Vatican official: ‘Unfortunate’ some deny human origin of climate crisis

Vatican official: ‘Unfortunate’ some deny human origin of climate crisis

Father Joshtrom Isaac Kureethadam SDB, in an undated photo. He's coordinates the Ecology and Creation sector of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. (Credit: courtesy Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.)

Closing the year-long celebration of the Laudato Si’ year that began on the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’s ecological encyclical, the Vatican is sponsoring a series of events this week.

ROME – Closing the year-long celebration of the Laudato Si’ year that began on the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’s ecological encyclical, the Vatican is sponsoring a series of events this week, available on-line, while also boosting hundreds of local events being organized around the world.

The May 16-25 Laudato Si’ week is being organized by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, with the Global Catholic Climate Movement serving as the facilitator of a group of over 150 Catholic partners participating in the initiative.

The official program was put together by the Dicastery’s Ecology and Creation office, coordinated by Salesian Father Joshtrom Isaac Kureethadam, who says some things need to change when it comes to humanity’s interaction with nature.

“My ‘ecological conversion’ began in a way with tears as I came in contact with the immense suffering that the ecological crisis is bringing especially to the poor and most vulnerable, who have contributed least to causing the problem in the first place, in terms of carbon emissions, for example,” he told Crux.

Kureethadam said it was “unfortunate” that many are skeptical that the ongoing climate crisis is anthropogenic in its origin, and argued that the resistance to acknowledging this is “is engendered mainly by vested economic interests and in some cases also by partisan ideologies.”

“The real issue is that acknowledging the scientific consensus in this regard calls for a radical change in the way our economic and political systems operate,” he said.

What follows are excerpts of Kureethadam’s conversation with Crux, which has been edited due to length.

What’s the importance of the Laudato Si’?

Laudato Si’ is certainly a landmark encyclical. It’s important for at least three reasons. First of all, Laudato Si’ managed to capture the dramatic and critical challenge that we currently face, namely, the collapse of our very home. The first chapter of the encyclical entitled “What is happening to our Common Home?” goes straight to the enormity of this challenge. The pope concludes the chapter by admitting that “we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair” (Laudato Si’, 61). The second reason why Laudato Si’ is important is that it changed the way we look at and talk about environmental problems. The subtitle of the encyclical is “on care for our common home.”

Pope Francis tells us that it’s not just an environmental problem or even a host of them. It is about our very home that is falling apart. I do think that Pope Francis’s use of the expression “our common home” has struck a resonant chord in many hearts. We are not talking about something external. We are talking about our very home. When our house is on fire, we cannot afford to sit back and passively observe. The third reason why Laudato Si’ is important is the approach of integral ecology. It sees the ecological crisis in a holistic manner as “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (Laudato Si’, 49).

Again, it’s not just an environmental text, but also a social encyclical. In fact, on several occasions Pope Francis himself reminded us that Laudato Si’ is not a green encyclical but a social one. The integral approach is evident in the metaphysics or philosophy underlying the encyclical, namely, that everything is connected, that we are all interconnected and interdependent (the theme of the fourth chapter of the encyclical which carries the title of “integral ecology.”)

It’s been six years since the release of the pope’s encyclical. Having closely worked on the care for creation for several years now, have you seen a “change of heart,” or more people moved to, for instance, reuse, reduce, recycle?

Yes, Laudato Si’ has been something of a watershed not just for the Church but for the entire world. The influence it has had on the Catholic Church is evident in the numerous initiatives that have sprung up in many local communities in the area of creation care. This was very clear in the enthusiasm and creativity of Catholics around the world in the celebration of the Laudato Si’ Year that was announced by Pope Francis last year and will conclude on May 24 this year. I should also point out that communities in the global South have been true leaders in this regard. Thanks to Laudato Si’, the Catholics joined the Orthodox and other Christian denominations in celebrating the Season of Creation (September 1 – October 4) which has truly become ecumenical. Laudato Si’ has also galvanized other religions to be more involved about caring for the Earth. In fact, soon after the encyclical was published, the Jews came out with the “Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis” and the Muslims with the “Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change”, the Buddhists with the “Buddhist Climate Change Statement to World Leaders” and the Hindus with the “Bhumi Devi Ki Jai! A Hindu Declaration on Climate Change.”

It’s wonderful to see such a “change of heart” not only within the Catholic Church but also in the ecumenical and interreligious spheres. And the remarkable element is that we have gone beyond the slogans of “reuse, reduce, recycle” as there is greater awareness that what is needed is a totally new approach in the way we understand and respond to the crisis of our common home, which for believers is God’s creation, entrusted to our stewardship.

What can you tell us about your “journey” towards understanding the importance of caring for creation?

