough seats in the main hall for the representatives of every country. Irony is not hard to find at COP26. The UK Prime Minister, the host for the conference, talked down expectations for a good outcome while lecturing other nations about the need for action if we are to avoid climate catastrophe. The UK finance minister only last week delivered a budget for the country that cut duty on short haul flights, bumped up road transport investment and made no mention of climate change.
On Monday, Day Two, the official business begins. And the praying goes on …
– Kathy Galloway
Kathy Galloway is a writer, activist and practical theologian. She has worked for the Iona Community, Christian Aid and Church Action on Poverty. She lives in Glasgow, Scotland.
Photo © Bungie