Politicians, business leaders, and activists from around the world are meeting this and next week in Glasgow, Scotland, to make commitments and urge others to do the same to keep the planet from overheating more than it already is. Earth’s global temperature has risen 1.1 C and as the planet has warmed, fires have raged in Australia and California, heatwaves and floods have killed hundreds around the world. So what can be done to keep the temperature from rising .4 or more degrees?
Christians have been actively petitioning God for prayer. Believers in Asia, Europe, and North America gathered monthly from spring to fall to offer intercessory prayers ahead of the United Nations climate change conference, in an event organized by Lausanne/World Evangelical Alliance Creation Care Network, A Rocha International, Youth With A Mission England, Christian Missionary Fellowship International, Tearfund, and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action.
The Young Christian Climate Network organized about 2,000 people to walk between the southwestern tip of the UK to Glasgow to raise awareness about climate change and the current practices leading the earth’s rise in temperature.
Philip Summerton is a full time missionary worker with YWAM in Scotland and a marine and terrestrial conservationist who has done work on the restoration of coral reefs in the Seychelles.
Summerton joined global media manager Morgan Lee and news editor Daniel Silliman to discuss the goals of COP26, what’s impeding us from reaching them, and why the climate movement needs Christians.
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Quick to Listen is produced Morgan Lee and Matt Linder
The transcript is edited by Faith Ndlovu
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #287
What is COP26 and what is it trying to accomplish?
Philip Summerton: COP26 is an acronym of the UN’s conference of parties. So this is the conference of parties, the United Nations framework convention on climate change. Essentially it's a gathering of global leaders and business leaders around the world who've signed up to look at how we can affect the global warming which is going on and this is the 26th such meeting of this kind, for this particular framework. The four main aims of this one are; to secure what's called a global net-zero by 2050, which is designed to keep the average warming of the globe to 1.5 Celsius or less. The second aim is to look at how we can adapt and protect communities, natural habitats, to be able to achieve that. The third aim is to look at how we can mobilize the finance to be able to achieve those two aims and then the fourth key aim for this conference is to see how we can work together across government and business to implement what was agreed in Paris through the Paris climate school six years ago.
What kind of presence do Christians have there, what Christian organizations have you seen or what specifically Christian events are you guys involved in?
Philip Summerton: I'm part of something called the Christian Climate Observers Program, which is designed to help facilitate young emerging Christian leaders in the climate sphere to experience a global gathering like this and to get their heads around what this means for their ongoing career and development.
I've seen Tearfund under here, I've seen ACT Alliance, which is across denominational, across a national group of Christians who use action to bring awareness to issues. There are various businesses and quite a few Christians who aren't here under a Christian organization, but are here under their business or their governmental organization, but still have faith because they believe in what this could be.
What is your role as an observer? What are you observing? What are you actively doing day today at the conference?
Philip Summerton: As the name suggests I'm looking and I'm seeing what's going on. One of the main roles is to observe, to see, to experience what's happening, and then to be able to translate that back to people in my church or my group or other people, because often what gets presented in the media is quite a big picture thing and being able to help people grasp some of the inner workings of what's happening. There are between 25,000 to 30,000 people within what is happening and that ranges from high-level government conversations to businesses presenting solutions and thoughts all the way down to civil society groups who are advocating for a particular position or trying to raise awareness of a particular issue. So being able to comprehend some of those things and help people outside of what the space is to understand what goes on inside.
There are probably a number of different ideas about the best ways to fight climate change at this event. But maybe you could talk about two or three of the strategies that you have seen that have stood out to you and some of the ways that they come into conflict with each other.
Philip Summerton: One of the main aims of this conference is to take the world's energy systems off of coal so there's a number of strategies looking at how we can reduce reliance on coal and bring our energy sectors on to other things like wind power, solar power, hydro-power, hydrogen is something else which is being talked about, nuclear is another thing, transitioning the world's energy systems off of coal on to other things. That's one major thing.
Where you get tension between the different things is one business trying to push forward one idea and another group trying to push forward a different idea so you have to think what works best in this situation or scenario? Because the climate is quite a complicated issue there's no one single thing that is going to be the solving factor. Another area would be looking at methane production which is a much more potent gas than carbon dioxide, but it's not talked about so much. Methane is often a leak product from the oil industry or from landfills where you have food rot down and other things so trying to look at how we can reduce methane.
