Caption: Sabrina Chiefari (left) at the Global Climate Strike on September 24, 2021 in Toronto
A Lament, of sorts.
November 5th, 2021, will be my 37th birthday. In the UK, that date holds a bit more fame for its Guy Fawkes festivities. This year, at COP26 in Glasgow, it will be the day to focus on “youth and public empowerment” by “Elevating the voice of young people and demonstrating the critical role of public empowerment and education in climate action.”
Ah, youth. I’m hardly one to wax nostalgic for bygone days, but I can’t help but think about how different my “youth” was to those who have been able to journey to COP26, or the late-September #Youth4Climate pre-COP summit in Milan. It was there that Greta Thunberg took centre stage to, once more, reprimand the world at large for not getting their collective act together. But it was another speech, by Ugandan Youth Activist Vanessa Nakate, that struck a different chord with me. Hers was more a lament. No scare tactics, only a telling of her own lived experience. In fact many of the youth share very similar stories and I don’t find them inspiring; I’m infuriated by them. I’ll come back to why in a moment.
Now I recently learned about the prayer tradition of a “Lament”, briefly described as “…a response to the full range of problems in the human condition.” My basic understanding of them is that they focus prayer by reflecting on the Psalms. So, I’m going to take my aforementioned fury and invite you to move through this miniature Lament with me.
“Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me. I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched.” Psalm 69, 1-3
Vanessa begins her speech by recounting horrible floods that were affecting her home. My childhood was peppered with “restrictions” like getting home before the streetlights came on, or doing a certain amount of homework before being permitted to join a field trip, or Saturday morning cartoons and swim lessons. That world also included threats, like nuclear war, acid rain, animal poaching and all sorts of sources for existential crises. But there was always the security of an unblemished future full of rewards, after hard work and sacrifices, awaiting me. I can remember a world of typewriters, cigarette fogs, and Christmas catalogues. I remember this part of the world exactly 20 years ago, still reeling from the devastation of 9/11. What I can’t remember is a planet that wasn’t warming.
“Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. Do all these evildoers know nothing?” Psalm 53, 3
The first youth activist that I can remember is Severn Cullis-Suzuki, at the 1992 Rio Summit. She pleaded with the world at large to think better of their actions and, in fact, some improvements did happen since. CFCs were the much-feared acronym of the day, and the idea of a thinning Ozone layer was enough that industry and governments alike figured out a different way to keep our refrigerators working and aerosol sprays spraying. How is it that, nearly 30 years later, we have an entire summit for youth activists that are all sharing the same desperate pleas for change? I’m infuriated that over the course of my lifetime youth, some of whom are old enough to be my children (if I had any), are not only envisioning a future for themselves void of an unblemished security, but know eco-anxiety and heartache as a norm. They are fighting tooth and nail to prevent as much loss as they can, while still grieving what they realize they will never have. I’m infuriated that the world-at-large has comfortably downloaded its inequities on their shoulders.
“The prayers of the psalms do powerfully express lament. But then they move on, as faith demands, toward praise.”
The Psalms, which have survived millennia, remind us that tragedy and suffering have been a constant in the human experience. So, I’m going to put my fury aside, because it’s not productive or cathartic, and refocus on the task at hand.
Choose to Trust with expressions of hope…
Being a member of this virtual delegation, For the Love of Creation, means that I’m observing the goings-on at COP26, and determining paths to advocacy, through an informed, faith-based lens.
What youth activists have in their favour these days is knowing they’re not alone and that there is a lot more willingness to support them than not. The key messages from their manifesto prove that their activism is not a trend, but a global shift of focus. But it can’t be “their” efforts alone.
Setting more ambitious GHG emissions reductions is possible, as we press our elected representatives to act swiftly and justly to effect high-level changes here, in Canada, first.
Financially supporting the Global South, as they adapt, recover, and rapidly transition their communities away from dependence on extractive industry is possible, as nations continue to band together and make their needs understood.
And implementing UNDRIP is all the more possible, with steadily increasing understanding of the priority role Indigenous Peoples around the world have in safe-guarding biodiversity and implementing effective strategies.
“He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate— bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts.” – Psalm 104, 13-15
Today, on my 37th birthday, I lament what was and what seems to be. But I also challenge myself to bravely set hope-filled expectations, envision for our youth the future they deserve, and praise and trust our Creator.
Sabrina Chiefari, Creation Care Animator with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto and a member of the Coordinating Committee of For the Love of Creation is a member of the joint United Church of Canada and For the Love of Creation virtual delegation toCOP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference.
You can follow the delegation #UCCanCOP26 and #FLCCOP26 and check back here for personal reflections from the delegates in the coming days.
 John D. Witvliet