After COP22, the importance of sub-national groups

by Donna Schaper

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When Episcopal Bishop Marc Handley Andrus of California first mentioned the words “sub-national groups” here at COP22, I thought what an ugly word for so much beauty. "Sub-" is not very complimentary. Neither is "national." And “group” is a lightweight word for the constellations of actors who care about climate.

Then I listened to his subtly strategic hope and changed my mind. I would not use the language “sub-national groups” so much as transnational, subterranean spiritual clusters. But still, the idea that we are both expressing through the terms is the best result of COP22, the United Nations annual climate change conference.

“Sub-national” was the hopeful strategic word of the day during the second week of the climate summit. It comprehended the Donald Trump election and said that if we can’t have national leadership, we will have sub-national leadership. Non-states have come into their own. The new actors are the NGOs, the denominations, the Vatican. They are constellated organizations of people who side with each other on a particular issue; the divest/invest constellation comes to mind, composed as it is of several foundations in one cooperation.

More: "At COP22 and on Capitol Hill, faith groups step up climate efforts" (Nov. 17, 2016)

The European Union had put up signs early in the COP. They were acting like a super-national group and seemed to know way before the conference started where it might go. “The EU welcomes non-state partners in attending to climate chaos,” read one sign I saw in a dozen places my first day here. It was joined by the ubiquitous Moroccan signature trio sign, of “Act, Actuare, Agir,” which was often partnered with “No one will be able to tell our children we didn’t know.”

Andrus dedicated his time in Marrakech to organizing eight days of prayer in the Agora — the marketplace of COP22’s Green Zone that is open to the public — for small actors who wanted to gather other small (or so-called small) actors. About 40 people actively prayed daily, about 80 percent of whom were Muslim women. Their prayers and more can be found on the “Spiritual Sustainability” Facebook page.

The themes for each of the eight days were reverence, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, courage, honesty, sorrow and inter-being. Quoting the Rev. Sally Bingham of Interfaith Power and Light, Andrus spoke of the “inconvenient truth that power is poorly distributed and needs fundamental redistribution.” He also spoke about the real “renewables,” being spiritual and moral. Both of these core theological principles show up in sub-national groups that renew the national attempts.

Taking a more strategic turn, Andrus argued that the new leadership in the United States had created a large opening for other forms of leadership to emerge. If climate deniers take over large countries, then climate strategists need to find other ways, he said, beyond the nation-state or countries approach, to make real the full name of the COPs — the Conference of the Parties.

I like to call this approach solar or wind spirituality. Andrus calls it “faith plus,” and talked about how many scientists and business people were hungry for that renewable plus, as well.

A less religious form of spirituality was also very present in the Agora at the “re-evaluation counseling” booth. Not only were people gathered for prayer on their lunch hour, they were also standing in long lines outside a booth under the name of “Sustaining All Life.” There they engaged in a process of sitting and listening called “re-evaluation counseling.” The lines stretched at each end of the booth, longer than for those taking pictures of themselves standing in front of electric cars.

Sustaining All Life is an international grassroots organization based in Seattle that is teaching re-evaluation counseling to the globe. Re-evaluation counseling is a well-defined theory and practice that helps people of all ages and backgrounds exchange effective help with each other in order to free themselves from their emotional scars or hurts. By taking turns listening to each other and encouraging emotional release, people can heal old hurts and become better able to think, to speak out and to organize a world where human beings and other life forms are valued and the environment is restored and preserved. 

This listening might well be the only way we can get to the roots of an environmental crisis. It is surely small and likewise surely important. We must learn to touch it and each other.

“Touchability” is a spiritual theme I would add to the entire mix here. We often feel that we can’t touch a way forward. If the ways forward get more local and personal and more touchable — in “sub” national groups — perhaps the climate chaos of today will become the climate peace of tomorrow.

Untouchable now, our goals could be touched tomorrow.

[Donna Schaper is senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City. She attended the final week of COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco.]

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