Vatican: ‘We’re not doing well on climate’

December 2020, Turkson’s comments came during a webinar. Watch here: http://www.humandevelopment.va/en/news/vatican-covid-19-commission-and-its-partners-organize-a-webinar1.html

On Saturday, the U.N. and United Kingdom will co-host the Climate Ambition Summit, where Francis is expected to speak by video. 

Brian Roewe in NCRonline

The five-year mark for the Paris Agreement is no time to rejoice, but rather recognize “we’re not doing well” in achieving its goals to curb greenhouse gas emissions and limit global climate change, top Vatican officials said this week.

“It’s a blessing to come to this anniversary,” Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, said at a webinar Dec. 9. “But unfortunately, we don’t come with a record that enables us to rejoice as having achieved something on climate change. The climate scientists are telling us that we are [heading] toward a 3-degree rise in surface temperature change.”

He continued, “We’re not doing too well. We cannot applaud ourselves and we cannot tap ourselves on the back and say we’ve done well. We need to commit more strongly.”

In a separate video message a day later, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, said the world faces an “uphill” journey in implementing the Paris Agreement, and announced that Pope Francis would take part in a virtual United Nations summit on Saturday to press countries for more ambitious commitments and political will on climate change.

Turkson’s comments came during a webinar co-sponsored by the Vatican’s COVID-19 commission ahead of the upcoming Paris Agreement anniversary, while Parolin delivered his remarks at a similar event hosted by the ambassadors of the United Kingdom, France and Italy to the Holy See.

On Dec. 12, 2015, 195 nations adopted the Paris Agreement at COP 21, the United Nations climate summit held that year in Paris. The monumental accord was the first time nearly every nation on Earth, rather than just the most industrialized countries, committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Paris Agreement calls for holding average global temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), while striving to limit the increase to 1.5 C (2.7 F). To meet the 1.5-degree target, climate scientists say that global emissions must reach net zero no later than 2050 and be cut in half by the end of this decade. That will require massive economic and societal shifts, including pivoting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

In the five years since Paris, countries have only inched forward.

On Saturday, the U.N. and United Kingdom will co-host the Climate Ambition Summit, where Francis is expected to speak by video. The event is the latest effort to ramp up global commitments and recapture momentum for the Paris Agreement and addressing climate change, which lost ground in the coronavirus pandemic.

Parolin said that with current dual crises confronting the world, “we find ourselves facing a real social and cultural challenge,” Vatican news reported. He said the moment calls for a new cultural model built on awareness, wisdom and will — the latter in shortest supply.

“Strengthening political will is one of the reasons why we are here,” he said of the Vatican’s participation in events around the Paris accord anniversary.

2020 has been a year of milestones for the environmental movement. April marked the 50th celebration of Earth Day. And like the Paris Agreement, Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” also arrived at its five-year mark.

Screenshot of the Vatican's Dec. 9 "Faith, Science and Youth: A call for an ambitious Climate Summit" webinarThe Vatican’s Dec. 9 “Faith, Science and Youth: A call for an ambitious Climate Summit” webinar included, top row, from left: John Schellnhuber, founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in Germany, and a member of the Vatican’s COVID-19 task force; Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president of the Club of Rome, who moderated webinar; and, bottom row, from left: Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an environmental activist with the Association of Peul Women and Autochthonous Peoples of Chad; and Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development (NCR screenshot)

The expectation was that such celebrations would mobilize masses of people worldwide to press for substantial policies and actions to reduce emissions ahead of COP 26, the next U.N. climate summit, which had been scheduled for earlier this month in Glasgow, Scotland. At that gathering, nations were expected to submit updated — and more ambitious — climate plans.

But the coronavirus pandemic dislodged the original plans, as the summit was postponed until 2021, and global attention turned from bending the emissions curve to subduing a highly contagious virus.

“The COVID pandemic has demonstrated that our planet and our people are increasingly sick together,” said Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president of the Club of Rome, who moderated the Dec. 9 Vatican webinar, which was organized with numerous Catholic development and climate organizations.

As the pandemic has charged forward, it has done little to modify climate change projections.

