COP26 and the Gospel of God

How can Christians engage in environmental discussions? Rev. Martin Paterson offers five ways in the lead up to COP26.

With COP26 due to take place in Glasgow next week, our Global Mission Adviser Rev. Martin Paterson explains why Christians should care about environmental issues.

COP26 31st Oct – 12th Nov

Article by Rev. Martin Paterson

In the coming weeks world leaders will gather in Glasgow for COP26 to discuss the global climate emergency. Though there are questions surrounding the events economic efficiency and environmental impact, discussions about the Earth’s climate are necessary. A brief glance back to the flash flooding in China and Europe, or videos of the Blade Runner-like cityscapes of California remind us why. For disciples of Christ in Scotland there is a question we need to ask about these talks. With the world looking at the city of Glasgow, how should we engage with COP26? 

Below I’m going to suggest 5 ways that we can do this which will help build bridges with friends and family at the school gate or the coffee shop. 

The Earth is the Lord’s 

First of all, indifference should not be our response. We do not worship the Earth, but we do acknowledge its worth. After all, the heavens and the earth are God’s property (Ps. 19:1-6; 24:1), something stressed throughout the Bible. Since this is the case, neglecting what God has made and cares for makes no sense in a biblical worldview. For Christians, the world in which we live bears the mark of God’s ownership and is the stage on which we live out the great commandment to love God with all we are and have (Matt 22:34-40). 

COP26 is not a distraction to gospel work. I would argue it is the opposite. This event raises wonderful questions and opportunities for each of us to connect with our colleagues and classmates about the value and worth of creation (Ps. 24:1). More than this, it helps us point towards the creator and saviour of the world (Col 1:16). What a great gospel connection for a society deeply concerned about creation but not the creator.  

Creation is broken yet beautiful 

Watching the sun set over the South China Sea from Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia) is a mesmerising experience. I’ll never forget seeing the blazing ball of fire descending into the ocean lighting up the archipelago of islands dotted off the coast. Each of us has our own memories of special moments where we have said “isn’t creation beautiful”. However, in the midst of this beauty we are all aware that there is brokenness. And it must never be underestimated that the current environmental problems we face are spiritual in origin. 

That’s what we hear Paul explaining in Romans 8:20-22. Creation faces an imposed frustration as a result of human rebellion, groaning for the day when futility will give way to glory. Whether in the garden of Eden or the globalised world we live in today, we must always remember that creation does not work as it should as a result of the fall (Gen 3). Human self-glorification destroys our relationship with God and others. What is often overlooked is that it destroys our relationship with the community of creation as well. 

However, this frustration is purposeful. Limits were placed on creation “in hope” (Rom 8:20). As we face up to the current climate challenges of our world, we do so recognising God’s promise of hope; there is a day of renewal coming. So when our friends and family are talking about how frustrating it is that nobody seems to care about the world, here is a message which speaks directly to that frustration. A message of hope for a seemingly hopeless world. 

An issue of neighbour love 

Neighbour love (Matt 22:39) in a globalised world is complex. From the food we consume to the clothes we wear, our everyday decisions are interconnected with people living in other parts of the world. Many of the places we depend upon for cheap products to make life more convenient are those most directly affected by extreme weather. As Ruth Valerio has recently noted I see all too clearly the devastating impact of climate breakdown on people in poverty. As global temperatures rise, rains are becoming less reliable and droughts, floods and storms are becoming more frequent and extreme. Across much of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the weather is swinging between extreme floods and extreme droughts.”[1]

Extreme weather conditions are not the norm for Scotland and this shapes our response. The luxury of ignorance can be embraced by those who do not have the problem landing at their doorstep. And yet the demand of neighbour love suggests an altogether more comprehensive response. Doesn’t discussion of the global environment force us to assess our own patterns of consumption?  

There is such potential for us to model repentance before God on this issue of excessive consumption. We are not changing our lifestyle because it is the next fad, neither are we doing so because we have co-opted a form of New Age spirituality. No, we are choosing to deny ourselves, live life God’s way and seek to love our global neighbours. 

Where is our trust? 

What will be achieved at COP26 is still anyone’s guess and in years to come we will have a clearer picture of whether it was a generation defining moment. However, for believers in Christ there is a wonderful reminder tucked away in the centre of the Bible giving us a helpful perspective on the upcoming summit; “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes” (Ps. 118:8-9).  

Chinese premier Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have both signalled that they will not be attending COP26. But whether certain heads of state attend or not these people are not our place of ultimate hope or trust. As fellow human beings they are weak, flawed and passing. Instead we put our trust in the one who owns the earth and holds the stars in place with scarred hands. There is a need for high level political discussion of the climate challenges facing the world, and our leaders should seek to do this with diligence and efficiency.  However, expecting leaders to liberate creation from decay is unrealistic, unfair and unbiblical. The liberation of creation is God’s prerogative. 

We long for a new creation 

Perhaps one of the greatest points of connection we will have in the coming weeks with colleagues and neighbours is our shared desire for the world to work. For climate problems to be a thing of the past and decay to be relegated to history. Isn’t that the climax of Christian hope? A renewed creation (Rev 21:1) where flora and fauna, humanity and the urban world coexist in harmony with their maker and saviour (Rev 22:1-2). 

Chris Wright helpfully explains that “by God’s incredible grace we have a gospel big enough to deal with all that sin and evil has touched. And every dimension of that good news is good news utterly and only because of the blood of Christ on the cross.”[2]

When our friends and neighbours express their deepest discontent, we can sensitively and joyfully point to a compelling alternative. A coming day where the fullness of Christ’s achievement at the cross will be our experience. A curse less existence in a Christological ecotopia. 

Whether COP26 will be a line in the sand for environmental change will only be seen in the decades which follow. In the meantime, we have an opportunity which God has placed on the radar of our culture rich with points of connection to his Son and the gospel of his grace.  

[1] Ruth Valerio, “Why COP26 Matters – A Christian Response”, (Accessed 21/10/21). 

[2] Christopher J. H. Wright., The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bibles Grand Narrative, (Leicester: IVP, 2006), 315.