On the eve of the final day of the Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen, I share with you some reflections from Unitarian Universalist Pam Sparr on significant events from the first week and on what the religious community can do.

I attended the first week of the COP-15 events in a professional capacity as a consultant with another religious organization and have just returned home. As I read accounts of what is happening in week #2, I think my reflections on that first intense week of activities still hold. Here are some of my impressions….

Several events in the first week stand out in my mind as significant:

  • The rock concert-like climate justice rally in Town Hall Square with the ever-charismatic Archbishop Desmond Tutu. This was the most upbeat of all events I attended. He presented more than a half million signatures from people in two dozen nations (including the U.S.) to the head of the UNFCCC – the man whose job it is to keep the negotiations going. These signatures supported a strong binding agreement. This was a wonderful example of how the religious community can use its moral authority well. It was also a reminder of how well respected and beloved a religious leader can be – even by people who do not consider themselves “religious” – if they are courageous in their faith and take a public stance on justice issues.
  • The international ecumenical worship service in Copenhagen’s Lutheran cathedral where religious leaders from around the world processed in with poignant, silent symbols of the destruction climate change is already wreaking – bleached coral from the Pacific, shriveled cobs of maize from Africa, stones laid bare from the melting of glaciers in Greenland. A reminder that ritual can be very powerful.
  • The demonstration last Saturday with 100,000 people in the streets all concerned over the lack of progress in reaching a strong, just, and binding international agreement – the largest such gathering to date on this issue. A peaceful show of concern and an unexpectedly large size group which the Danish police didn’t know how to handle well.
  • A seminar on the rights of Mother Earth sponsored by the Government of Bolivia – an example of how smaller nations are finding their voice and political strength in interesting ways with respect to climate change. This is also one of the cutting-edge initiatives that UUs interested in rights-based or Earth-care advocacy should investigate.
  • Two official US government briefings for non-governmental organizations, where, by luck, and possibly by virtue of wearing a highly visible red turtleneck sweater, I had the privilege of asking the first question of the week to our #1 negotiator.

While I am not a regular at major international meetings, I have participated in several historic conferences, including the infamous World Trade Organization ministerial in Seattle. The increasing frustration expressed by delegates from Southern nations in Copenhagen, including tears, tempers flying and threatened walk-outs seems to be much higher here than at any of the other meetings I have attended in the past 17 years. While some of this may be posturing, my sense is that most of the anguish is a legitimate reaction to the fact that the U.S. and other wealthy countries are dragging their feet while the clock is ticking. On the one hand, this first week showed signs that the South is holding together and taking a stronger stand. For me, this was one of the few beams of hope in the proceedings. On the other, the lack of progress left me gloomy about prospects on the official level.

I am most immediately concerned that we have a long way to go before we get international agreement to set a sufficiently strong, binding target to limit greenhouse gas emissions. At this time, the U.S. government is not willing to do what we must to meet our moral and legal responsibilities in this regard. Our government is the biggest stumbling block at this time. There are several policy components to this emissions cap hurdle. The most pressing one now concerns targets for 2020. We need to cut emissions dramatically and fast if we are to have a good chance of preventing a dangerous tipping point – and averting tremendous suffering and hardship on the part of people living in poverty in developing countries.

We have a very intelligent, skillful negotiating team representing the U.S. I would not want to sit across from them at the table in Copenhagen. From my personal advocacy experience, I have come to see more clearly the limits of intellectual engagement with our officials, and even limits to moral or ethical arguments. In a few areas, I have seen humanitarian and faith-based NGOs make a positive impact on the U.S. position on international climate change policy. In those cases, it is apparent that the more technical knowledge one has and the more organizing resources you have, the more effective the organization can be.

Certainly, most NGOs were using a combination of political organizing and intellectual engagement – an “inside” the Bella Center [formal location for the meetings] and an “outside” strategy. Some faith-based groups were using both strategies while others felt an inside strategy was useless.

By the end of the week, I was feeling like the most productive contribution the U.S. religious community could make would be to try to break through to an emotional and spiritual plane with our negotiators in some form of public witness. This is the realm where the religious community has particular expertise and responsibility.

Eco-psychologist Bill Plotkin describes our nation as in an adolescent stage of emotional and spiritual development. This felt true for the U.S. position in Copenhagen, despite the sophisticated economic and political rationale for the official stance. Most of us in the U.S. are comfortable in our privileges and ignorant of the consequences our policies and lifestyles have on the lives of people living in poverty in developing nations. As a nation, we are addicted to fossil fuels, privilege and power. The world sees us as digging in our heels to defend “The American Dream” which is a dream only for some in the U.S. and increasingly becoming a nightmare for many others around the globe.

In his sermon in Copenhagen, the Archbishop of Canterbury reflected that government negotiators from the North and South were operating out of fear. Some of that fear is rational and some of it is not selfish. Nonetheless, he urged the negotiators to detach from the fear and forge an agreement out of love. Certainly this is the mandate for the U.S. religious community — to shift public attitudes and re-set the tone of Congressional debate on climate change policy. This is a long-term challenge that will remain with us well after the conference ends. UUs have practiced Standing on the Side of Love before. Now we must do it again.

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Rowan Van Ness

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