Halting future global crisis requires unprecedented but doable action: Vatican office invites church on journey to ‘total sustainability’ in next decade

Action platform toward carbon neutrality

This article appears in the Laudato Si’ at Five feature series. View the full series.

Pope Francis walks in a procession at the start of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican in this Oct. 7, 2019, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The Vatican’s peace and justice office is inviting Catholic communities across the world to join a grassroots movement to gradually work toward “total sustainability” in the coming decade, a path that would include carbon neutrality, simpler lifestyles and divestment from fossil fuels.

The initiative was revealed May 16 by the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development as part of a “special anniversary year” planned for Pope Francis’ 2015 social encyclical, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.”

The news came on the first day of Laudato Si’ Week, a Vatican-sponsored event running through May 24, the encyclical anniversary date. Now the week will kick off a full calendar of events through May 24, 2021.

As part of those plans, the dicastery outlined a multi-year “Laudato Si’ Action Platform” that in gradual stages will invite Catholic dioceses, religious orders, schools and other institutions to publicly commit to a seven-year journey toward ecological conversion and “total sustainability.” The hope is by starting small, the movement will eventually reach a “critical mass” with more and more corners of the church taking part over time.

The action platform is framed across seven “Laudato Si’ Goals” grounded in the encyclical’s concept of integral ecology. The holistic goals reflect the gamut of Catholic social teaching, and each lists examples of various benchmarks to accomplish.

Among the roughly two dozen benchmarks are becoming carbon neutral, defending all forms of life, adopting simple lifestyles, promoting ecologically centered liturgical celebrations and educational curricula, and divesting from fossil fuels and other economic activity harmful to the planet or people.

The action platform would begin in early 2021 by inviting an unspecified number of initial participants. The official launch is scheduled for the following May. At this stage, the platform remains an invitation, and no participants have been announced.

Participants would represent seven categories (families, dioceses, schools, universities, hospitals, businesses, farms, religious orders) and would commit to complete the goals in seven years. The dicastery said it hopes the number of participants in each group would double with each successive year. The rollout would continue through 2030.

“In this way, we hope to arrive at a ‘critical mass’ needed for radical societal transformation invoked by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’,” the dicastery document states.

Salesian Fr. Joshtrom Kureethadam, coordinator of the dicastery’s ecology and creation sector, told EarthBeat in an email May 17 they decided on a grassroots approach for the action platform as a way to reflect the vision of integral ecology outlined in Laudato Si’.

“Our wider horizon is the next decade and beyond when we hope to inspire a people’s movement from below for creation care, in the spirit of the integral ecology of Laudato Si’, and inspired by the leadership of Pope Francis,” Kureethadam said.

It was not immediately clear from the document to what level the Vatican City State would participate in the action platform.

Related: Former official doubts Vatican bank has fossil fuel investments


The question of the Vatican’s possible financial holdings in fossil fuels has percolated among Catholic and other climate activists. So far, the Vatican Bank has not addressed the issue directly. In that time, more than 160 Catholic institutions, including Caritas Internationalis, have pledged to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

Catholic climate leaders have long spoken about the massive potential for the church to be a major force in addressing global warming by mobilizing the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, roughly 15% of the global population, and leveraging its enormous property footprint. With the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, the Vatican appears to invite the church to do just that — and at a critical stage for the future of the planet.

Climate scientists have stated global greenhouse gas emissions must decline 45% this decade in order to limit average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), the central goal of the Paris Agreement adopted by nations just months after Francis issued his encyclical.

In the Laudato Si’ year anniversary plans, the integral human development dicastery, led by Cardinal Peter Turkson, states that the multiple “cracks in the planet” — melting Arctic ice caps, wildfires in the Amazon and Australia, extreme weather and biodiversity loss — “are too evident and detrimental to be ignored any more.”

It adds: “We hope that the anniversary year and the ensuing decade will indeed be a time of grace, a true Kairos experience and ‘Jubilee’ time for the Earth, and for humanity, and for all God’s creatures.”

In the Book of Leviticus, a jubilee year occurred every 50 years, or “at the end of seven weeks of years,” and was a sacred period of restoration with prisoners freed, debts forgiven and the land left fallow, free from sowing or reaping. “The land will yield its fruit and you will eat your fill, and live there securely.” (Leviticus 25:19)

The Laudato Si’ Action Platform and its related goals resemble the United Nations’ own Sustainable Development Goals. The U.N. agenda lays out a blueprint for the global community by 2030 to achieve 17 goals addressing a range of issues, among them: poverty, inequality, peace, hunger, water access, gender equality, clean energy and climate action.

