Tzu Chi at COP26:

Calling for Individual Action on Climate Change

(Part 1)

Tzu Chi at COP26: Part 1 – Calling for Individual Action on Climate Change

By Ida Eva Zielinska
Photos by Tzu Chi SDG Action Team

Inside the COP venue, a group unfurls a poster asking for delegates to save our future now.

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Securing a brighter future for our children and future generations requires countries to take urgent action at home and abroad to turn the tide on climate change. It is with ambition, courage, and collaboration as we approach the crucial COP26 summit in the UK that we can seize this moment together, so we can recover cleaner, rebuild greener, and restore our planet,” stated Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, prior to the opening of the United Nations Annual Climate Change Conference hosted by the UK in 2021.

This 26th convening of COP, which stands for Conference of the Parties, took place in Glasgow, Scotland, from November 1 to 12. However, representatives of the Parties, signatories of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – the 1994 treaty between 196 countries and the EU tasked with coordinating the global response to the threat of climate change – were not the only attendees. COP26, the largest summit in history, drew together a total of 38,457 delegates, from heads of state to climate experts, campaigners, representatives of non-governmental organizations, members of civil society, the global news media, and more.

The Tzu Chi SDG (Sustainable Deve-lopment Goals) Action Team and other Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation representatives were among the delegates. The Foundation joined UNFCCC in 2012, beginning as a climate observer at COP18 in Doha, Qatar, and has organized a participating team since COP19 in Warsaw, Poland, in 2013. Following Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s directive as Tzu Chi’s founder, the goal has been to help identify problems, establish consensus, and implement action, with action being at the forefront in 2021 and with good reason.

1. Nature in Peril

It’s no wonder that the 2021 climate conference was the largest to date, as the global climate crisis has reached a critical state and the time for drastic action is now. The Climate Action Tracker is an independent scientific analysis that follows and measures government climate action against the globally agreed 2015 Paris Agreement to hold warming well below 2°C and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. It has stated that current policies “are projected to result in about 2.7°C warming above pre-industrial levels.”

Such a rise is catastrophic and translates to widespread and severe impacts on people and nature. As stated on the COP26 website before the summit, even at 2°C of global warming, the situation is menacing: “A third of the world’s population would be regularly exposed to severe heat, leading to health problems and more heat-related deaths. Almost all warm-water coral reefs would be destroyed, and the Arctic sea ice would melt entirely at least one summer per decade, with devastating impacts on the wildlife and communities they support. And, we cannot rule out the possibility that irreversible loss of ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic could be triggered, leading to several meters of sea-level rise over centuries to come.”

With severe droughts, unheard-of storms, extreme heatwaves, flooded cities, the projected vista laid out before us is alarming. We’re already experiencing aspects of this new climate reality on top of the tremendous losses in earth’s biodiversity due to the progression of species extinctions. Moreover, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees data, the number of people displaced by climate change-related disasters rose to 21.5 million since 2010, as populations face loss and damages, health issues, and food and water shortages.

The impact of climate change on the Arctic is of grave concern.

What sets this year’s conference apart from previous ones is the level of urgency going into it. The window to act on climate change is rapidly closing, and there are many who see this conference as one of the last chances to secure a globally coordinated approach to limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Jason Bordoff
Co-Founding Dean, Columbia Climate School
Founding Director, Center on Global Energy Policy

Thus, COP26 set four goals, namely: Secure global net-zero by mid-century and keep 1.5°C within reach by requiring countries to come up with ambitious plans to reduce their emissions; adapt to protect communities and natural habitats; mobilize finance, as under the COP21 2015 Paris Agreement, developed countries committed to spending $100 billion to finance climate adaptation and emissions reduction; and enhance collaboration by defining and agreeing on the detailed rules of the Paris Agreement and accelerating action against climate change.

2. A Vigil to Set the Tone

The day before the official start of COP26 meetings, on October 31, leaders from nine different faith traditions and faith-based organizations, including Buddhist Tzu Chi, gathered for a vigil. Interfaith Glasgow and Interfaith Scotland, charities that aim to facilitate engagement between people of all beliefs on matters of importance, organized the gathering.

The climate crisis, the planet is something that people of all faiths are deeply concerned about, and there was a really strong will here and around the world for people of all faiths to come together to make their voices clear that we need action, we need real action now. And we wanted to begin on this, the first day of COP, with an opportunity for prayerful reflection.

Dr. Magdalen Lambkin
Development Director and COP26 Vigil Organizer
Interfaith Glasgow

The participants held the world’s most vulnerable populations close at heart in their prayers. Brian McGee, Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, brought their plight to the fore, saying, “Our brothers and sisters, our neighbors across the world, are starving, and some of them are dying, and their lives have been ruined because of the climate emergency.”

