ROME – A little over a year since President Donald Trump announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement, attendees at a Vatican summit on the environment assessed whether the battle is lost as Pope Francis encouraged citizens to take matters in their own hands.
“We all know that much still needs to be done to implement that [Paris] Agreement,” the pope told participants of the International Conference “Saving our Common Home and the Future of Life on Earth” during an audience July 6.
“All governments should strive to honor the commitments made in Paris, in order to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis,” Francis said.
The conference, taking place at the Vatican July 5-6, commemorates the third anniversary of the pope’s encyclical on the environment Laudato Si. Its aim is to bring together over 400 experts, indigenous people, prelates, journalists and activists, not just to discuss the situation today but also look ahead toward other major climate summits.
“I express my hope that concern for the state of our common home will translate into systematic and concerted efforts aimed at an integral ecology,” Francis said, pointing to the importance of the upcoming December COP24 summit, which will be held in Katowice, Poland, with the goal of setting a path for implementation of the Paris agreements.
Those agreements, signed by 194 United Nations member countries, called for reductions of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Since the U.S. left the accords, there has been a leadership vacuum in terms of addressing climate change as Europe struggles to find its footing and China and India attempt to balance care for the environment with expanding economies.
“I apologize for the malfunctioning of our country, and ask you to bear with us as we work hard on the necessary repairs,” said Bill McKibben from the U.S., dubbed “the world’s best green journalist” during his presentation on Friday.
McKibben, winner of the 2013 Gandhi Peace Award, was the first to write a book on climate change aimed at a nonscientific audience in 1989, called The End of Nature. He criticized the “hideous reactions” of countries floundering to address immigration today, adding that he believes that the number of immigrants will grow exponentially once the world is faced with a climate change disaster.
“We have the technology, but we are losing because we are not going fast enough,” he said. A source of hope, he continued, is the enthusiasm and participation shown by young people dedicated to protecting the environment.
“Dialogue and commitment to our common home must make special room for two groups of people at the forefront of efforts to foster an integral ecology,” Francis said. “Both will be at the center of the next two Synods of the Catholic Church: young people and indigenous peoples, especially those from the Amazon region.”
The Vatican will be hosting a summit of bishops next October to discuss youth and vocational discernment, followed in 2019 by another focusing on the Pan-Amazonian region. Laudato Si and the pope’s activism for the care of creation will play a major role in both meetings.
“It is the young who will have to face the consequences of the current environmental and climate crisis,” Francis said, adding that he is grieved “to see the lands of indigenous peoples expropriated and their cultures trampled on by predatory schemes and by new forms of colonialism, fueled by the culture of waste and consumerism.”
“I am really happy that the pope is using his power to do something about the climate impact and all the global crises in the world,” Kristina Reimers from Marshall Islands, part of the indigenous and youth delegations, told Crux Friday.
“The most vulnerable countries are the poor countries. I am from a third-world country so those are the poor countries. All we have to do is spread awareness,” she added.
A representative from Greenland, which he called “ground zero of climate change,” spoke about the melting of the “Big Ice” in his country, which was diminished from over 5 km thick to 2 km in his lifetime.
“You are my last hope. Really, literally you are the last hope for earth,” he said. “You have no idea what is coming at you.”
At the audience, Francis called for an “ecological conversion,” conscious that there will be a need for practical answers and actions. “There is a real danger that we will leave future generations only rubble, deserts and refuse,” Francis said.
“We cannot afford to waste time,” the pope said.
Francis acknowledged that states alone can’t push the ball on climate change and they need local authorities, civil society, and economic and religious institutions to bring forward the issue. Looking toward the Global Climate Action Summit taking place in San Francisco, September 12-14, the pope called for “the support of citizens’ pressure groups worldwide.”
Financial institutions, the pope said, are “part both of the problem and the solution” and there is a need for a “paradigm shift” in order to promote integral human development.
As the Vatican prepares to petition the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to bring that change forward, religious institutions have taken charge of being a voice in favor of caring for the environment and addressing climate change, especially as it affects the poor.
“The climate issue is really rallying the different religions in support of creation, in support of the indigenous people, in support of the existence of life for the future,” said Emeritus Bishop Gunnar Stålsett of the Church of Norway, honorary president of Religions for Peace and a speaker at the summit, in an interview with Crux.
“What is needed in the campaign on climate is the spiritual dimension, the existential dimension, the moral dimension and these are not dimensions that are covered by politicians and diplomats usually,” Stålsett said.
“The wonderful thing is that [politicians] have seen that we need this, so it’s a win-win both for the secular political responsibility and for religious leaders and believers,” he added.
Climate change has proven to be a galvanizing force in terms of ecumenism, but Francis insisted that “challenges are not lacking.” On one hand, the politics of climate change risk bringing global initiatives to a stall, and, on the other, some doubt the practical commitment of religious organizations on this issue.
McKibben asked whether the Vatican financial institutions were willing to divest from fossil fuels, adding that such a thing “would make the carbon emissions made in order to come to Rome worthwhile.”