LEICESTER, United Kingdom – An international conference aimed at implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change is a sign the international community is going to have a “response that is more urgent,” says one English bishop.
The UN-sponsored Paris Agreement aims to limit the rise of worldwide temperatures to 1.5°C from current levels. The Conference of the Parties (COP24) conference taking place Dec. 3-14 in Katowice, Poland, has brought together world leaders to discuss the details of implementing the agreement, which is due to go into force in 2020.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales issued a statement ahead of the meeting calling for “an ambitious implementation of the Paris Agreement.”
“We are only just waking up to it, aren’t we? But COP24 is giving us a clear indication that time is running short,” said Bishop John Arnold of Salford, the spokesman for the environment for the English bishops.
The United Nations issues a warning on global warming
The IPCC, or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), issued a report in October that highlighted a number of climate change impacts that could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5°C, compared to 2°C or more: A difference of 10 cm in the expected rise of the oceans; a chance of saving the coral reefs; and an overall reduction of the impact on ecosystems, human health and well-being.
Last month, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned that without rapid cuts in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have “increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth.”
“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was three to five million years ago, when the temperature was 2 to 3°C warmer and sea level was 10 to 20 meters higher than now,” said Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the WMO.
Speaking on Monday in Katowice, naturalist David Attenborough warned world leaders they are facing a “manmade disaster of global scale.”
“If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon,” he said.
“David Attenborough speaking at COP24 … has told us that we are in a very serious position and that we have got to act,” Arnold said.
“We are not out of time, but we have to make sure that we don’t waste any more time and recognize what we have got to do,” the bishop told Crux.
Expectations are high for COP24
Time is of the essence in Katowice, since the Paris agreement has set a Dec. 31, 2018 deadline for the establishment of procedures and rules to implement the 2015 accord.
“Some of these conferences are about big decisions, and some of them are about how you implement those big decisions — and this conference is about how you implement them,” said Neil Thorns of CAFOD, the English and Welsh bishops overseas aid and development agency.
“Our expectations are that governments will recognize the urgency of the situation, recognize that it is more of a moral than a technical question – the solutions are there in the [IPCC] report and they have been well documented – it just means action and ambition for governments to do it for this generation, and for future generations as well,” he told Crux.
However, the Paris agreement suffered a major blow on June 1, 2017, when President Donald Trump said the United States would no longer participate in the process; it suffered a further hit this year, when newly-elected Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro indicated South America’s largest country might follow Trump’s example.
With populist parties on the rise around the world, there are questions if other countries – especially those who think the Western world is closing the gate behind them on industrial progress – might also decide the Paris agreement isn’t in their national interest.
“It is a serious concern,” said Michael Kuhn, senior advisor on ecology and sustainability at COMECE, the commission for bishops’ conferences in the European Union.
“The big problem is that you have to ask yourself why they elected those parties? Is it because the see the environment as a threat, or did they elect those parties because they have other fears?” Kuhn said.
Thorns said the situation with the United States and Brazil “cannot be ignored,” but he is less worried about the effect on the Paris agreement.
“The Paris Agreement is an agreement which is much stronger than [the United States and Brazil], but also I think there are ways we can shape the ways those countries are thinking,” said the CAFOD representative.
“For example, next year the pope has called together the synod on the future of the Amazon, and I think that is a fantastic opportunity for the Catholic Church to think about how to protect this heartbeat of the planet, something we all rely on in our daily lives,” Thorns said.
Laudato Si’, the Church, and COP24
The Catholic Church has played a larger-than-usual role in the UN’s climate process. Pope Francis issued his 2015 ecological encyclical Laudato Si’ before the Paris meeting in an effort to guide the talks, and since then a parade of world leaders have come to the Vatican to speak to the pontiff on environmental issues.
“Encyclicals are meant to put a mirror up against our society and see how we are facing some of those big challenges in front of us, and how our faith and Catholic Social Teaching can tell us how to deal with them,” said Thorns.
He said Laudato Si’ was building on the earlier work of Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but Francis emphasized the concept of an “integral ecology” which can’t be separated from other issues.
“It is integrated into all of the decisions we make in our lives: The economy, politics, how we live our lives, what we do, where we shop … I think that is where it has really brought it into our faith much more because it is about saying this is not something that is separate from our faith, it is absolutely part of our faith, and we should be thinking about it in our day-to-day spirituality,” Thorns told Crux.
Kuhn said the encyclical “shows the complexity of the whole question, how things are linked and interwoven.”
“This is the positive element. The difficult element for many politicians in Laudato Si’ is that Laudato Si’ has a very clear sense on the things that need to change … and politicians become more and more hesitant to follow up on Laudato Si’,” he said.
He noted that on Nov. 28, in the lead-up to COP24, the European Union pledged to achieve a carbon neutral economy by 2050.
“I hope the European Union will be able to not only demand but to make the very concrete proposals on how to reach these aims by 2050, because if you are going to reach it in 2050 you should have started already some time ago, but at least you have to start right now,” he said.
However, Kuhn said this means more than changing what fuel is used by European nations.
“This is not only to talk about coal and how we can create our energy, but about how can we transform our system so we finally end up with a sustainable lifestyle, which incorporates not only energy, but transport, food, etc.,” he told Crux.
For Catholics, that means taking the Church’s social teaching on ecology seriously, and Kuhn said he hasn’t seen this happening.
“Laudato Si’ in one way or another has not been operationalized yet to be used very practically in parishes and other grassroot groups, so people not only read the document but then draw very practical conclusions on how to put this into practice,” he said.
Putting faith into action on the environment
The bishops in England and Wales have been trying to do this with Global Healing, a film-based event for parishes, groups and individuals with a follow-up course available that can be tied to liturgical seasons such as Lent or Advent.
Arnold told Crux that the bishops are getting “very practical and good responses” from those watching Global Healing, but it isn’t “widespread enough.”
“We are not seeing the urgency of it,” the bishop said. “We’ve got to take it much more seriously, because individuals can make a difference, and communities certainly can be part of the response to climate change.”
Arnold said he was “pleased” to see the news coverage of the climate conference – “COP24 has actually hit the headlines” – and he hopes this means people will be “more urgent” about the environment.
“But we can’t wait. I think we really have to see the urgency and the immediacy of doing something in order to begin a healing process for our damaged planet,” said the bishop.