There's a really positive thing which came out yesterday where a number of nations have agreed to slash their methane production, the United States included, for methane by-products. Lots of solutions are also looking at changing the way we do waste management or looking at where leaks happened through oil piping and so on. Within that, you get the conflict on one side, a lot of people saying that we need to stop using oil together but then on the other side, there's a loss of jobs and industry, which is based upon oil and so you have to look at what's the just transition from one to another. There's not necessarily full agreement on how we can do that.
On that in particular, are people negotiating what those types of transitions could be? Are there conversations where people are saying, “I know we're asking you to give up 10,000 jobs in this particular area of your country or something and we can help by extending this kind of finance arrangement or supporting with other jobs?” What are the types of negotiations that one might see at COP26 as we realized that people will be asked to give up real things? This isn't just a notion of we all agree, and then we'll all go home. It's gonna be costly for people to make any kind of real change.
Philip Summerton: It will be costly especially as most of the world's energy systems are based upon the fossil fuel industry and so to transition, you have to understand what's the cost in terms of jobs so how do we create an economy which provides jobs for those people who are going to lose their jobs to retrain and come into a new industry and new skills. There is discussion around that, but that I think is still in the earlier stages so there's not necessarily consensus on all, this is what it could be and this is what it could look like. What that would look like in say the Maldives would be very different to what that might look like in the United States because economies are different and the way that their systems are set up is different.
Yesterday the focus was about financing, so there's been lots of talk about how do we mobilize the finances which were promised six years ago, which was by richer nations to help poor nations transition well, which finances haven't yet been realized or fully released. I've seen quite lots of people here especially from nations from Africa or Southern America saying, “you've made a lot of promises over these last few years, but you've not delivered on what promises you've made, can we see some delivery on the promises you've made rather than more promises because it feels very empty.”
Daniel Silliman: In the US, discourse it can feel like political disagreements and even people who want to raise doubts about climate change are the main obstacle to getting anything done. But of course, at COP26 people are on board with the need to do something but the real questions are around how and who takes responsibility and so forth.
As you followed along, what seemed to be the biggest impediments to making meaningful change?
Philip Summerton: One of the biggest impediments would be probably confusion. With so many different ideas presented before you, then how do you pick one or what is the best thing to go for? There's a lot of money tied up in the energy transition, there's a lot of money to be made and there's a lot of money to be lost. People don't want to lose their livelihoods, where other people want to try and make some money so it's trying to siphon through all the different ideas and all the different voices which are vying for attention to see actually, what is it that will be beneficial and how do we bring those ideas to the forefront? Confusion is probably one of the biggest barriers to getting anything done.
You talked earlier about the fact that there's a number of Christians who are at the event right now. Are there solutions that are unique to the church that you see them putting forward?
Philip Summerton: One of the things that the church is really good at is community connection and community involvement and helping stories to be heard, which would not necessarily be heard within the bigger room.
It's very easy for politicians to negotiate with each other and make some decisions, but not necessarily fully connect facts, either consequences of what those decisions mean for communities or individuals and I think one of the great strengths that we have as Christians is we have the compassion to be able to hear from the least of the least and be able to bring that voice to the table. That's one of the things which I've noticed within this place is the Christian element or Christians themselves able to help bring that awareness to people.
Is there a particular part of the world that you'd like to highlight for our listeners right now?
Philip Summerton: Yeah, Africa is quite a place, but if you look at Zimbabwe, particularly, they have suffered greatly over the last few years from climate-induced drought and more intense hurricanes and other things. Their food systems are getting close to collapse.
There's an individual in our group from Zimbabwe and she was sharing her experiences of seeing mothers and children hiking for 10 hours to try and find water in rivers, which when they get there are very dry because there is no rain happening and huge levels of malnutrition are beginning to creep in. Sometimes even myself, being in England and being in the UK don't necessarily fully comprehend the consequences of what is going on in the nations where they are already struggling financially and things that are already really difficult and then adding a layer on top of that, with the difficulties through what is happening with the climate, just exacerbates with problems that are already there.