Others, such as Ravinder Kaur Nijjar, Advisor to Sikhs in Scotland, expressed the hope that the event’s collective spiritual voice calling for action would reach those with decision-making power, saying, “I hope this goes to the COP26 negotiators and the political leaders and they make the right, wise decisions for all of us.”

And, many called for individual commitment and action, one group of participants having walked about 500 miles from London to Glasgow to attend the vigil. “We wanted to be a witness to the communities that we pass through, so we walked about ten miles every day and then we would engage with the local community and talk to them about climate justice and what needs to be done,” Barbara Wilson, one of the pilgrims shared.

Rev. Dr. Joshtrom Isaac Kureethadam, whom the Tzu Chi team met in the days ahead, came to COP26 as part of the Vatican Delegation to bring a plea from Pope Francis:

‘We need to listen to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor, and we really need to respond to these cries.’ And another cry, if I might add, is the cry of the youth and children. So, our presence here is a message from Pope Francis that, ‘It is time to act, time to act together.’ We really hope that we can change the world from the bottom up. Ordinary people can act.

Rev. Dr. Joshtrom Isaac Kureethadam
Coordinator, Ecology and Creation
Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development
Brian McGee, Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, came to pray for those most severely impacted by climate crisis.

Debra Boudreaux, the CEO of Tzu Chi USA and Tzu Chi SDG Action Team Lead, equally invited individual action, saying, “Your voices count. If you don’t participate, if you’re not engaged, people won’t hear your concept, ideology, or belief. Your voices need to be heard.” Wise global citizenship, compassion in action, taking personal responsibility for one’s environmental footprint, and making an effort to raise awareness would be at the center of Tzu Chi’s message as a faith-based organization at COP26.

Climate action can be a form of daily practice. In that regard, Tzu Chi fiercely advocates adopting a plant-based diet, recycling, abandoning reliance on single-use plastic products, curbing consumption, and more. Its vision and action framework would emerge through eleven press conferences, a side event, and an exhibit featuring Tzu Chi’s “compassionate technology.” The conferences also covered Tzu Chi’s aid in regions gravely impacted by climate change and described efforts to mobilize collective action in different sectors.

I know people always argue, ‘Why are we coming over here? So many times it’s just talking.’ But in reality, while we’re talking, we also see people changing. So, every year we come back here. We continue to renew our statement. It can help if everyone contributes their effort, wisdom, and compassion in action to support Mother Earth. We have to be here.

Debra Boudreaux
Tzu Chi USA CEO
Tzu Chi SDG Action Team Lead

3. The Earth Doesn’t Belong to Humanity Alone

As leaders began their meetings on November 1, at the invitation of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Debra Boudreaux represented Tzu Chi at a press conference entitled “Climate and Nature: The Role of Faith-Based Organizations in Securing a Nature Positive World for All.” Gavin Edwards, the global coordinator of the New Deal for Nature and People at WWF International, moderated the panel and began by presenting the grim facts that nearly a million species face extinction, and 68% of wildlife populations have declined since 1970.

The panel then addressed faith-based perspectives on how making adjustments to modern human life can help resolve the climate crisis and protect the environment from further degradation. To begin, Karenna Gore, Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, brought factors such as interconnection and balance to light. Her father, former US Vice President Albert Arnold Gore Jr., a dedicated environmentalist, was also in the audience.

Karenna Gore’s father, Al Gore, a former US vice president and avid environmentalist, attends the WWF press conference.

Karenna Gore highlighted how human beings and nature are not separate: “That is an illusion, and the climate crisis is part of waking up to that illusion.” She went on to pinpoint how “we’re living with the result of a value system in which development has come at the expense of nature and justice towards certain people, poor people, and future generations of all people.” But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Ethics – it’s the discernment of right and wrong and the implications for human behavior, individually and collectively. Faith communities have a lot to offer here – roughly over 80% of the world has some sense of religious belonging in which they find a way to perceive and discern moral obligation. As faith voices have expressed in different ways, we don’t need to fix nature as much as fix our behavior towards nature. Commercial activities that people enjoy and help them meet their needs and quality of life can also be in balance with the health of the natural world.

Karenna Gore
Founder and Executive Director
Center for Earth Ethics

Daniel Perell, United Nations Representative for the Baha’i International Community, then contributed three elements to the conversation of what we can draw from Baha’i teachings to address climate change and protect nature. The first was the concept of “unity in diversity,” the second, “settled consensus,” and the third, “a learning approach,” all fundamental to the Baha’i faith, which respects the worth of all religions and promotes the unity of all people. 

Daniel Perell contributes advice from the highly inclusive Baha’i faith.