Carbon dioxide emissions are projected to decline by 7% in 2020, according to the U.N. Environment Programme, largely because of decreased activity during the pandemic. But that decline barely registers in the larger emissions picture, John Schellnhuber, founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in Germany, and a member of the Vatican’s COVID-19 task force, said at the webinar.

“We will not be saved from global warming because of the emissions reduced by the coronavirus. So we have to do it in a systemic way,” he said.

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Vehicles on Interstate 405 in Los Angeles are seen from an airplane passing over the freeway March 1, 2018. (CNS/Reuters/Chris Helgren)Vehicles on Interstate 405 in Los Angeles are seen from an airplane passing over the freeway March 1, 2018. (CNS/Reuters/Chris Helgren)

The annual U.N. Environment Programme emissions gap report, released the same day as the Vatican event, concluded that despite the year’s sharp drop in emissions, at the current pace, global temperatures will rise by more than 3 C this century.

The U.N. agency urged countries to incorporate “green recovery” measures into stimulus legislation for recovery from the pandemic and to “raise significantly their climate ambitions” ahead of COP 26 in 2021. To meet the 1.5 C target, the report stated nations need to increase their emissions-cutting targets fivefold, while the richest 1% of the world population (defined as having annual incomes greater than $109,000) would have to reduce their carbon footprints by a factor of 30.

Several countries, including China, have announced more ambitious targets recently, as has U.S. President-elect Joe Biden. An analysis by the research group Climate Action Tracker showed that even if these pledges are met, warming would be reduced to 2.1 C — still short of the Paris goals, but “within striking distance” of the 1.5 C target.

Increasing emissions brings increased suffering.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an environmental activist with the Association of Peul Women and Autochthonous Peoples of Chad, described during the Dec. 9 webinar how climate change and COVID-19 are impacting Indigenous peoples and other vulnerable communities. The pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity, she said, and preventive health measures, such as frequent hand washing, are not possible for people without access to clean water, particularly nomadic groups, whose lives have been disrupted as borders have closed.

“Climate change is killing people. And it’s displacing communities. It’s making them homeless and migrants. So the sense of urgency has to be in the mind of all of us,” she said.

Ibrahim added that the pandemic has shown how countries can respond to a crisis when they choose to do so, by both rapidly mobilizing to seek solutions and investing in them. The same response is required with climate change, she said.

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Mexico City is shrouded in smog in May 2019. (CNS/Reuters/Henry Romero)Mexico City is shrouded in smog in May 2019. (CNS/Reuters/Henry Romero)

She urged countries that are pumping billions of dollars into their economies to boost recovery to also fulfill their pledges to the Green Climate Fund, which has fallen fall short of its goal of delivering $100 billion annually to developing countries by this year.

Why [can’t they] shift and integrate climate change to their causes?” she said.

Turkson echoed Francis’ repeated call for an ecological conversion. At one point, the cardinal was asked why Catholics do not hear in their dioceses and parishes the message about climate change and sustainable development that he and the pope have stressed.

“On the world stage, Pope Francis is admired, cherished and recognized for his moral authority” on environmental issues, Turkson said. “Now one would have thought that when a leader so speaks, all the followers would also kind of come on board.”

The cardinal continued, “There appears to be some slight disconnect between the head and the body. So that while the pope speaks, it does not always resonate with every area of every part of the world. But that again is our task. That’s our responsibility.”

Turkson said the Vatican has held online conferences with bishops’ conferences and Caritas chapters to try to elevate the message. He added that the Vatican has promoted a number of climate actions — including in operational guidelines for parishes and dioceses released in June — that Catholics can take, such as placing solar panels on churches, supporting green agriculture and planting trees through programs like the Laudato Tree Project in central Africa.

In May, Turkson’s dicastery unveiled its Laudato Si’ Action Platform, which invites Catholic institutions at all levels to implement seven-year plans toward “total sustainability” during this decade.

“Most importantly, the action has to be on the local level,” Turkson said.

Schellnhuber, who co-authored a recent paper on the emissions-reducing potential of switching from concrete and steel to wood for building construction, said “it would be a very strong statement” if the Catholic Church committed to that model for its future buildings. The paper notes that such a move would require managing forests sustainably and protecting them from illegal logging and other threats.