The seven Laudato Si’ goals address a range of areas related to sustainability and ecological conversion:

  1. Response to the cry of the Earth: work toward carbon neutrality through greater use of clean renewable energy and reduced fossil fuel use; support efforts to protect and promote biodiversity and guarantee water access for all.
  2. Response to the cry of the poor: defend human life from conception to death and all forms of life on Earth, while giving special attention to vulnerable groups such as indigenous communities, migrants and children at risk of trafficking and slavery.
  3. Ecological economics: sustainable production, fair trade, ethical consumption and investments, investments in renewable energy, divestment from fossil fuels and limiting any economic activity harmful to the planet or people.
  4. Adoption of simple lifestyles: reduce use of energy and resources, avoid single-use plastics, adopt a more plant-based diet, reduce meat consumption and increase use of public transportation over polluting alternatives.
  5. Ecological education: redesign curricula around integral ecology, create ecological awareness and action, promote ecological vocation with young people and teachers.
  6. Ecological spirituality: recover a religious vision of God’s creation, promote creation-centered liturgical celebrations, develop ecological catechesis and prayers and encourage more time in nature.
  7. Emphasis on community involvement and participatory action around creation care at all levels of society by promoting advocacy and grassroots campaigns.

For months, the dicastery has explored ways to mark the five-year anniversary of what it called the pope’s “watershed” encyclical on the environment and human ecology.

In Laudato Si’, Francis issued an “urgent challenge” to the entire world “to protect our common home.” He encouraged cultivating a deeper relationship with God’s creation, alongside actions to address the multitude of ecological crises facing the planet, including climate change, deforestation and threats to biodiversity that jeopardize the survival of upward of 1 million plant and animal species.

The release of the dicastery’s plans was delayed partly by the coronavirus pandemic. The document says the five-year anniversary comes “in the midst of another watershed moment,” the pandemic, adding: “The encyclical can indeed provide the moral and spiritual compass for the journey to create a more caring, fraternal, peaceful and sustainable world.”

“We have, in fact, a unique opportunity to transform the present groaning and travail into the birth pangs of a new way of living together, bonded together in love, compassion and solidarity, and a more harmonious relationship with the natural world, our common home,” it said.

Quoting the encyclical, the document adds: “Truly, COVID-19 has made clear how deeply we are all interconnected and interdependent. As we begin to envision a post-COVID world, we need above all an integral approach as ‘everything is closely interrelated and today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis.’ “

The integral human development dicastery sketched out a full calendar of events for the Laudato Si’ special anniversary year.

In June, the dicastery plans to release operational guidelines for other Vatican offices to implement the encyclical. On June 18, the anniversary of the release of Laudato Si’, it will hold a webinar assessing the impact of the text and where it goes next.

Read this next: May or June: When’s the anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’?

Other highlights include the Season of Creation (Sept. 1-Oct. 4), which will feature a series of webinars. The Economy of Francesco meeting of young economists, originally set for March, is now scheduled for November. The Vatican also expects to hold its third roundtable at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland. It is also exploring a gathering of religious leaders in spring 2021.

The anniversary year will conclude with a conference in Rome and a public musical performance by composer Julian Revie that combines a children’s chorus with excerpts from the encyclical and songbirds recorded in parts of the world experiencing environmental devastation.

The Vatican also plans to present inaugural Laudato Si’ Awards that will honor individual and community leaders in living out the encyclical’s message. The awards will be presented to educational institutions, parishes, dioceses, religious communities and families, as well as recognize initiatives in advocacy and action, economics, health and communication.

Additional projects in the works for the anniversary year include a Laudato Si’ documentary; collaborations with the Plastic Bank; an emerging network of Laudato Si’ academic institutes; the Laudato Tree Initiative, an Africa-based project to plant 1 million trees in the continent’s Sahel region; and a social media contest around reading the Bible.

Also planned is a “Laudato Si’ Living Chapel” art installation, combining rare plants and discarded metal from cars and oil barrels, to promote the values of peace, creation care and biodiversity.

