Oh what they said, and how they said it: Two welcome voices at COP-26

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the Opening Ceremony for Cop26 at the SEC, Glasgow. Photograph: Karwai Tang/ UK Government

I love oratory. Defined as the rationale and practice of persuasive public speaking, it is immediate in its audience relationships and reactions, but it may also have broad historical repercussions. The orator may become the voice of political or social history.

It is the ministry of the spoken word which first drew me into Christian ministry as both a lay and ordained person. I cherish memories of great politicians and influencers such as William Temple, Stephen Lewis, James Callahan, Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela, and Winston Churchill.

Right now I pay close attention to those speaking at COP-26, not only for their skill in presentation but also for their persuasive content. Two in particular stand out in these early days of COP-26, Kenyan climate activist, Elizabeth Wathuti and broadcaster, historian and author Sir David Attenborough.

As one who joins an emerging generation of leaders not unlike poet Amanda Gorman, who at the Biden/Harris inauguration took the world on a dynamic journey towards freedom, Elizabeth Wathuti takes us on a similar journey, towards justice and sustainability.

Ms. Wathuti is a younger passionate voice, demanding that delegates find the grace to fully listen, to open their hearts, and act out of a deep and good intention. A resident of Kenya she is deeply and directly affected by the adverse affects of climate change. No water, no life, no children–and those children who remain, weep. She is an activist, one of literally thousands who could become the most influential force at this and subsequent COPs who are referenced increasingly by presenters and responders, at least civilly but  hopefully, influentially. Her plea repeats: “Please open up your hearts . . . The children cannot live on empty promises . . . Care deeply, and act collectively.”

Then there is Sir David, at 95! (the same age as the Queen) who speaks as strongly and dynamically (with effective visuals and exquisite timing) as ever. Commencing with an appeal to compromise (any effect so hard to assess knowing that many decisions have actually been cemented prior to COP itself) in characteristic fashion he simplifies the science through a historical engagement with a single though constantly changing number, the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, itself the single most important influence on global temperature.

He vividly recalls how that number stabilized over 10,000 years ago, when the stable climate we enjoy today was finally experienced, an environment of predictable seasons and reliable weather, now quickly disappearing as we continue to release carbon into the atmosphere at an unprecedented pace and scale. As stability is breaking, inequality is rising as those nations and communities most adversely affected suffer most and have the most disempowered voice.

Speaking bluntly to negotiators, he describes them and us as the greatest problem solvers to have lived on earth, who still tragically fail to see the bigger picture in light of short-term goals. On the bright side, 1.5 ºC is within reach. That said, no advanced nation is presently sustainable. In a nod to his own riper years he notes that “in my lifetime I have witnessed a terrible decline. You however can witness a wonderful recovery.” As Nike might say, “just do it.”

So enough words from me. Enjoy the speeches themselves; share widely, and take to heart the pleas, please, for all creation.

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