In terms of diversity, Perell called on all to see it as a source of strength rather than competition. By striving to attain settled consensus, which religious belief traditions exemplify, one seeks to express the group accord through collective behavior change. And finally, a learning approach is essential:

We don’t have the answers that are the final answers. We have many approaches, we have a long menu of great ideas, and I think we require the will and the capacity to choose them, and that’s what I think we’re calling on world leaders to do. But to say that we know for sure what the solutions are would be, actually, to limit our horizons. So, if we treat this as a learning process, I think we’ll create tremendous advancements. This is what we try to do in the Baha’i community and try to bring to the international sphere to the best of our ability.

Daniel Perell
United Nations Representative
Baha’i International Community

Sister Jayanti Kirpalani, UN representative and European Director of the Brahma Kumaris worldwide spiritual movement, spoke of the importance of inner transformation, in that “whatever starts inside is going to reach outside,” and can help reduce the current emphasis on material consumption as the source of happiness. “There has to be a way to find that inner contentment which comes through spiritual values. Then we’re able to simplify our lifestyle [and] make the right choices in terms of not just our own physical comforts but [what’s] good for the whole of the planet and biodiversity.”

Kirpalani called on us to expand our definition and experience of love to embrace all of creation as equally valuable, a notion present in many spiritual traditions:

Spirituality offers this awareness that all life is sacred, and when we have that awareness of not just peace in my own mind, but peace with others, human beings, but also peace with all forms of nature [and] living creatures, and the very elements themselves, with this consciousness, there can be a transformation so that we come together and work together for the greater good, for not just our own survival but also something for the whole world.

Sister Jayanti Kirpalani
UN Representative and European Director
Brahma Kumaris

Gopal Patel, Co-Founder and Director of Bhumi Global, a non-profit organization that works to educate and mobilize Hindu communities globally for environmental action, brought the ideas of harmony and service to the table:

We live in a world that is not in harmony with itself. That’s because we’ve lost this spirit of service and giving to others in a selfless manner. In Hinduism, there’s this concept called ‘rta’ [in Sanskrit, which states] that there’s a universal order and balance in the cosmos ... created from the beginning of time. And that balance and harmony only run if we live in a spirit and mood of service. When balance and harmony are not there, that’s when you see ecological degradation, catastrophes, climate change, biodiversity loss. I think service is at heart, one of the most important things we need to revive in our communities to restore the environment.

Gopal Patel
Co-Founder and Director, Bhumi Global

Debra Boudreaux, Tzu Chi SDG Action Team Lead, then presented a Buddhist perspective on the climate crisis, which asserts that “all the things happening right now are from greed, anger, frustration, negligence, and attachment to desire.”

Debra Boudreaux calls for mindfulness in daily life.

As we share these mental and emotional attributes as human beings, we all play an individual role. And, since we contribute to climate change, we should ask ourselves, “How are we going to look into ourselves to become a good global citizen?” “From love, from sacrifice, now it’s action,” she advised, which we can implement in various ways, with far-reaching impact:

The implementation is, really, mindfulness. Be mindful. People change, behavior changes; it comes from your daily practice. The practice starts with food, clothing materials, housing, transportation. At Tzu Chi, we share the 80-20 movement. If we can eat just 80% of our food every day, we can reserve 20%. Put that 20% into your food bank. Then that 20% can help another population in need. Through the love, sacrifice that we put into action, we can create an opportunity for equal food access.

Debra Boudreaux
Tzu Chi USA CEO, Tzu Chi SDG Action Team Lead

Thus, reigning in our desires, even in terms of eating, can reduce our personal consumption of resources while helping those in need. Finally, Boudreaux shared the message of Tzu Chi’s founder about how the current world situation is a wake-up call: “Dharma Master Cheng Yen is always saying this is the best time to turn our wisdom into consciousness and practice with compassion. That will be a good lesson learned from the pandemic, from natural disasters: To protect our nature’s life.”

Sister Jayanti Kirpalani calls for inner transformation to help us shift away from excessive material consumption.
Gopal Patel brings insights from Hinduism regarding the value of selfl ess service that aligns with the universal order in the cosmos.

Humanity can accomplish a great deal towards protecting Earth and Mother Nature while mitigating climate change by transforming its global food systems and eating habits. Tzu Chi and several partners would present this view at three press conferences and a side event during COP26. They honed in on the negative impacts of industrial animal agriculture and consumption of animal-based products while revealing the broad range of benefits of plant-based diets and how reformed food systems could reduce carbon emissions and even help prevent a future pandemic.

Given Tzu Chi’s emphasis on advocating plant-based diets
at COP26, we provide complete coverage in “Protecting Animals Protects Us All.

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