Daniel Silliman: Thanks. That's helpful. You mentioned confusion being an impediment. One of the other things that come up sometimes as a concern is hyperbole. There can be a sense that every warning is the direst warning ever, every discussion is the last possible moment to do anything and that can make people take some of this stuff less seriously.
Is that a concern for you? Is that something you see at these types of things where people are being hyperbolic or do you think this really is an existential crisis?
Philip Summerton: That's not necessarily the easiest thing to give a direct answer to because there's a range of understanding of what's going on.
The problem is, on some sides of things people take the least scenarios and think it's not as bad as you think it is and then some people take the most severe scenarios and go look it's really serious and we miss something which helps us to see the whole picture.
If you look at what's happening outside the COP grounds, with the protests and activists, there is a sense of, actually we have a really deep question, which we're asking, and the question is, is there hope and is there a future for us? At this moment, we're not sure, we don't know and decide to say potentially it could be very catastrophic, so we really want you to do something. Sometimes the acts maybe go a little bit far but I think there's a real genuine desire especially within the young generation that they do have something to live for, there is hope for them.
You've worked in the conservation world. How did you first get interested in this field?
Philip Summerton: I probably got interested in this field when I was a little boy, gardening alongside my grandparents. I've always had a love for growing things, seeing things flourish, and being able to share that joy with other people. I've always found a lot of joy within nature and creation around me, but that's where I really found my faith as well, within the outdoor world. As I grew up, I could see the beauty of it, but I was beginning to see where it was suffering, where it's being destroyed. As I was coming into my university studies, there was a lot of sea warming which was going on, which was causing lots of global bleaching. That piqued my interest and I wanted to look at it, study it and see what difference I might be able to make, and frankly, that’s the realm of study that I went into. I was doing coral investigation work as well as low-lying island restorations in the Indian Ocean.
What was the change that you saw in the coral reefs?
Philip Summerton: Corals are amazing, very symbiotic organisms. When they get stressed through extreme temperature or other stuff they release part of what they are so they release the photosynthetic elements of what they are.
If the bleaching is too extreme, they're unable to recover from that and the animal part of the coral is not able to gain enough energy and so it dies. What that does is, you get die off across the coral reef, which allows algae to grow upon it, which changes the ecosystems. That changes the fish life and changes the way that the system works and in the long term actually reduces food for the local area because fish life disappears and it also reduces the health of the water and eventually it doesn't look very good.
What does conservation look like in that kind of scenario? Climate change is the larger cause that you're talking about, but are there local efforts that you can make to try and preserve a specific coral reef?
Philip Summerton: Yeah, one is a combination of extreme temperature and also often runoff from land, so helping agriculture to change their practice a bit you get less runoff, less siltation within the water helps because then there's less stress. From that point of view, the corals have to cope with a bit less temperature stress.
The other thing which is encouraging for me to see is local efforts to what is called reseed for coral, you can regrow corals in a controlled environment and then plant them as you would plant on land. You can attach them to the base and then they'll regrow.
The other is temperature and temperature rise so then that's where it comes into a big picture of we need to do something about the climate, but there are ways of helping coral reefs to recover and restore themselves especially after the bleaching events because they won’t happen every single year. They are becoming a bit more frequent, but you can help the corals to recover from those.
You mentioned growing up gardening with your grandparents and experiencing your faith in that space. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
What kind of church were you involved in? How did your work with YWAM connect with your experience of being a gardener and a nature lover with your grandparents?
Philip Summerton: I grew up in an Anglican church in the church of England. That was my original church upbringing background. If you go over back to Genesis, God beautifully created everything, which is around us. It wasn’t just people, he took time to create the animals, he took time to create the land and the sea, stars, moon, everything that we see. There's something within the creation of nature and the creation of the solar system and everything else which reflects the generosity of God, the beauty of him, and the awe of him. If you look up at the night sky in a place where you don't have much light you just feel the immensity of what you can see, it just makes you feel very small but also puts awe into you of who created it. As I grew older and worked in the tropics being underwater and seeing the beauty of the creation on the water, it just speaks so much of who God is. I moved from that kind of work into YWAM, which is a missions organization, which looks to share the understanding and knowledge of God with anyone including me and wanting other people to know that there is a God and experience that he made all this is ties those two kinds of passions together.