Ibrahim said the solutions to climate change “are in our hands,” but also require political leadership. She urged leaders to consult indigenous communities, who represent a small sliver of the global population but protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity. And should politicians fail to lead, she said, faith groups must step in.

“In any religions — from the Catholics, Christians, Muslims and all — we have one thing in common: respect the human being, respecting nature, respect all the life on the Earth. So we must respect the life on the Earth together,” she said.

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

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

**

Five years after Paris, the ecological alarm is ringing loud and clear

What did we learn from the pandemic that could foster more ambitious climate action?

Dec 11, 2020by Chiara Martinelli

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A man carries a child on his shoulders through a flooded street in Manila, Philippines, following Typhoon Vamco. (CNS/Reuters/Lisa Marie David)A man carries a child on his shoulders through a flooded street in Manila, Philippines, following Typhoon Vamco. (CNS/Reuters/Lisa Marie David)

Five years ago, the Paris Agreement was adopted by governmental leaders: a compromised result of long negotiations and worldwide public pressure. The Paris Agreement is not ideal, but it’s an important tool to push governments to move from words to action.

Unfortunately, in the last five years, governments failed targets laid out on Dec. 12, 2015, and here we are today — on the eve of the Climate Ambition Summit, where governments are supposed to present their implementation plans (the so-called Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs) — to shout again that more ambitious and imminent steps are needed.

After months of coping with COVID-19, another ecological alarm is ringing loud and clear: The overexploitation of natural resources is having devastating long-term consequences. Indeed, we have a big job to do; despite the COP26 postponement, commitments and climate action cannot be delayed.

The lockdown measures in many countries “paused” business-as-usual: our economy, our consumption, our traveling, our frenetic lifestyles. Never before has industrial civilization taken such a “break.” Some have been even “celebrating” the unusual decrease in emissions, but soon scientists warned us that this is just a tiny downturn on the long-term emissions graph. We need a sustained flattening of the curve to reach the Paris Agreement’s goals. We need an entirely different movie, not just to press pause or play it in slow motion!

While we pause our lifestyles to slow during the COVID-19 crisis, it has been impossible to “pause” the permanent state of climate crisis lived by the world’s most vulnerable and poorest communities.

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Locusts feed on a plant near the village of Riandira in Kirinyaga County, Kenya, Jan. 14. (CNS/Reuters/Baz Ratner)Locusts feed on a plant near the village of Riandira in Kirinyaga County, Kenya, Jan. 14. (CNS/Reuters/Baz Ratner)

The pandemic in 2020 was just one more threat to the hundreds of millions of people hanging by a thread because of floods, invasion of locusts, droughts and tropical cyclones. We should dedicate all the media space available to report those stories, often ignored. We will give them space here.

Five storms hammered the Philippines in 30 days between October and November: from Typhoon Molave (locally named Quinta) on Oct. 25 to Vamco (Ulysses) on Nov. 23, which came less than a fortnight after the season’s strongest storm, Typhoon Goni (Rolly).

Throughout 2020, East Africa has been seeing its worst swarms of locusts in many decades, with devastating effects on agriculture and food security for the local population. The Brazilian Amazon rainforest is still on fire, with an increase of 13% in the first nine months of the year compared to last year.

What did we learn from the pandemic that could foster more ambitious and urgent climate action?

First of all, the health crisis confirmed the failure of the current dominant economic system. The pandemic outbreak of another zoonotic disease — such as COVID-19 — is one more example of the encroachment of human activity on nature’s boundaries. The harmony in our relationship with creation is broken.

And, as we repeatedly stated within the Vatican COVID-19 Commission, created by Pope Francis to express the church’s care for the whole human family facing the pandemic, there is no healthy humanity on a sick planet. Climate ambition must therefore restore a peaceful coexistence of nature and humanity on our planet.

Secondly, we have witnessed that governments have the power to halt certain economic activities to put the health of people first. In a year that started with a profound crisis of multilateralism and a lack of trust in intergovernmental cooperation, political leaders managed to find historic compromises during the COVID-19 emergency, such as the European recovery fund.

Climate ambition therefore means enhancing collaboration across countries within international processes, supporting each other’s efforts, such as industrialized countries financing poor countries’ adaptation to climate change.