The dicastery describes its list of initiatives as “open-ended” and encourages communities to devise their own ideas throughout the anniversary year.

“We invite everyone to join us,” the document states. “The urgency of the situation calls for immediate, holistic and unified responses at all levels — local, regional, national and international. We need, above all, ‘a peoples’ movement’ from below, an alliance of all people of good will.”

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

Catholics urge action as UN report forecasts climate crisis in coming decades

Action This article appears in the COP24 Poland feature series. View the full series.

Water from the melting Aletsch Glacier in the Swiss Alps runs down through a hole in 2015. (CNS/Reuters/Denis Balibouse)

The global community finds itself at a “can’t-fail moment,” United Nations officials said with the release of a major report that foresees an ecosystem-altering climate crisis mere decades away that will impact the lives of hundreds of millions of people unless “unprecedented” transitions across society occur.

Catholics who work on the climate change issue say the world has “a moral and ethical imperative to act,” with urgency and decisiveness.

“We need to be as adamant in standing up for life in addressing climate change as we are about the vocalized issue of abortion,” Charity Sr. Carol De Angelo said. “Can we broaden this as a life issue?”

The report, from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, an advisory group of scientists to the international body, projected that at current rates of greenhouse gas emissions the globe will reach 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming above preindustrial levels around 2040, and as soon as a decade earlier.

Average global temperatures have already risen 1 C since preindustrial times (1850-1900), resulting in rising sea levels, declining Arctic sea ice and more extreme weather. Because warming does not occur uniformly worldwide, some regions have already experienced temperature rises above 1.5 C.

“We need to be as adamant in standing up for life in addressing climate change as we are about the vocalized issue of abortion. Can we broaden this as a life issue?”
—Charity Sr. Carol De Angelo

As temperatures rise, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report stated, the risks from climate change become worse — particularly for vulnerable populations, indigenous peoples and communities dependent on agricultural and coastal livelihoods, all at a “disproportionately higher risk of adverse consequences” — and increasingly devastating for societies and ecosystems as warming approaches 2 C (3.6 F) and beyond. The report projected “robust differences” between the two global warming trajectories.

“It’s bad news,” Sr. Teresa Kotturan, the U.N. representative for the Sisters of Charity Federation said of the report’s findings. “It’s bad because you need the political will and economic capacities to implement change. The steps we need to reduce greenhouse emissions are costly.”

The seemingly small difference in degrees could mean the difference in preventing several hundred million people from falling into poverty by mid-century, the report found. In addition, it projected that limiting global warming to 1.5 C could expose 420 million fewer people to severe heatwaves, 10 million fewer to risks brought by rising seas, and limit Arctic summers without sea ice to once a century rather than once per decade with 2 C of warming.

Additionally, nearly all coral reef would be wiped out under a 2 C scenario. Avoiding temperature rise to that level would also lower the risks of heat-related morbidity and mortality and the spread of vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever, and reduce the risks of flooding, infrastructure damage and saltwater intrusion to people living on small islands and low-lying coastal areas.

“A half of degree of warming makes a world of difference,” said António Guterres, U.N. secretary-general, in a statement.

He called the report “an ear-splitting wake-up call to the world. It confirms that climate change is running faster than we are — and we are running out of time.”

The report, released Oct. 8 in South Korea, was written by 91 scientists who reviewed more than 6,000 scientific studies. It was commissioned as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

Under the accord, 195 nations agreed to limit average global temperature rise “well below” 2 C and to work toward the 1.5 target. Island nations, buoyed by support from civil society groups as well as the Vatican, pushed for the more stringent goal, believing that greater warming could wipe out their homes and cultures beneath rising seas.

Current pledges under the Paris Agreement would only hold global warming to 3 C; a report from the Trump administration earlier this summer projected a 4 C rise by 2100. At the next U.N. climate change conference, COP 24 in December in Katowice, Poland, nations will gauge their progress to date and potentially ramp up their commitments.

Guterres called the Katowice summit “a can’t-fail moment.”

The IPCC report highlights the “significant” benefits of limiting warming to 1.5 C compared to 2 C, but also the “considerable challenge” it poses for the coming years, said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, professor of atmospheric and climate sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

“It’s still doable, but it’s going to take Herculean efforts. And I personally [think] it will require a lot of leadership from the U.S.,” he told NCR.

