Pope Francis adds his voice to religious leaders calling for climate change action

When Pope Francis gave a speech last month about the importance of collective action on climate change, it was heralded as an important step in moving the 196 UNFCCC parties from COP20’s “call to action” in Lima to inking COP21’s new agreement in Paris. Stressing that climate change’s disproportional impacts on the world’s poor present “a serious ethical and moral responsibility” and that “we can find solutions only if we act together and agree,” the Pope declared an urgent ethical imperative to act collectively. In doing so, he pointed out the key missing ingredients for taking effective globalpope francis action: overcoming mistrust and promoting a culture of solidarity.

With an eye toward promoting solidarity, Pope Francis has committed the Catholic Church to three concrete steps. (For a more insider’s perspective on the Pope’s strategic actions for influencing the outcome of COP21 in Paris, the NYT’s Andrew Revkin recommends carefully reading this November 2014 speech by Argentinian Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, who is Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Social Sciences and a close friend of Pope Francis.)

First, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, along with the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, held a workshop last May called Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility.  It produced this concluding declaration signed by over 50 international and interdisciplinary experts (including US professors Edith Brown Weiss, Naomi Oreskes, and Dan Kammen). This collective statement sets out the arguments for directly tackling the dangers of our Anthropocene Age – namely, the “inequality, unfairness, and corruption” that undermines “our ethical values, personal dignity and human rights” – and lists straight forward strategies for doing so.  Among these are:

  • targeted investments in sustainable energy access, education, health, housing, sociPASS reportal infrastructure and livelihoods for the poor;
  • making energy systems more efficient and less dependent on coal, petrol and natural gas
  • focusing on human rights, the rule of law, participatory democracy, and universal access to public services; and
  • improved effectiveness of fiscal and social policies, ethical finance reform, large scale “decent work” policies, integration of the informal and popular economic sectors, and national and international collaboration to eradicate forced labor and sexual exploitation.

Next, in March the Pope will visit Tacloban, the Philippine city devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in 2012, and publish a rare encyclical on climate change and human ecology, which will be sent to the world’s 5,000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests, who will then distribute it to parishioners. Finally, at next September’s annual gathering of the U.N. General Assembly, Pope Francis will address world political leaders while also convening a climate change summit of religious leaders.

Since December, a lot of media attention has been paid to Pope Francis’ climate change campaign.   Much of it has focused on pushback by conservative Catholics (like U.S. politicians John Boehner and Rick Santorum, and Vatican treasurer Cardinal Pell) and U.S. Evangelical Christians.  It is true that the Pope’s climate change initiative could have a decided impact on moving people to act on their moral beliefs, even when they’ve shown reticence to act politically on climate change:  as the leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, he had a 60% global approval rating of Catholics and non-Catholics in this recent ppope francis pew grapholl, with the highest concentrations in Europe (84%), U.S. (78%), and Latin America (72%).  Given that COP20’s activities in Peru (and the social pre-COP, held in nearby Venezuela) focused attention on this region’s increased climate change policymaking and actions, that Europeans have engaged in serious climate change mitigation and adaptation commitments since the 2005 Kyoto Protocol, and that the U.S. has stepped up its international climate change engagement under the Obama Administration, the Pope’s popularity bodes well for COP21’s odds of success.

green lantern

Christiana Figueres’s assistant bringing the green lantern into the COP20 venue for the first time.

But a missing piece of this story is that the faith-based community is already well at work influencing the UNFCCC negotiations as they progress toward Paris.  In Lima, the World Council of Churches  participated at the COP as an NGO Observer Delegation and participated in COP20 side events and at the nearby People’s Summit.  Its work, based on the Interfaith Summit on Climate Change held last September in New York, produced a final statement of the Interfaith Summit that was officially presented to the UNFCCC on December 11th. On the day before – singled out as the U.N.’s Human Rights Day – a panel hosted by several faith-based organizations (the WCC, Religions for Peace, Quaker United Nations Office) featured Reverend Henrik Grape of the Church of Sweden. Starting it all off, the green lantern that we witnessed arriving at the venue on November 30 marked the end of fasting by religious and environmental groups in Fast for the Climate.  So the Catholic Church’s full-court press from Lima to Paris presents an additional and potentially high impact strategy that will add to an already experienced ecumenical climate change team and playbook.