Morgan Lee: I am wondering; for people who work either trying to fight climate change or do conservation work or working environment more broadly, how they wrestle with their faith when they are in a place where there's a lot of hard news that they have to confront, hard truths about the trajectory that the world is on with either the loss of biodiversity or the planet changing at a rate that seems unsustainable with regards to the temperature.
Did you have moments where you felt your faith challenged because of feeling discouraged overall by what was happening to the planet?
Philip Summerton: Yeah, I think I have. You look at the data sometimes, you look at the trajectory and it feels hopeless. But then there's another possibility because you know that God is a God who brings hope into any situation which we can experience and he also knows the hardship situations if you think about Calvary. He knows what it means to suffer and he knows what it means to experience difficulty but he never gave up on himself. So I've had moments where I've asked myself how is there any hope left in front of me and then being confronted by God again and saying there is hope. I've seen hope happen, I’ve seen restoration happening. I know that things can change, especially when we engage with God.
There's a great story for me, a couple in the States ran their paint stripping business and stripping doors, and they realized that what they were engaged with was causing a lot of harm to their workers because the chemicals are potent. They took some time to pray about it and ask God if they should give up the business and God gave him a dream of a chemical formula. When they synthesized the chemical that strips the paints as well as the strip that they had before, it didn't do the harm that it did to their workers and the environment so I know that when we engage with God and when we include him in the process, there is hope.
Daniel Silliman: One of the questions we always have to wrestle with when we talk about the global issue of climate change is how to apportion the responsibility or the burden.
How do you think about it? How much of the response to climate change needs to be individuals making better choices? How much of it needs to be businesses making commitments and how much should be governments and regulations. How do you understand the relationship between those responsibilities?
Philip Summerton: You can't have just one of them. I think that there has to be an aspect of individual understanding and choice, do I pick this product or this product and that can feel overwhelming. What I often say to people is just to pick one thing.
Businesses definitely have an obligation because they make a lot of money off of things, but also they sell all the products. There's an obligation in business to think through how are we responding to this. Businesses also often interplay with the government so the government makes legislation or businesses are doing something so the government will make ways for that to happen better.
So there has to be a good conversation between business and government about what is happening. A lot of people think about this maybe as an environmental issue, but actually, I think it's more of a moral issue.
Daniel Silliman: In reporting on some of these stories and talking to some CT readers, I sense that the common response for some American evangelicals is to think, “yes I am on board, I am concerned about this thing and happy to read about Christians at COP26 being active but I don't necessarily know what I should do. It seems like an insurmountable task. “
When you talk to people like that in your circumstances, where do you recommend that they start? What's the one thing that a faithful church member can take up?
Philip Summerton: If I'm on board, I understand something is going on, what is it that I can do? I can talk to someone else, I can have a conversation, I can learn. One of the things that I want to do is I want to be a learner for as many years as there are ahead of me.
I don't want to ever think that I know everything cause I know I don't and I want to learn. So I think it's going from, something is going on and I understand that but what do I do? Have some conversations, talk to each other about it. Think through, what can we do in our church?
There are some great resources around to help churches think through energy, recycling, composting, growing things, and so forth because that way you know that you're not alone and you can bounce ideas off other people too.
Morgan Lee: One thing that I find interesting about this work is that it involves the entire world, and that is something that when I'm in many evangelical spaces, many of them are global spaces where people from the West are in conversation with folks from the global South. Do you see it all the West’s moving slowly on these issues having missional repercussions with how seriously Christians in the global South might take the faith of Christians in the West, or causing tensions in the future around these issues?
Philip Summerton: With my role within YWAM, one of the things that we are talking about across missions is, how will this affect the way that mission happens and I do think that talking to friends here in the global South as well, there is a desire to see more action happen. There's lots of talk within the Western world, and there is some action happening, but I think we need the Western world as a whole to take another step.
I know that often these things can start slowly and then they pick up momentum as they go. One of the things which I've seen happening here within this conference is stronger commitments, desire to do more, and promises to do more. So I think we're definitely going in the right direction and being in this space, it does feel very hopeful from both perspectives.
