LEICESTER, United Kingdom –Despite Pope Francis’s physical absence from the COP-28 climate change summit currently underway in Dubai due to lingering health concern, a leading Catholic expert on the environment nevertheless says that under his leadership, “the whole Church is waking up” to the climate crisis.

“It feels like Pope Francis is acting as a barometer for climate action,” said Neil Thorns, Director of Advocacy and Communications at CAFOD, the overseas development arm of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

After dispatching messages to the Dubai gathering earlier in the week, Pope Francis returned to the subject during his noontime Angelus address on Sunday.

“Even from a distance, I am following with great attention the work of COP28 in Dubai,” he said.

“Climate change is answered by concrete political change,” he said, before calling the world’s population to “embrace a common vision, committing all of us and now, without delay, to a necessary global ecological conversion.”

The climate conference taking place in the United Arab Emirates, which started on November 28 and ends on December 12, is seen as an opportunity for governments to commit to speed up action and support communities on the frontline of the climate crisis.

Several Catholic groups are present at the world summit, including CAFOD. Thorns is currently in Dubai working closely with the Vatican on climate policy, and has represented the Holy See in previous COP delegations.

He spoke to Crux about the current meeting taking place in Dubai.

Crux: What role is Pope Francis and the Holy See playing at the summit?

Neil Thorns: Importantly, Pope Francis started his intervention early with the publication of Laudate Deum in October setting out very clearly what his expectations of COP28 are. These were reinforced after his message to the COP on Saturday. It feels like Pope Francis is acting as a barometer for climate action. He has been very clear that he expects greater progress on a number of key issues such as loss and damage, phasing out of fossil fuels, reducing our emissions and providing the necessary finance for poor communities. As a State Party, the Holy See can take that message into the negotiations and encourage that culture of encounter which might be needed to unlock some of these issues.

Popes before Francis have spoken about environmental issues, but he seems to have changed its importance in the Church. Why is that?

As the climate crisis deepens, I think the whole Church is waking up to its terrible impacts especially on the poorest communities. Pope Francis was able to guide the Church on climate and nature through the wonderful Laudato Si’. It set clearly what the problem was, how we can find solutions and build that into our faith.

How does Pope Francis’s message at COP28 and his teachings on the environment relate to the recent UK government rollback on net-zero climate targets and policy?

It’s depressing to see how the UK is rolling back on its commitment. As one of the main historical greenhouse gas emitters, the UK needs to recognize its responsibilities. The UK attitude seems to be very short-term and hoping solutions will be found in the future. They should be doing all they can to protect our wonderful planet for the next generation. I think this from Laudate Deum sums up their attitude well, “Nonetheless, we risk remaining trapped in the mindset of pasting and papering over cracks, while beneath the surface there is a continuing deterioration to which we continue to contribute. To suppose that all problems in the future will be able to be solved by new technical interventions is a form of homicidal pragmatism, like pushing a snowball down a hill.”

How are local offices of the global Catholic Church working alongside vulnerable communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America?

Catholic agencies like CAFOD, as part of the Caritas network are working closely with the most vulnerable communities. For example, CAFOD is working with Caritas Marsabit in northern Kenya to support communities who are at the frontline of the climate crisis. People have suffered four decades of drought followed by catastrophic floods. Whilst these are incredibly resilient people they had exhausted all their coping mechanisms after such extreme weather conditions. The Church is often the first responder in these situations, they are trusted by the communities and the support is there for the long term.

Is the Church have any influence in non-Catholic countries?

In most countries faith is very important, so there are opportunities for inter-faith work like we saw here in COP28 with Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb. Their words were very strong on the rich traditions that faith brings to the creation of our common home.