Chairing a Meeting is Earthkeeping, Too
December 16, 2021
By Rick Faw
A month ago I returned home from the COP26 talks* to a province suffering from the biggest flood of my lifetime and the second unprecedented climate-related disaster of the last seven months. It was surreal to see flooding in my hometown make international headlines due to “atmospheric rivers.” Needless to say, abstract discussions about climate change have real world consequences.
It takes all kinds
There were tens of thousands of people in Glasgow for the climate talks. The diversity was staggering. Politicians and business leaders grabbed most of the headlines but I didn’t meet many of them. I did meet Andy, a leader in a traditional Christian missions agency for decades. Danielle is a pastor of a thriving Silicon Valley Church. Maribel and Rachel are 20-something climate activists from the Philippines and the UK garnering national media attention. Jesse is a junior staffer with the official US negotiating delegation. And there was a singing Darth Vader (what?!) doing cover tunes outside the official grounds as his form of protest and awareness raising (no joke – I wish I’d snapped a picture).
The point is that earthkeeping requires everyone. Caring for creation is part of the job description for all of us.
That said, after the first couple of days I was struggling to find my place. I’m not an elected official. Neither am I from a low lying country that is literally being swamped by a rising ocean. Nor am I a scientist, architect or physician testifying to the impacts of a changing climate in my area of expertise. In this bustling mass of humanity, where is someone with whom I can identify?
Trust is the most relevant currency
In a powerful interview, a Bangladeshi spokesman argued that trust is the “most relevant currency of the climate negotiations.” He claimed that financial support for adapting to a changing climate is, largely, about demonstrating good faith. Will the wealthy be a reliable partner with the vulnerable as we all pursue a healthier planet?
On day three, I stumbled upon a nondescript meeting room where this question was being negotiated in painstaking detail. Since 2015, the 16-page Paris Agreement has framed the entire geo-political climate negotiations but figuring out “the devil in the details” is an ongoing, line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph work-in-progress. For example, this particular working group (one of dozens) was struggling with whether “supporting just transition” was an acceptable purpose for climate finance alongside sustainable development and poverty alleviation. Representatives from a few developed countries – like the US – lobbied to remove the clause while representatives from developing nations – including those from southern Africa and South America – insisted it remain.
Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? With the consequences of climate change in mind, what is the responsibility of a person, or a nation, whose wealth derives from burning fossil fuels? This question is at the heart of the entire climate change issue.
Listening and faithful service really matter
While watching the negotiations unfold, I became fascinated with the role of the chairperson. Evidently, this person had built rapport with the group. The chair set a tone of civility, and even comradery, in the shared task. In the midst of seemingly endless minutiae (even commas and footnotes received considerable debate) he or she created space for wildly disparate perspectives and yet, continuously pushed towards consensus. When agreement was not readily available, it was the job of the chair and co-chairs to incorporate feedback in creating the next draft document around which negotiations could resume a few hours later.
What an obscure but crucial service. I’ll never chair hearings at a global climate conference but I recognize the skills required to play that part.
The commitment to listen carefully and understand thoroughly.
The creativity to faithfully integrate input into each revision.
The patience and diligence to persevere in pursuing consensus.
By the end, it was demonstrably clear that while there are a million ways to delay the arduous work of building trust and consensus, there are precious few ways to speed it up. This reality leads some to dismiss the entire enterprise as “blah, blah, blah”. Nevertheless, many nations, and the people they represent, don’t have the luxury to dismiss the climate talks. Despite the painfully slow pace, the maddening avoidance of responsibility, and the inadequate resolutions, many of the world’s most vulnerable see the UNFCCC gathering as their lone opportunity to voice their concerns on the international stage.
God’s Spirit invites me to support the flourishing of my creaturely neighbours, both human and non-human, in many ways. Sometimes it’s about food or transportation choices. Sometimes it’s exploring an aspect of God’s creation. An enduring impression from Glasgow is that building trust, listening carefully, and patiently seeking alignment are also vital aspects of earthkeeping.
I pray that the Spirit cultivates these practices in me. I also pray for chairpersons working diligently in unseen corners around the world. May the Spirit use their faithfulness, and mine, to further His Kingdom. Amen.
*I was in Glasgow as a member of the Christian Climate Observers Program. See previous blog posts for more about the program and the UN negotiations on climate change (aka COP26):