We need to not just have two weeks and then go back to business as it was, but have these two weeks and then take a step into what has been promised.
Morgan Lee: I'm glad to see that you brought up the word hope.
How does that look like when it's in my space like COP26, would you say that people feel nervous about feeling hopeful about these things, they feel burned out, there have been other times where stuff has not worked out, or are people open to believing that there might be a way to cool the changing temperature of the planet?
Philip Summerton: I've had interesting conversations with people on a range of spectrums on that. I think overall there is a sense of hope. We’ve had agreements already on reversing deforestation. We’ve had agreements on releasing more finances. We've had agreements on moving away from coal in the next 10 years.
Some of these things are theoretical things and potentials but are now being signed by many different countries and organizations. I think in that respect that there is already a sense of things that are being achieved and there are things that feel like we are taking a step and we are starting to move in that direction.
From that point of view, there isn’t major hope but definitely a tentative “this is feeling like something is happening.”
Were you part of this prayer movement that we mentioned at the beginning of the podcast?
Philip Summerton: Yes, I have been.
Morgan Lee:What was the reaction to people who are outside the church about that movement? Was it one of gratefulness that these Christian organizations were getting involved or did people make suggestions that there was not enough action?
I know that in the US we've had some issues in recent years after mass shootings, for instance, with politicians responding by saying they're going to pray for something, and there's emerged a really deep cynicism towards both. I would say some Christians feel like prayer is something that politicians hide behind and say that they're doing without actually doing anything to address the problem. There's just this sense that prayer is not serious when people are saying that.
What is the range of reactions that you got to this initiative?
Philip Summerton: A big range of reaction surveys. Its interesting especially engaging with some of the activists. There's a paper release back in the sixties or seventies, in which one of the points was blaming the church for where are we going for some of the environmental crises.
I think a lot of them seeing people praying, but also seeing people take action out of some of that as well and conclude that people are serious about this and it's opened up conversations across the board for we're here because we believe that God cares about this and we want to do something, but we don't know where to start exactly. So we can start by praying and then we're going to take a step from that and advocate for something. There's almost a welcoming and impactfulness for a desire within the Christian world to take this seriously in a way that our faith expresses through prayer.
Why would you say that the climate change movement needs Christians?
Philip Summerton: I think because we have a perspective on the world, which is maybe a little bit different. I come back to this sense of hope. A Christian has a sense of more than just yourselves and solutions can come from more than just themselves. So I think there's an important place for that to be a part of the discussion otherwise it relies on mankind itself to fix the problem.
The other thing is that we not just profess, but seek to recognize the selfishness of the human heart and greed, so we can help others to recognize where the greed is maybe playing a role or selfishness or other things and look at how do we lay some of that down and step beyond race and see some sort of change.
COP26 continues through the end of next week. What are you praying for while you're there? Who are you praying for?
Philip Summerton: I'm praying that we get a good outcome or a godly outcome. What that means exactly I don't know, but I think I believe that God is interested in what this conference is about and about the decisions which come out of it because he's interested in his creation, in the human race, and how we love one another and how we move forward with one another. He's not disinterested in what is going on and he wants to be a part of it. My prayer for this time is that we were able to come together and we're able to come out to this with a new sense of this is how we're moving forward globally as a people, how we are going to love one another well from one nation to another, how we are going to support one another through the difficult times which are to come.
Morgan Lee: I thought the story that you told a couple of minutes ago about how climate change is currently playing out in Zimbabwe was just constructive for our listeners to hear.
Are there any other specific outcomes that you might encourage our listeners to pray for? Are you aware of any other situations, where people are facing pretty dire climate circumstances that could also use the prayers of our listeners?
Philip Summerton: Yeah, the Maldives is quite a good example. They've created a sovereign fund within the nation based on their income from tourism and they're looking at the moment where they might purchase a Homeland because if the sea level rises enough a lot of the Maldives will disappear.
I would also add low-lying Pacific islands. When the really big Christmas tsunami happened, a lot of the islands had the water run straight over the top of them. It didn't hit them into the sea because they had maybe a meter above sea level. So I think praying for practical solutions for those who are in the most vulnerable situations to be worked out within these next two weeks would be a good thing to pray for.