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27 November 2000

"You can work for life or for death. We in the WCC have opted for life"
Ecumenical Team at the UN Climate Conference in the Hague

Mirjam Schubert

cf. WCC Press Release, PR-00-34, of 14 November 2000

A colourful, international group of people stand deep in conversation at the tram stop. They are the twelve men and women from Argentina, Britain, Canada, China, Germany, India, Kenya, Mexico, Russia, Switzerland, the United States and Zimbabwe who have come to The Hague in the Netherlands to attend the sixth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The dull autumn weather has not dampened their spirits. There is much laughter in the World Council of Churches' working group on climate change - even though climate change and its effects on people's lives are no laughing matter. The tram takes the group from their hotel to the congress centre.

On their programme is a public event in the nearby Zorgvliet church. The delegation is headed by David Hallmann from Canada. He explains how the group sees its role: "Our task is to bring the ethical, moral and theological perspective into the climate conference. The difficulties and problems can be overwhelming in a thing like this. We want to offer a vision that can be a source of hope. With God's help things can be different."

In the panel discussion that follows, politicians from the Netherlands unanimously declare their support for the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 by which the nations undertook to reduce their CO2 emissions and set targets. At the start of the conference only 30 developing countries had ratified the Protocol. Bureaucrats, diplomats and ministers are now wrangling over the adoption and implementation of this document.

Elias Abramides, a delegation member from Argentina, asks the members of parliament what they would suggest for a country like Argentina, struggling under a crushing debt burden and required at the same time to reduce its CO2. Here too the politicians are unanimous - that's Argentina's problem. The group members can only shake their heads.

A worried shake of the head also from Nafisa D'Souza, who works with indigenous groups in India. She is alarmed at the idea that western countries can buy their way out of doing their homework by replanting forests. "I can't help seeing the consequences for people behind all the grand words. What if governments and companies plant commercial forests that the local population is not allowed to use?"

For Elias Abramides, the zeal with which western countries have focussed on reducing their CO2 emissions on paper at least is a betrayal of nature. "I'm not asking much. The powerful states have to remember the real goal. If they do not actually reduce their greenhouse gases, the earth could have had its last chance."

The WCC has been actively monitoring international climate policy since 1988. Its working group has taken part in all the major UN summits and that is hard work. So many people, so many meetings and political decisions. Like the others, Marijke van Duin is often exhausted: "It drains you completely. You have to watch that it doesn't get too much. The challenge is to take small, practical steps without losing sight of the broader vision."

All the delegation members put the small steps into practice in their home countries and regions. The important thing is to make people aware of climate change. Already there is a feeling that something has changed. "We started with just an idea," says Jesse Mugambi from Kenya, talking about his work in Africa. "Now we have village workshops where the people are learning to cope with the changes, say, by building reservoirs to use during the dry season."

For Jesse Mugambi, one sign of global warming is the melting of the snow cap on Mount Kenya. Commenting on the negotiations at the summit, he says, "You can work for life or for death. We in the WCC have opted for life." During the climate summit the working group meets nearly every day. The members keep one another informed about their projects, discuss the course of events at the summit and decide of the allocation of funds.

But there is always time for personal conversations as well as work and on St Nicholas's Day, Larisa Skuratovskaya greets everyone with chocolates from her home in Russia.

Delegation members also draw strength in the Kloisterkeerk in the Hague, where they are to hold an ecumenical service with the local congregation and conference participants. Some 100 people join their voices in praise in many languages and sermon and the prayers focus on God's creation. After the service, the congregation invite them to a reception where all the food served is organic. They can't stay long, though, because the president of the conference is also giving a reception and they have to make sure the ecumenical team's position is represented there, too.

In the plenary of the conference the ecumenical delegation's position is presented by Angelique Walker-Smith. Twelve non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been given the chance to take the rostrum. Tenth on the list of speakers is the World Council of Churches, the only religious organization represented. "I am a little nervous," the pastor admits to the journalist interviewing her on television. In her address she emphasizes, "We feel strongly that the climate change negotiations should refocus on the option that meets the criteria of environmental effectiveness, equity, responsibility and economic efficiency with the priority of being emissions reduction strategies in the high per capita polluting countries. All humankind is made in the image and likeness of God and all nature bears the marks of God. God's inheritance is for the communal body, a concept that includes all of nature."

The members of the ecumenical delegation hope that their message will be heard. "If not now, then later," says Bonnie Wright from Zimbabwe, putting all her trust in God. "God will see to it that the right way is taken."

Mirjam Schubert, a German journalist, accompanied the WCC ecumenical team during the sixth Conference of Parties to the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP6).

Photo of A. Walker-Smith at COP6

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.