Episcopal delegates represent presiding bishop, church at UN climate change conference

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Nov 30, 2023

Episcopal delegates representing Presiding Bishop Michael Curry are participating in the United Nations COP28 conference Nov. 30 – Dec. 12, 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to advocate for stronger public and private actions to help solve the global climate crisis. Photo: The Episcopal Church and the United Nations/Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] Eight years after nearly 200 countries agreed to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the rise of the Earth’s surface temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, global dependence and investment in fossil fuels continue to dominate the energy sector over renewable sources. At the same time, temperatures continue to reach record levels, resulting in more frequent extreme weather events, including heatwaves, hurricanes, severe rain events, increased flooding and wildfires. 

Beginning today, world leaders, policymakers, climate scientists, activists, corporate executives and interfaith representatives — including Episcopalians — converge in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates for the 28th United Nations Conference of Parties of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, or simply, COP28. Together, they will advocate for stronger public and private actions to help solve the global climate crisis. 

“Climate change is a global problem affecting everyone, including all of life. When I am advocating, I can’t separate out the fact I’m advocating as a Christian, but as a citizen,” California Bishop Marc Andrus, who has been chair of the Episcopal delegates every year since 2015, told Episcopal News Service. “We’re not forcing our beliefs on anyone. We’re simply joining with what’s called a whole society approach to climate change.”

Episcopal and Anglican delegates will join the more than 60,000 people expected to attend the Nov. 30 – Dec. 12 conference in Dubai. A central purpose of each COP since 2015 has been to track the implementation of the Paris Agreement, which laid out the initial approach to limit warming, which has now reached 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  

Of the 21 Episcopal delegates, nine of them will attend the conference in person. The remaining 12 delegates will participate virtually. They will base their advocacy on the church’s climate policy priorities, which include pushing to accelerate efforts to keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius; increasing support for communities most harmed by the effects of climate change; protecting human rights and affirming climate justice in adaptation and mitigation efforts; and fulfilling pledges to international climate finance mechanisms – including support for a $100 billion mobilization goal towards climate action – and increasing transparency.

“This is a work that has a long and deep history, deep roots that nourish the work of bringing our advocacy to the floor,” said the Rev. Melanie Mullen, the church’s director of reconciliation, justice and creation care, during a Nov. 27 virtual launch event introducing the COP28 delegates and what they hope to accomplish during the conference.

The first Episcopal delegation to the COP attended the 2015 summit in Paris. Since 2016, The Episcopal Church has held U.N. observer status, which allows delegates to brief U.N. representatives on the church’s climate policy priorities and to attend meetings in the official zones.

 The policy priorities are based on General Convention resolutions ranging from support for federal climate action to pledging to mitigate the church’s own impact on the environment.

Through its Washington, D.C.-based Office of Governmental Relations and the Episcopal Public Policy Network, the church has advocated for government policies in line with General Convention stances on climate change. 

In October, Executive Council — The Episcopal Church’s governing body between meetings of General Convention — voted to voice the church’s support for the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. The proposed international treaty would complement the Paris Agreement by laying out a guideline to phase out fossil fuel exploration and expansion while supporting countries in their ethical transition to renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power. Andrus wrote Executive Council’s resolution to support the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty

Executive Council’s vote was timely. 

“The fact that this vote happened at Executive Council and not next year at General Convention is really helpful, and we can now be on record as an Episcopal delegation that we support the phasing out of fossil fuels,” Lynnaia Main, The Episcopal Church’s representative to the United Nations, told ENS.

When fossil fuels are burned, they emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the air and water. Those emissions heat the Earth, and pollution byproducts pose a health hazard to humans and wildlife. 

At current levels, emissions are expected to increase by more than 10% from 2010 to 2030, in large part because fossil fuel companies invest 97.5% in oil and gas and 2.5% in renewable energy sources, according to the International Energy Agency, a global energy watchdog.

The United States alone is on course to extract more oil and gas than ever by the end of 2023. Days before the conference was scheduled to commence, leaked documents obtained by the BBC revealed plans that the UAE planned to use its role as host of this year’s COP to make oil and gas deals. Additionally, only one of over 20 of the conference’s sponsors has committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in line with U.N.-backed net-zero targets.

Meanwhile, climate change is exacerbating the number and severity of natural disasters, and 2023 temperatures are the hottest ever recorded. In September, heavy rains caused by Storm Daniel in the Mediterranean caused two dams in Libya to collapse, killing thousands of people; two months prior, days of heavy rainfall flooded communities in Vermont. In August, an unprecedented series of deadly wildfires broke out in Hawaiʻi, and wildfires have been burning across Canada since March.

California Bishop Marc Andrus speaks at a Nov. 27 virtual launch event introducing the COP28 Episcopal delegates and what they hope to accomplish during the conference taking place Nov. 30 – Dec. 12 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. During COP28, the delegates will advocate for stronger public and private actions to help solve the global climate crisis. Photo: Screenshot

During the launch event, delegates shared The Episcopal Church’s strategies toward addressing climate change, including its commitment to carbon neutrality in all its facilities and operations by 2030. Some parishes have already met that goal.

“We work for these goals that are shared by other sectors — businesses, cities, states, regions, health care systems — it also means faith bodies, and we’re all in this work together. It amplifies our possibility of creating change,” Andrus told ENS. “We’re religious people, but we’re exercising our citizenship properly in a democracy.”

COP28 will include the first faith pavilion, where participants can engage in faith-based sessions with stakeholders, political delegations and other leaders to promote climate action. The Muslim Council of Elders will host the faith pavilion in collaboration with the Episcopal Diocese of California, the COP28 presidency, the United Nations Environment Programme and more than 50 other faith organizations. Pope Francis was initially scheduled to kickstart the Dec. 3 inaugural session, but his trip was canceled due to illness.

After COP28 concludes, Episcopal delegates and ecumenical partners are scheduled to gather Dec.15 via Zoom to share what they witnessed at the conference and provide summaries of the results of their negotiations. They will also discuss how Episcopal advocacy around climate change can proceed moving forward.

Episcopalians can learn more about the church’s commitment to addressing the global climate crisis on its website.

 -Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.