Can we cope with climate change?

Daniel Harkins suggests little will be accomplished at COP27 in Egypt.

On Sunday the Cop27 climate conference began in Egypt. Paul Chitnis, the director of Jesuit Missions, said it was essential the summit continues “the legacy of Cop26”.

With all due respect to the former SCIAF director, the legacy of Cop26 was complete and utter failure.

Most Scots had never heard of the annual climate change gathering until the jamboree came to Glasgow last year.

It took over the city, shutting down major roads, filling all the hotels with international delegates and the world media, and bringing the great and good – and some of the bad – to Scotland.

I spent every waking – and dreaming – minute of the two-week gathering covering the events as a journalist. I would hit the queue outside the SECC complex at 7am and spend the day bunkered in a little cubicle editing news coverage, leaving into the dark of the city 13 or so hours later.

I survived on terrible machine coffee as I watched speech after speech from politicians. Some were bland and hypocritical, others from the leaders of small island nations and developing countries emotional, well-argued polemic.

The conference centre felt alive with energy. You could glimpse the most powerful people in the world walking the halls and if you were lucky spot a visit from a star like Leonardo Di- Caprio, who, I imagine, offset the carbon cost of his flying visit.

When I tell my story of Cop26 to friends I usually relate my experience standing a few feet from Barack Obama being yelled at by his secret service. But really my abiding memory is speaking to an indigenous islander, who began crying as she told me her homeland was almost entirely under water due to rising sea levels.

A few months later I had lunch with the head of one country’s delegation to Cop26. He told me the conference was a failure.

His delegation had fought valiantly for significant concessions but had inevitably been bullied by the larger, polluting nations. And all of this in a summit held in a G8 nation, the most high-profile event since the Paris accords in 2015.

So what hope does Egypt have of brokering any significant deal? The British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was not even planning to attend until he enacted the latest in our incompetent British Government’s u-turns.

Not that the Scottish Government has a much better record on this. Nicola Sturgeon is a talented politician and made Cop26 into a great opportunity to boost the cause of Scottish independence.

She talked up her government’s commitment to provide compensation to developing nations for the loss and damage caused by climate change – one of the few countries to do so.

But I also remember her prevaricating that that same year over the proposed Cambo oil field, a large development near Shetland. She repeatedly dodged questions on whether or not her government would support the development (it has now been all but scrapped after part of the proposed consortium withdrew).

This exposed a hypocrisy at the heart of the supposed environmentalism of the SNP – oil wealth is a large part of their plan for independence. Next August for instance, look out for the SNP trumpeting the GERS figures – the annual report on the Scottish economy.

This year’s statistics revealed Scotland is still carrying one of the largest financial deficits in the world, but the 2023 release should show a much rosier picture.

What the SNP will shy away from though, is the fact that rosy picture has been painted thanks to skyrocketing oil prices and the windfall for Scotland’s North Sea oil industry as a result.

What should all this mean for Catholics? SCIAF does great work fighting climate change – I have seen it firsthand in Cambodia. But we need more radical action from the Church. A sixth of the world’s population is Catholic.

It is in a unique position – one equal to that of the major governments – to shape our direction of travel on this issue, to educate the ill-informed and push for concrete targets from states.

The world is burning. People today are fleeing their land in their thousands because of climate change. Homes are sinking under water. There is no social justice issue more important than this.

Anne Callaghan, SCIAFs policy officer, who was in Egypt this week pushing for action at the conference.

She told this magazine, “The easiest thing to do would be to lose hope. It’s what those who profit from fossil fuels would want us to do. Yes, it can feel like progress is slow, but it is possible”.

Let’s hope she’s right.

Photo credit: The United Nations

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