Under President Donald Trump, the United States, the planet’s second-leading polluter, has taken a back seat on climate change. Trump said he will withdraw the country from the Paris Agreement at the earliest opportunity, and his administration has worked to roll back a number of environmental measures, including moves under President Barack Obama to limit carbon emissions from power plants and the auto industry.

In the absence of federal action, a coalition of 3,000 states, cities, businesses and organizations have pledged to continue U.S. efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, highlighted last month at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

According to the IPCC report, capping global warming at 1.5 C would require a dramatic drop in carbon emissions in the next decade — a decline of 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 — and then reach net-zero by 2050. The climate models also include scenarios where temperatures temporarily “overshoot” the 1.5 target before eventually falling back down.

Achieving that goal would require “rapid and far-reaching transitions” across sectors — energy, land, urban and infrastructure and industrial systems — within the next two decades, the report found. Renewable energy would need to produce 70 to 85 percent of electricity by 2050 and coal essentially eliminated as an energy source. Millions of acres of farm and public lands would need to be converted for reforestation and the production of crops for use as energy sources. In addition, technologies either not yet invented or at scalable capacity, including mechanisms to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, would need to be developed.

Such a transformation on that scale has “no documented historic precedent,” the report said.

“Limiting warming to 1.5ºC is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics,” said Jim Skea, one of the report’s authors,” but doing so would require unprecedented changes.”

Dan Misleh, executive director of U.S.-based Catholic Climate Covenant, said the message the report sends “is we have to get serious about tackling this issue. Much more serious than we have been so far.”

Catholic sisters who represent their congregations at the United Nations and are supportive of international efforts responding to climate change said the implications of the U.N. report are worrisome.

What is particularly troubling is that the effects of climate change now stem from earlier rises in temperatures, the Charity sister Kotturan noted, meaning radical steps must be taken immediately “to reduce [greenhouse emissions] so that we can meet of challenges of 2040. We created it [the problem], now have to devise ways to stop it.”

More pressure from “the grassroots” and from religious communities need to be applied to governments to act, Kotturan said, arguing the “greed is taking over the common good” throughout the world.

“Change always happens from the bottom up, from the grassroots,” she said.

De Angelo, director of the Office of Peace, Justice and Integrity of Creation of the Sisters of Charity of New York and who works with Kotturan at the United Nations, said the report’s implications for the future are stark.

She told NCR that she hopes U.S. Catholics are beginning to see the issue of climate as part of a life-based ethic. “What about our children, what kind of world are we leaving them?” she said.

In the United States, where the climate change debate has become subsumed in the country’s partisan political divide, policy work is needed to promote the common good, De Angelo said.

“There is a moral and ethical imperative to act,” she said, noting her own advocacy efforts to promote Pope Francis’ 2015 environmental encyclical, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.”

“I don’t want it become a ‘Republican-Democratic thing,’ ” she said. “Everything has become so partisan.” Speaking of her work and the work of other sisters at the United Nations on the environment, De Angelo said the sisters are not acting from a position of political partisanship. “We’re about promoting the Gospel.”

Ramanathan, the climate scientist, said his peers and policymakers have to work with faith leaders to build up the collective will to take the massive steps called for in the IPCC report. Part of the solution, he said, involves better communicating the science behind climate change and future projections to those having difficulty accepting it.

“The key issue to me is unpacking climate change science from all the issues that divide. … It’s an issue of data-driven science, and an issue of huge human tragedy,” said Ramanathan, who in recent years has given more than a dozen speeches to religious audiences, including in February at Creighton University, in Omaha, Nebraska.

Misleh of Catholic Climate Covenant said that while there are many hopeful signs of progress on climate action in what businesses, faith communities and other sectors are doing, the world can’t rely on technology alone to bring about the necessary change. An examination of how people, particularly in developed nations, live daily must also be a part, pointing to Francis’ description in Laudato Si’ of the world facing not separate crises but “one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”

“Those of us in the wealthier countries need to be much more concerned about our lifestyle choices than we ever have been,” Misleh said. “Because those choices … have a tremendous carbon footprint.”

[Brian Roewe (broewe@ncronline.orgis an NCR staff writer. GSR international correspondent Chris Herlinger (cherlinger@ncronline.org) contributed from New York.]

A version of this story appeared in the Oct 19-Nov 1, 2018 print issue under the headline: Catholics urge action as UN report forecasts climate crisis .

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