It’s no secret that one of Pope Francis’ goals with his Encyclical Laudato Si’ was to influence the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21). So, how much influence is Laudato Si’ having upon COP21? Since I am the pastor of a parish and not a member of the media, I’ll leave that question for others to answer. However, by analyzing what is coming out of the meetings through the media, I feel confident in saying that COP21 is definitely adapting the same mentality Pope Francis encouraged the fathers (and mothers) of the Synod on Marriage and Family Life to have: Speak boldly and hold nothing back. My proof of this is that, on the first day of the gathering, a coalition of close to 40 countries and a myriad of business leaders have called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies; France is investing two billion Euros to help Africa develop renewable energy sources; and a coalition of 11 countries, including the United States, has given 248 million dollars to the Global Environment Facility Fund that is designated to help the most vulnerable countries of the world address environmental issues. Time will tell whether or not these and other commitments from world leaders will have a substantial impact on addressing global warming. Nevertheless, I presume that Pope Francis is encouraged by these sentiments of good will, seeing movement by world leaders to address the ecological crisis we face. If you are interested, check out the video Press Conference below for an in-depth breakdown of the main points of COP21, or read the statements of world leaders by clicking here.
To help us understand COP21 in light of Laudato Si’, it would be good to explore some of the goals of this global conference. COP21 has laid out seven clear goals to be accomplished during this meeting. This first goal is the most basic, but I feel is quite applicable to the situation in my home country of the United States: Admitting that there is a problem. Many in our country, including Catholics, question the reality of climate change and humanity’s role in global warming. Pope Francis himself states in Laudato Si’ that not every aspect of climate change is understood. Yet, given the overwhelming scientific evidence that global warming is occurring and that human activity is the primary contributor to our climate change issues, to take a “let’s wait and see” attitude toward global warming presents too grave a risk to our world. Therefore, a clear point of agreement between COP21 and Laudato Si’ is that it is time for individuals and governments to act boldly to better care for our common home. (For a summary of the science of climate change, check out this site from NASA.)
The second and third goals of COP21 are to set lofty, yet specific goals to address climate change and place the onus on developed countries to lead the way to address climate change. Both of these goals focus on limiting greenhouse gas emissions to levels that will not adversely impact global ecosystems, making it possible for the environment to adapt naturally to climate change, and ensuring that our lands can continue to feed the peoples of the world. In regard to developed nations, the bar is set higher, asking them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels (this was a request from past years, and many countries has already met these goals). These goals are particularly important to the poorest regions of the world which are tied more closely to the environment, given their inability to utilize modern technologies to ensure successful growing seasons. These themes evoke Pope Francis’ emphasis in Laudato Si’ on the preferential option for the poor.
In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters. This option entails recognizing the implications of the universal destination of the world’s goods, but, as I mentioned in the Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” it demands before all else an appreciation of the immense dignity of the poor in the light of our deepest convictions as believers. We need only look around us to see that, today, this option is in fact an ethical imperative essential for effectively attaining the common good. (Laudato Si’. 158)
Many of the reaming goals of COP21 are structural in nature. However, a key issue of global stability that is worth mentioning is to assist poor and developing nations to address carbon emissions without doing damage to their fragile economies. This goal is crucial in light of China’s economic shift of policy to limit exports and focus their economy inward. In light of this, the future of global markets is going to depend heavily upon emerging economies. Therefore, assistance is needed to help emerging economies offset the financial burden that comes with developing “green” technologies. Without assistance, not only could economic damage be done to an individual country, but may impact the future of the global market. This point was not lost to Pope Francis as he reflected upon it in Laudato Si’.
Some strategies for lowering pollutant gas emissions call for the internationalization of environmental costs, which would risk imposing on countries with fewer resources burdensome commitments to reducing emissions comparable to those of the more industrialized countries. Imposing such measures penalizes those countries most in need of development. A further injustice is perpetrated under the guise of protecting the environment. Here also, the poor end up paying the price. Furthermore, since the effects of climate change will be felt for a long time to come, even if stringent measures are taken now, some countries with scarce resources will require assistance in adapting to the effects already being produced, which affect their economies. In this context, there is a need for common and differentiated responsibilities. As the bishops of Bolivia have stated, “the countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialization, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused”. (Laudato Si’. 170)
I could provide more examples of commonality, but I think it’s safe to say that there is much harmony between COP21 and Laudato Si’. Whether it be looking at what has happened to our common home, the causes of our ecological crisis, or the call for all of us to evaluate our lifestyles to be more ecologically conscience, we can see a clear consensus building between the vision of Pope Francis and COP21. Even the debate on population control, a topic that historically has been a tension point between the Vatican and the United Nations, has been set aside by COP21. Whether this omission was due to the influence of Pope Francis or if it was tabled due to the intense focus of COP21 on industrial greenhouse emissions is unclear. In either case, it is important to note that the central vision of Pope Francis is to move toward an Integral Ecology that calls upon all of us to uphold human dignity at every point of life.
Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away. (Laudato Si’ 120)
Though certain moral and ethical questions will remain after Paris, it is clear that Pope Francis has been asking us to rally behind what we and the global community can agree upon at COP21. This call was modeled in Pope Francis’ public applause of President Barack Obama during his visit to the United States as he commended our President for his initiatives to address climate change in the United States. Time will reveal how effective Pope Francis’ approach will be in addressing these important social issues. Many have rushed to judgement, both in praise and in scorn. Regardless of one’s opinion, it is very clear that the world is tuned in, wanting to know what the Pope has to say and what the Church teaches. As a pastor, this gives me hope that, in time, the world may slowly open up to the truth of Christ, not seeing Catholicism as an institutional adversary, but rather view the Church as a dialogue partner that is like a mother, a shelter, a vessel in the storms of life, and a living reality we call the Mystical Body of Christ.
In conclusion, despite my inability to comment on the impact that Laudato Si’ is having on COP21, it is clear that the vast majority of Pope Francis’ vision and COP21 are in clear concert with one another. However, changing a global attitude about our environment is not accomplished in a brief, yet influential, conference. The true test to a new vision of the ethical and moral dimensions of ecology will only be proven with commitment at the local level as government and community leaders decide whether or not they wish to embrace the lofty goals of COP21 and Laudato Si’. Many of the goals mentioned are out of the hands of the common person in the pew (save election day). However, we all know the numerous ways we can embrace a more ecologically friendly lifestyle to protect our environment. In short, the best closing thoughts I can offer for you to reflect upon in regard to climate change are from the Pope himself:
What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? This question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal. When we ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave behind, we think in the first place of its general direction, its meaning and its values. Unless we struggle with these deeper issues, I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results. But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn. (Laudato Si’. 160)
Pray with this and post your response. I would love to hear what you have to say!