Between Burning Bush and Burning Planet

Paul Rahmat SVD

The U.N. Climate Conference, or Conference of Parties (COP27), took place at the desert resort of Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt from 6 to 20 November 2022. It is located just a few hundred meters from the Red Sea and stretches across the arid expanse of the Sinai Desert.

The words “Red Sea” and “Mount Sinai” evoke images of Moses and the experiences of the people of Israel several millennia ago. They crossed the Red Sea, traversed the desert, and camped around Mount Sinai.

In the concluding speech of COP27, the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke of Mount Sinai saying, “COP27 took place not far from Mount Sinai, a site that is central to many faiths and to the story of Moses, or Musa. It is fitting.  Climate chaos is a crisis of biblical proportions. The signs are everywhere.  Instead of a burning bush, we face a burning planet.”   

The people of Israel crossed the Red Sea and wandered through the desert under the leadership of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. They looked at and figured out the signs of nature while listening to the voice of Wisdom as moral guidance and compass on their journey to the Promised Land, “a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Pilgrimage towards Climate Justice and 1.5° C

From a religious perspective, COP27 at Sharm El-Sheikh could be defined as a pilgrimage. The word “pilgrimage” usually refers to a spiritual journey to a holy place, holy ground, or the Holy Land.

Civil society organizations and faith-based groups at COP27 used the term “pilgrimage” to describe their advocacy efforts for climate justice. They defined their protest actions during the COP as a form of pilgrimage. Their visits were not to tourist sites at Mount Sinai but to every path and corner of the COP27 conference rooms called the Blue Zone area. What they sought and demanded was justice and ambition for climate.

Civil society actors contend that developed countries from the Global North, which have historically contributed to the most greenhouse gas emissions, have to be held morally and politically responsible for loss and damage due to the devastating impacts of climate change. They must pay compensation for loss and damage affecting developing and least developed countries.

Likewise, civil society groups urged the phasing out of fossil fuels including gas, oil, and coal, and the shift to renewable energy. Each country has to spend its national budget on transition energy investments like solar, wind, and hydrogen energy. They also demanded that every State’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) must be ambitious, transparent, and credible. With that, we can suppress the average global temperature rise to below 2° C and keep ‘1.5° C’ alive, based on the Paris Agreement.

The heart of the pilgrimage action at COP27 was a journey to survival, i.e., making the journey toward 1.5° within reach. Allowing the average temperature to rise above 2 degrees is a death sentence for people, biodiversity, and a livable planet. The IPCC climate scientists tell us that the window of opportunity is still open but very narrow and will quickly close unless we take rapid, meaningful, and bold actions for the climate this decade.

People Power and the Voice of Victims

Who are the actors who take the lead and guide the journey for climate justice just as  Moses, Aaron, and Miriam led the Israelites in the desert? There are many, of course, but I think especially of the collective efforts of people’s power. They include, but are not limited to, young people, women, indigenous communities, civil societies, scientists, and local communities affected by climate change. The cries and voices of climate change victims must be heard as moral guidance and force in making sound policies and taking affirmative action to address the climate crises.

Climate scientists play a crucial role, like Moses in the desert. They see the facts and evidence of the burning planet and provide valid data and credible information on climate change. In addition, they recommend ways and solutions so that State authorities may apply policies and take strategic action to mitigate, and adapt to, climate change.

The voice of people’s power strongly resonated at COP27. Before the COP, civil society groups urged the Egyptian presidency to include Loss and Damage in the COP27 agenda. At  COP27 Loss and  Damage became a burning issue. Finally, after almost two days of delay, COP27 made a historic decision to establish funds and a facility for Loss and Damage. The decision is a landmark success of the tireless thirty-year effort of civil societies and people power.

The significant role of people power in making the historic decision at COP27 was thus acknowledged by the U.N. Secretary-General: “justice and ambition require the essential voice of civil society. The most vital energy source in the world is people power. Climate advocates – led by the moral voice of young people – have kept the agenda moving through the darkest of days.”    

COP27 achieved a significant deal that creates funds and facilities to address climate-related loss and damage, particularly for the most vulnerable and resource-stressed countries. However, the first African COP failed to address the root causes of climate change: reducing greenhouse gas emissions drastically and phasing out fossil fuels. It is simply not ambitious enough to accelerate decarbonization efforts.

“Our planet is still in the emergency room,” said the U.N. Secretary-General. “We need to drastically reduce emissions now, and this is an issue this COP did not address.” He added: “A fund for loss and damage is essential, but it’s not an answer if the climate crisis washes a small island state off the map or turns an entire Africa country into a desert.”

In this sense, many countries are concerned COP27 took a step backward in the negotiation process in the fight against rising temperatures. While the deal was made for loss and damage, talks regarding decarbonization became stagnant. The language used in the COP27 Outcome Document is too weak. It failed to include a reference to phasing out all fossil fuels. “I wish we got fossil fuel phased out,” said Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, the Climate Envoy of the Marshall Islands, who, along with other island states, fear annihilation if temperatures rise above 1.5° C.

This is the mammoth task to be addressed at COP28, to be held in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, in November 2023.