Hope is not an emotion. It is a discipline. Those two short sentences registered with me recently during an evening ZOOM session. Rob Samulack, an Ottawa nurse, and an environmentalist described his experiences at the COP 26 UN Climate Conference held in Glasgow between October 31 and November 13, 2021. He was there as an official observer with the Christian Climate Observers Program, an inter-denominational, international faith group.
The letters C-O-P are an abbreviation for Conference of the Parties, and Glasgow was the 26th such annual summit. At a similar meeting in Paris in 2015, countries pledged to take actions which would maintain global temperatures at less than 2C above what they were at pre-industrial levels. The aspirational goal was to keep those temperatures at 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
Prior to arriving in Glasgow 200 countries were asked to revisit the climate pledges made under the 2015 Paris Agreement, and to present what plans they had to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. As we know from a series of increasingly urgent reports from the international Panel on Climate Change, the earth’s atmosphere is warming and that is already causing unprecedented destruction. Think drought on the prairies, wildfires and recent catastrophic flooding in British Columbia, storms, and torrential rains in the Atlantic provinces.
Samulack is 33 years old and has young children. He trained as an engineer but later became a nurse. He attends a church just down the street from my house, and he is a member of a local study-action group for water. He was interviewed by Dr. Eric Schiller, also an engineer, and a member of the Quaker community in Ottawa, which organized the ZOOM call.
Samulack was modest and made no claim to be a climate expert, although he is obviously a well-educated individual. He said that he applied to attend COP26 after seeing and smelling the country go up in smoke in the summer of 2021. “I was at a point of despair in the summer. I felt powerless. Climate change is not abstract and in the future. It is here right now. I went to Glasgow because I want to be more involved in environmental activism.” He was there for a week.
He said that his goal was to bear witness and to report back. “I was there with 40 thousand people, NGOs and activists. I learned a lot and made connections. I was blown away by how much we had in common.”
He attended seminars, vigils, and a climate march. He was in a group that met with two Green Party MPs from Canada. He met with former US Vice-President Al Gore and his daughter, a seminary professor. She said that addressing climate change is both a moral and theological issue.
The activists were not in the negotiating rooms, however, and there is frustration about how some countries, the biggest emitters among them, worked to water down pledges to act. Samulack agreed that success at COP26 was partial at best. (For a summary of those commitments, please see this link from the BBC.)
“We did make some steps forward,” Samulack said. “There were some commitments made, but will they (leaders) follow through? That remains to be seen. We must do more to put pressure on our politicians. We can be proactive, or we can go kicking and screaming. Either way, we will have to change.”
Hope or despair
Dr. Schiller, the ZOOM panel moderator, has worked on environmental projects in Canada and abroad. He described his own “eco-anxiety” and his personal remedy. “We are heading into utter chaos. Doing something is a means of therapy, and more and more people are getting that.”
“Yes,” said Samulack. “We had themes of hope in our morning devotions (in Glasgow). “We agreed that hope is not an emotion. It is a discipline, day-to-day. Little changes add up.”
Samulack had promised to bear witness in Glagsow and to report back. He said that we were his first audience and that he was somewhat nervous. There was a question period. Near its end I asked what would change in his life because of his time in Glasgow.
He said that his immediate plan was to talk to as many people as possible about what he saw and heard in Glasgow. In the longer term, he plans to do more studies to prepare for work in public health, especially at it relates to climate.
I wish him well and respect his commitment. We should all, as he has, ask ourselves what we are going to do.
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