My journey towards understanding the importance of caring for creation has been molded by two factors. First of all, while working in a mission area in India, I have seen how the climate crisis is affecting the lives of communities, especially of the poor. I lived and served in an area where there were (and unfortunately even now) the tragic cases of farmers committing suicides as their crops failed year after year due to droughts and other climate triggered natural disasters.

My “ecological conversion” began in a way with tears as I came in contact with the immense suffering that the ecological crisis is bringing especially to the poor and most vulnerable, who have contributed least to causing the problem in the first place, in terms of carbon emissions, for example. A second factor is my own intellectual background. I’m Chair of Philosophy of Science for several years and one of the subjects that I love to teach is Cosmology. Over the years, I’ve discovered how special Earth, this “tiny little blue dot” (to say it with Carl Sagan), this “Goldilocks” planet as many cosmologists, including the Royal Astronomer Martin Rees, love to call the Earth. While we contemplate with awe the unique conditions that render Earth a “home for life”, we also realize that it’s fragile and human activities have the capacity today to disturb and destroy the gentle equilibrium that allows life to flourish on this planet.

To this date, there are those who see climate change as a “conspiracy,” or are unwilling to acknowledge that, beyond the science, creation was entrusted by God for humanity to care for them. There are many talks and panels taking place this week. Is there any one in particular you’d recommend to the “skeptics,” not from a science point of view, but from that of faith?

This is a very unfortunate situation. Climate science has grown significantly over the last few decades and there’s unanimous consensus among the scientific community that the current ecological crisis in the case of climate and biodiversity crises are due to human activities. In other words, they are anthropogenic in origin. I can say it as an academic myself.

In drafting Laudato Si’, Pope Francis was assisted by some of the best scientists around the world, including members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican. It is true that there has been resistance from some sectors of the public in recent decades. However, the issue is not so simple as such a resistance is engendered mainly by vested economic interests and in some cases also by partisan ideologies. The real issue is that acknowledging the scientific consensus in this regard calls for a radical change in the way our economic and political systems operate.

The so-called “skepticism” has been cultivated through funding and other political resources. It’s a deja-vu case. We saw it in early sixties when Rachel Carson and other scientists had proved that pesticides and chemical fertilizers could negatively impact human health, causing cancers and other hazards. We saw it also in the skepticism tactic employed by the tobacco industry against doctors who had proved smoking is injurious to health. This text-book strategy was employed by the fossil fuels industry against climate science. Unfortunately, it has robbed us of precious decades in responding to the crisis of our common home and now we are almost on the edge. Our children and young people have understood this truth much better than many political and economic gurus, and they have been descending on our streets calling us to change course.

We need to remember that for us believers, and Christians, in particular, creation care is very much part of our faith. In fact, the very first commandment given to humanity is found in Genesis 2:15 when Adam and Eve are asked to “cultivate and care” for the garden of Eden. It is our job-description as we read in the very first book of the Holy Bible. Earth is indeed the garden planet as the Irish Bishops wrote in one of their messages a few years ago.  In this context, I would suggest among the several events taking place during the Laudato Si’ Week, the one on biodiversity on 22nd May (which also happens to be the World Biodiversity Day). This event will be a spiritual celebration of the beauty and sacredness of God’s creation in which human and non-human creatures will come together in praise of the Creator. As the last of the Psalms concludes, “let everything that breathes and moves, give praise to the Lord.” Our existence therefore is to glorify the Creator and to praise and thank the Triune God for the gift of life. “Laudato Si’ mio Signore,” “Praise be to you my Lord,” as St Francis of Assisi sang, which is also the title of Pope Francis’ encyclical on creation care.

The pope is on record saying that he had hoped Laudato Si’ would influence in the Paris accords. Do you think the Laudato Si’ week could influence the Glasgow summit? Is there any truth to the rumors of Francis wanting to go?

Yes, Pope Francis himself said on January 15, 2015, as he was flying from Sri Lanka to the Philippines on apostolic visit that he wanted the encyclical on creation care (Laudato Si’) to be published a few months before the Paris Summit that was scheduled for December 2015, in his words “that there be a bit of time between the issuing of the encyclical and the meeting in Paris, so that it can make a contribution.” This is what really happened. The encyclical was published in June and several leaders, including the then UN Secretary General Ban-ki-Moon commented Laudato Si’ was instrumental in creating the Paris Climate Agreement.

I do think that Laudato Si’ will influence the Glasgow summit too, the most important of the COPs after the one in Paris. The momentum that been built after the publication of Laudato Si’, and the insistence of Pope Francis and the Church in the last few years on the importance of not transgressing the 1.5°C threshold of temperature rise – as it would be catastrophic for human communities for the unprecedented consequences in the area of food security, health and migration – will certainly echo in the negotiations in Glasgow.

Regarding Pope Francis’s visit to Glasgow, I’m afraid that I am not in a position to comment as it’s a prerogative of the pope’s office.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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