Pacific ‘in peril’ if COP26 doesn’t work, warns regional church leader

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Reverend James Bhagwan
Pacific Council of Churches secretary-general Reverend James Bhagwan ... "we are way off track on climate change'. Image: Peter Kenny/The Ecumenical

By Peter Kenny in Geneva

The Pacific Islands are in grave danger and at the frontline of global climate change and the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, known as COP26, in Glasgow this week is vitally important for islanders, says Reverend James Bhagwan.

The general secretary of the Suva-based regional Pacific Conference of Churches visited Geneva last week on his way to COP26 in Scotland’s largest city taking place from today until November 12.

“COP26 is important because if this doesn’t work, then we’re in serious danger. It’s already obvious that many of the targets set during the Paris Agreement in 2015 have not been met,” says Reverend Bhagwan with passion and sadness tinging his voice.

COP26 GLASGOW 2021

“We’re in danger of going well beyond the 1.5C limit of carbon emissions that we need to maintain where we’re at.”

The Pacific Conference has a membership of 33 churches and 10 national councils of churches spread across 19 Pacific Island countries and territories, effectively covering one-third of the world’s surface.

Some progress on countering the effects of climate change have been made in global awareness, says Reverend Bhagwan, a Methodist minister.

The return of the United States to the treaty around it helps.

“And even though there is significant commitment to reduce carbon emissions by countries to as much as 26 percent of those countries that have committed, globally we’re going to see an increase of carbon emissions by 19 plus percent by 2030, which isn’t far away—that’s nine years away,” rues Reverend Bhagwan.

Greenhouse gases warning
On October 25, the World Meteorological Organisation secretary-general Dr Petteri Taalas, releasing a report on greenhouse gases, confirmed Reverend Bhagwan’s worries in a warning:

“We are way off track. At the current rate of increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, we will see a temperature increase by the end of this century far in excess of the Paris Agreement targets of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.”

Reverend Bhagwan said his churches’ group covers from the Marshall Islands in the northern Pacific across to Ma’ohi Nui (French Polynesia) in the eastern Pacific, down to Aotearoa New Zealand in the southern Pacific.

The conference also has member churches in West Papua and Australia, and it serves a population of some 15 million people.

For the members of the Pacific region churches, climate change is not an abstract issue.

‘Frontline’ of climate change
“We are on the frontline of climate change; we have rising seas we have ocean acidification which affects our fish and the life of the ocean,” says Reverend Bhagwan.

“We have extreme weather events now regularly, and the category five cyclones which, in the past, would be the exception to the rule for us, now are the baseline for our extreme weather events. During the cyclone season, at least one cyclone will be category five.

“And so, you just pray that either it goes past, or it drops enough when it reaches us, and usually these systems do not affect just one country.”

Reverend Bhagwan notes that the churches in the Pacific region play a much more integral role in society than they do in some of the secular nations.

Because of the covid-19 pandemic, “we’re not getting as many Pacific Islanders attending COP26 as we would like, both in governments and in civil society.

“And so, it’s important that those who can come do so. We, the church, play a very significant role in the Pacific. The Pacific is approximately 90 percent Christian, particularly within the island communities.

“And so, we have significant influence within the region, working with governments. But we also recognise ourselves as part of the civil society space,” said Reverend Bhagwan.

“And so, we have that ability in the Pacific to walk in these spaces, because leaders, government leaders, ministers, workers, civil servants — they’re members of our churches.

“So, we are providing pastoral care and engagement with those in leadership and government leadership, but also that prophetic voice.”

Peter Kenny is a journalist of The Ecumenical.

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