Nature’s Pope

Why it is time to start following Francis’s example on climate change.

Pope Francis takes part in an open-air mass at in Kaunas on Sept. 23. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty)
Pope Francis takes part in an open-air mass at in Kaunas on Sept. 23. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty)

From the typhoon that battered the Philippines and Hong Kong in September to the series of storms and hurricanes that obliterated whole towns along the U.S. east coast over the past several months, it seems that extreme weather is no longer something to fear in the future but a fact of the present. One person trying to spread that message is Pope Francis, who has shown a unique interest in addressing the problem of climate change. The Pope set a standard for involvement in the issue in 2015, when he released his “Laudato Si” encyclical—his expansive plea to the world to “protect our common home.” It was published just prior to COP 21, the 21st meeting of the signatories to the original United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

At that conference, government delegates came together to sign the Paris climate agreement, which was intended to reignite the effort to combat climate change, which, they noted, “represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries, and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response.” The agreement required nations that signed to take steps to limit their carbon emissions to hold global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to begin to level off emissions growth by 2030.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s precipitous withdrawal from that agreement last year has left the United States as the only nation outside of what has become the global reference point for monitoring progress on combating climate change. And although many nations, particularly those in the European Union, continue to cite the Paris agreement as an important obligation, without the United States the accord lacks bite.

Faced with the prospect of the movement to limit carbon emissions losing steam, this summer the pope decided to hold an international discussion on the third anniversary of “Laudato Si.” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s chief international diplomat, set the tone in his opening remarks: “We all know how precarious is the situation of our planet today,” he said, “The encyclical is indeed a timely response to one of the most urgent challenges faced by humanity today, namely, a possible collapse of the very home that sustains us and all forms of life.”

The meeting, which I attended, included representatives from an array of backgrounds, including indigenous groups from the Amazon and Pacific, economists, diplomats, and policymakers. The objective was to inject new momentum into the Paris process. Among the group’s concrete proposals was for the Vatican to recommend that nations require companies to disclose environmental risks as part of their official filings with financial regulators. Another was for the Vatican to encourage massive reforestation of vacant lands as way to sequester greenhouse gases. Other panelists recommend that the Vatican itself become “carbon neutral” as soon as possible, including by divesting from high-carbon and fossil fuel holdings in its portfolio.

At a private audience in the grand Sala Clementina, the pope encouraged the participants’ efforts. “Your presence here,” he said, “is the sign of your commitment to take concrete steps to save the planet,” adding, “human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.” Francis has since assigned a key member of his cabinet, Cardinal Peter Turkson, as the secretary of integral human development, to examine the group’s recommendations and determine how best to take them forward. A report on planned next steps is forthcoming.

But time does not seem to be on the panel’s side, as the recent dramatic weather events have shown. Although the relationship between such events and climate change is not fully clear, there is at least evidence that rising ocean temperatures can make storms more powerful. Meanwhile, just as another hurricane was bearing down on Florida this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific body that tracks climate change trends, issued its new report. For the first time, it argued that the major risks of climate change are likely to be felt by 2040, much earlier than previously understood. Nonetheless, Trump responded to the recent devastation in Florida’s Panhandle by commenting that, although he no longer believes that climate change is a “hoax,” the climate would “change back again.”

As the United States continues to avoid any form of national policy to address climate change, the pope’s arguments remain indelible: Climate change is an urgent humanitarian problem, and we must rise above ourselves to address it without further excuse or delay.

Paula DiPerna is special advisor to the Carbon Disclosure Project and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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