Out of the Overflow of the Heart

Kurahautū Editor, The Reverend Blythe Cody.

20 December 2023

Words may show a man’s wit but actions his meaning.

—Benjamin Franklin

There were two gatherings in 1992 that had a significant impact on the way in which the environment would be discussed on a global scale.

The first was a meeting of the UN Security Council where a statement was issued by the council’s president, declaring that beyond the traditionally accepted threats to peace, others had emerged. Among these was an environmental threat: “The absence of war and military conflicts amongst States does not in itself ensure international peace and security. Non-military sources of instability in economic, social, humanitarian and ecological fields can also constitute threats to international peace and security.” (United Nations Security Council, Doc. S/23500 of 31 January 1992). This signaled that the Council was enlarging the definition of what would constitute a threat to international peace and security, climate change being one of those threats.

The second gathering in 1992 was the very first COP (COP stands for Conference of the Parties, meaning, in this case, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change).

Perhaps this is why leaders of Western countries, who through historic industrialisation and fossil fuel use have been the world’s largest contributors to climate change (though China was the biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses in 2022, the average American is responsible for nearly twice as much climate pollution as the average person living in China), have described the climate crisis as an existential threat to humanity’s very existence.

The founder of the ‘Planetary Security Initiative’, Alexande Verbeek describes climate change as “a new enemy. It has no flag, no leader … But it is a killer … operating worldwide to destabilize societies, and it is gaining strength.” According to John Kerry (Joe Biden’s Climate Envoy), “America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is.” This was made evident with the US Secretary of Defense issuing the following statement,  “Today, no nation can find lasting security without addressing the climate crisis. We face all kinds of threats in our line of work, but few of them truly deserve to be called existential. The climate crisis does…climate change is making the world more unsafe and we need to act.”

Australia has formed the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group. One group member, former Secretary of Defence Lloyd J Astin III lamented that, “…Australia is ill prepared for climate impacts, with climate security risks not being fully assessed or understood in Australia…We are being left behind, with some of our closest allies already taking action. In the US, the Biden Administration has elevated climate change to a high-level national security issue, with significant stature within national security decision-making.”

On 16 August 2023, military leaders attended the US-Indo Pacific Chiefs of Defence Conference in Nadi, Fiji, where they discussed the “threat” of climate change, among other security concerns. The theme of the summit was “Preserving the Rules-Based Order to Enable Sovereignty in an Era of Strategic Competition”

We have become comfortable with portraying climate change, our environment, rising waters and temperatures, and perhaps even earth itself as an existential threat that must be addressed in military fashion.

So, each year since 1992, leaders from around the world gather to discuss the climate crisis, to put words to this existential threat to international peace and security and to debate how it will be addressed. COP28, held in December 2023, was the biggest climate meeting ever. An estimated 97,000 people arrived in-person at some point during the two-week talks, with another 3000 attending remotely. To say that climate change is an existential threat is one thing, to agree on how it should be fought and how we define the enemy is another.

COP gatherings are notorious for their heated debates on the wording of resolutions. Some countries refuse to agree to a resolution that is too strongly worded and others hold their ground (there were all-night discussions at COP2 ) until an agreement can be reached. The winners of the debates, however, are not in favour of stronger tactics to match their military language; the winners of these debates want to ensure that any resolution is non-binding, voluntary and without consequence. Little has changed since the very first COP when then US president George Bush spoke these seemingly contradictory statements:

“The idea of sustaining the planet so that it may sustain us is as old as life itself. We must leave this earth in better condition than we found it.”

“The American way of life is not up for negotiation. Period.”

In 1995, global carbon-dioxide emissions amounted to twenty-three billion metric tons. This year, the total is expected to be about thirty-seven billion tons, an increase of around sixty per cent. Meanwhile, cumulative emissions—which, from a climate perspective, are what count—have doubled.

What happens when a nation that declares war on an existential threat is itself identified as that threat? Nothing happens. Nations want an enemy outside their own borders – that’s why the idea of climate as an existential threat appeals to leaders in the first place. We want to eliminate the threat but we don’t want to fight our greed, our selfishness, or our colonial privilege.

The President of the Republic of Nauru spoke these words during a UN Security Counsel open debate in 2011, “In my frustration, I often wonder where we would be if the roles were reversed. What if the pollution coming from our island nations was threatening the very existence of the major emitters? What would the nature of today’s debate be under those circumstances?”

We need to find new words to talk about our earth, to talk about how we will help those most impacted by environmental disasters and climate change. And we need leaders who will turn those words into actions.

At the end of September 2023, a group of Anglican academic theologians, ministers, bishops, archbishops, and leaders of Anglican colleges and schools, gathered for the inaugural hui of the Anglican Indigenous Leadership Initiative (AILI). Leaders gathered from around Aotearoa, Australia, Tonga, Fiji, Sāmoa, Melanesia, Hawai’i, the United States, Canada, and Brazil. The AILI hui resulted in the generation of concrete goals and aspirations for indigenous Anglicans. These reflected the participants’ strong desire for transformative change and for new structures and relationships through which that change might be achieved and developed over time.

During the AILI hui key matters that were addressed included the inadequate and unjust systems and structures that currently work toward mitigating the impacts of climate change, both within and outside of the Church. A clear conclusion emerged that there is a need for a response that is grounded in Te Oranga Ake, that recognizes our spiritual, ancestral and physical connection to the world we live in and our responsibility to care for it. In its first step toward creating a new approach to climate leadership, AILI will be holding an indigenous led and mātauranga grounded  environmental justice hui in 2024. The world needs a new approach to combating climate change. Indigenous mātauranga leadership is the response the world has been waiting for.