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The big news on the creation-care front was that we, in North America, woke up to newly-revealed final language in the COP28’s First Global Stocktake on Wednesday.

COP28 is an abbreviation for “Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement” on climate change. The Paris Agreement (2015) is a binding international treaty to try to prevent earth’s mean global surface temperatures from exceeding 1.5⁰ C above pre-industrial baseline. COP28 is the 28th such meeting. The stocktake is the summary agreement of the 196 nations that are party to the Paris Agreement.

The significance of this iteration is that under the section for “Mitigation,” the agreement:

Further recognizes the need for deep, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in line with 1.5 °C pathways and calls on parties to contribute to the following global efforts, in a nationally determined manner, taking into account the Paris Agreement and their different national circumstances, pathways and approaches:

(a) Tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030;

(b) Accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power;

(c) Accelerating efforts globally towards net zero emission energy systems, utilizing zero- and low-carbon fuels well before or by around mid-century;

(d) Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science; (emphasis added)

(e) …

Incredibly, it took 28 COPs before the term “fossil fuels” was even used in a COP agreement. In this agreement the term appears twice. Once in the section above and once in a call to phase out “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or just transitions.” Including even this tepid and weak language was an outcome of intense diplomatic battling.

Here’s why.

COP28 was held this year in the petrostate of Dubai. It’s president, a position that changes every year was Sultan Al Jabar, chief executive of the United Arab Emirates’s state oil company, Adnoc. Al Jabar revealed his conflicted interests in an “ill-tempered” response to questioning, asserting that there was “no science” to indicate that a phase-out of fossil fuels was needed to achieve the goals of the Paris agreement – a witless foul lie that was batted down by an international army of actual climate scientists. This, for a COP audience of delegates that contained the most ever fossil fuel lobbyists (2,456 of them).

Moreover, as The Guardian and other outlets reported, letters leaked from the OPEC Oil Cartel warned its member countries with “utmost urgency” that “pressure against fossil fuels may reach a tipping point with irreversible consequences” at COP28.

COP28 featured battles over the phrases “phase out…” versus “phase down…” or even “phase down unabated…” (favored by fossil fuel interests) in language exhorting nations to reduce fossil fuel use as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (there an example in the section I quote above). The qualifiers and squishy language obviously meant to provide linguistic loopholes for pushers to drive their belching tankers through. But, note the rebuke to Al Jabar in the adopted transition language.

The language of the stocktake from COP28 (like all its predecessors) is inadequate. These agreements have no enforcement mechanisms and it’s a real question whether the periodic exercise is worth the roiling sturm und drang it creates on the international stage. And no one should fail to call out the searing hypocrisy of wealthy party-nations (like ours) who make their pious aspirational speeches while planning to increase fossil fuel extraction and failing to fund the just transition and mitigation needs of poorer countries (another feature addressed by this COP).

Bypassing 1.5⁰ C is likely baked in at this point but each increment of warming is an exponential increase in human suffering and ecological damage, and it is imperative for faithful creation-care Christians to battle to prevent every decimal of increase.

I choose to be hopeful here with Bill McKibben. His morning newsletter points out that “The world’s nations have now publicly agreed that they need to transition off fossil fuels, and that sentence will hang over every discussion from now on—especially the discussions about any further expansion of the fossil fuel energy.”

His point is that the language is another rhetorical tool for activists working to move the world away from fossil fuels and their emissions. It may be that this COP finally reached the tipping point in language that OPEC worried about. It may be, that in creating the controversy on the world stage, that fossil fuel interests have laid their malevolence bare.

Two lessons for creation-care Christians are obvious to me.

  • 1) Fossil fuel interests undermine creation care. It would be foolish to imagine that their subversion during the COP process is confined to international agreements. It occurs in every aspect of our economic, ecological, and political lives.
  • 2) The systemic challenges to creation care are the most gnarly – and the most important. Creation care needs political and social activists who are willing to stand in the gap as much as it needs you to consider your carbon footprint at each step. Your witness on both fronts is needed. It’s important to stay informed.

In this Holy season of buying and consuming stuff, something to think about.

** Note: sign up for Debra Rienstra’s Refugia Newsletter. How she manages to stay on top of all this and do her day job is beyond me, but she does.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Keith Mannes says:

    So grateful, Tim. Thankful for your knowledge and courage.

  • David Hoekema says:

    Thanks! Very informative and even a little bit encouraging. As was yesterday’s 2-year “birthday party” on line for the group McKibben has founded for old codgers with a conscience, Third Act (available at third, with very specific plans for climate citizen action in 2024.

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    Thanks for the shout-out, Tim. And thanks to all the RJ readers who just signed up for my newsletter. (Wow!) I highly recommend joining the Third Act subgroup Third Act Faith. I’ve been part of the group since their founding two years ago, and they’re good people–and also fun!

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