In our rich societies, the restrictions of the lockdown brought many of us to discover a more sustainable way of living, supporting local food production, avoiding useless traveling, caring for each other by offering neighborly services to the quarantined and the sick, and showing solidarity online, on balconies, and in protests.

Children display their drawings from the balcony of their home in Thessaloniki, Greece, April 18, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The drawings in Greek read: "I want spring back" and "We stay home," Greece's national slogan during the pandemic. (CNS/ReutersChildren display their drawings from the balcony of their home in Thessaloniki, Greece, April 18, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The drawings in Greek read: “I want spring back” and “We stay home,” Greece’s national slogan during the pandemic. (CNS/Reuters/Murad Sezer)

Climate ambition therefore means moving toward a more sustainable way of living “so that others could simply live.”

We also learned that the most essential work in our globalized civilization, such as food production, health care, education, the manufacturing of essential goods, and the preservation of our ecosystems, is borne by the most disempowered people — often women, people of color and indigenous communities.

The pandemic landed on an already profoundly unequal society. Moreover, already vulnerable people doing essential work were further deprived of essential social services, exposed to more violence and oppression, laid off with little notice or expected to work overtime in unsanitary conditions.

The people daily paying the price of inequalities are also the most vulnerable to climate change. Climate ambition therefore means protecting the rights of and empowering the most vulnerable, as well as learning from their traditional knowledge and spirituality of care for creation.

Many policy proposals to address the pandemic were clearly guided by economic interests and foundationally ignored the common good. These measures simply aimed to “go back to normal,” instead of building back better, instead of preparing to be resilient to future crises.

And today, five years after the Paris Agreement was adopted, we will not tolerate wasting any more time or accepting long-term promises. The new normal must start now. We cannot come out of a global crisis as we were before and miss the opportunity to change course. We cannot miss the momentum: We clearly see the systems behind the crisis. Siloed environmental, economic or health reforms will not tackle the root causes of the problem.

We need a clear, holistic approach, policy coherence across sectors and at all levels, that can join forces to shape a new paradigm where people and planet are the central priority. Because we know that the path we were going on full speed is just perpetuating inequalities and ecological collapse.

So where do we stand today on our road map to 2030? There are steps toward the Paris goals to celebrate (for example, efforts on divestment from fossil fuels by many institutions, bans on single-use plastic in some regions, the initiation of processes towards “green deals,” based on a vision of interconnectedness across different agendas, etc.).

In many of these, local actors clearly played a key role. This is a sign that change can only happen if local communities are leading or participating.

Unfortunately, science is telling us that too little has been done — and too slowly — to truly confront the climate crisis, especially in the most vulnerable regions. We have almost reached a mean temperature increase of 1.2 degrees Celsius globally.

While measures for a just and sustainable recovery are debated, “growth at all costs” remains the mainstream mentality of the majority of political leaders, and societies remain trapped in a “throwaway culture.”

Today, and this coming year, is an opportunity, while we build plans for a just and sustainable post-COVID-19 recovery, to assess where each country’s commitment stands, to look at those 2015 agreements and honor the Paris commitment.

The moral call to conscience at this moment could truly bring about an unprecedented decade of transformation. These are the essential ingredients for true ambition:

  • Climate pledges should be rooted in a moral imperative to save people’s lives and protect their rights;
  • Climate pledges should be based on the emissions reductions recommended by scientific data to avoid extinction;
  • Climate pledges should include measures to address and limit the social and economic effects of the transition on the most vulnerable parts of society worldwide;
  • Climate pledges should look beyond business-as-usual to alternatives that follow the cyclical nature of ecosystems (e.g., supporting the circular economy, sustainable food systems such as agroecology, etc.);
  • Climate pledges should protect and learn from traditional knowledge, especially from Indigenous people, the first guardians of Mother Earth.

It’s complex, but it’s possible. It is our responsibility to hold leaders accountable for the implementation of their climate action.

Five years ago, in the streets of Paris, we learned that it’s crucial for all of us — for civil society movements, church actors, communities, youth, media and scientific bodies — to work together to contribute to bringing about a decade of restoration toward 2030, a decade of jubilee, a decade that can inspire, can empower change, a decade that has already started.

[Chiara Martinelli is senior adviser at CIDSE, an international coalition of Catholic social justice organizations.]

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