The Vatican and Climate Change

Pope Francis Applauds UN Agreement

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis hailed a major United Nations’ climate accord reached in Paris and expressed the hope that it will pay attention to the world’s “most vulnerable populations.”

After praying the Angelus Dec. 13, the Holy Father noted that many are viewing the so-called Paris Agreement, reached Dec. 13, as “historic,” and the implementation of the deal “will require concerted commitment and generous dedication by all.”

He added, “In the hope that it will ensure special attention to the most vulnerable populations, we urge the international community to continue with care on the path it has taken, in a spirit of increasingly active solidarity.”

After 13 days of talks at the COP21 U.N. Climate Change Conference, 195 countries signed the “Paris Agreement,” setting the goal of limiting global warming to “well below” two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial levels, with a more ambitious target of 1.5 Celsius if possible.

The deal also obliges rich countries to channel at least $100 billion (92 billion euros) annually, beginning in 2020, to help climate-vulnerable countries.

Scientists assert that fossil fuels are warming the Earth’s surface, and, if not prevented, future generations will suffer from rising seas and worsening drought, flood and storms. Poor nations are least to blame for causing the problem, but they will feel the impact most. However, the science of climate change is contested, and the scientific community remains divided about the extent to which it is due to fossil fuels.

Questions over the science notwithstanding, Pope Francis and the Holy See fervently pushed for a legally binding agreement on combating climate change before and during the conference. The Pope’s keen interest in the talks reportedly had an influence on the outcome, according to some delegates present. Alison Doig, climate-change adviser for Christian Aid, told Vatican Radio the mood brought to the conference by Pope Francis was “transformative” and “wonderful,” especially since the publication of Laudato Si (Care for Our Common Home).

One report even alleged the Holy Father called the president of Nicaragua after he and some other national leaders appeared unwilling to sign the agreement. However, in comments to the Register Dec. 16, a spokesman for Cardinal Peter Turkson, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who was a member of the Holy See delegation to Paris, denied rumors that the Pope directly intervened in the talks.


The Holy See’s Position

The precise nature of the Holy See’s position on climate change — which is arguably even stronger than in Pope Francis’ 2015 environment encyclical, Laudato Si (the papal document said the Church had “no reason to offer a definitive opinion” on climate change, saying an “honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views”) — was crystallized over the past month, beginning with comments the Holy Father made in Kenya immediately in advance of the conference.

Speaking to the U.N. office in Nairobi Nov. 26, the Pope said the world is facing a “grave environmental crisis” and warned that a failure at the U.N. climate summit would be “catastrophic.” He was equally forceful a few days later, telling reporters on the papal plane back from Africa that an agreement on climate change was needed to save a world “at the limits of suicide.”

His concern was echoed by Holy See delegates at COP21, who have been similarly committed in their comments, sweeping away any ambiguity that might have existed over the Vatican’s position on the science.

Cardinal Turkson called for a “fair, legally binding and truly transformational agreement,” telling the Paris meeting on Dec. 8 that COP21 “must be ambitious” because “when the environment is assaulted, the poor, least able to defend themselves, suffer most.”

In his own Nov. 30 remarks to delegates, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, underlined “global solidarity” and laid out important factors to consider in any agreement, such as a “clear ethical orientation,” appropriate guidelines for governments and the private sector and effective follow-ups.

The Holy See fielded a large delegation that, in addition to Cardinals Parolin and Turkson, included other Vatican officials and representatives from Caritas and CIDSE, an international alliance of Catholic development agencies. 


Papal Pronouncements

But many are wondering how the Holy See came to have such a clear and strong position on the science that, although backed by 800 U.N. scientists, remains highly contested by many others and is promoted by the population-control lobby.

To some extent, the answer can be found by looking back into the history of papal pronouncements on environmental issues. Safeguarding the environment has been mentioned to some degree in all recent social encyclicals, but successive popes have increasingly waded into the scientific minutiae of the effects of human activity on ecosystems.

The environment first took on a more prominent role when Blessed Paul VI warned in his 1971 apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens of the “tragic consequence” of unchecked human activity and an “ill-considered exploitation of nature.” He later predicted an “ecological catastrophe” caused by the explosive growth of industrial civilization and stressed the urgent need for “a radical change in the conduct of humanity.”

Pope St. John Paul was the first pope to call for an ecological conversion and introduced the theme of human ecology. In his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Man), he warned that human beings frequently seem “to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.” He would then go on to address the issue in additional detail in his 1990 World Day of Peace Message, “Peace With God the Creator, Peace With All of Creation.”

Benedict XVI expanded further on ecology, introducing an ecology of peace and social ecology. “The book of nature is one and indivisible,” he wrote in his 2009 social encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), adding that it encompasses the environment, life, sexuality, the family and social relations. “The deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture, which shapes human coexistence,” he said.

But, most significantly, Benedict was the first pope to refer to climate change, mentioning it on seven occasions during his pontificate, the first time in 2007. He also became the first pope to wade into the particulars of safeguarding the environment, trumpeting the “immense potential” of solar energy (installing it at the Vatican and signing a U.N. protocol), preserving water systems, “whose stability could be seriously jeopardized by climate change,” and implementing “appropriate policies for the management of forests.”


Francis’ Approach

Francis has entered into considerably more detail, devoting a whole sub-chapter to climate change in Ladauto Si, saying it is a “global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods.” He has also delved into specific scientific areas and discussed a whole range of subjects, from the “decomposition of frozen organic material” to the “disappearance of ecosystems sustained by mangrove swamps.”

The Holy Father has backed up his words with gestures: On the feast of the Immaculate Conception, he allowed environmentalist groups to stage a controversial light show on St. Peter’s Basilica as part of a lobbying attempt to achieve what one of the organizers called “the most ambitious” deal in Paris and even donated his shoes in a show of solidarity with hundreds of climate-change marches taking place across the globe. 

Cardinal Turkson said the Pope’s position reflects his experience and that Laudato Si and the Pope’s advocacy for climate-change science are in continuity with his predecessors and build on what they said on the environment. The Pope’s position reflects his experience as a pastor, the cardinal told the Register; the cardinal feels Francis has been “prudent” when it comes to the subject of climate change.

The Pope, who has listened to bishops explaining how their islands are disappearing or ecosystems are being destroyed, is “not claiming any dogmatic position” or an “article of faith,” Cardinal Turkson said, but he recognized that climate change can be evidenced, even if “difficult to evaluate.”

“A whole lot of temptations are involved in this,” he said, referring to potential costs involved, but he believes, like the Pope, that a multifaceted approach is needed — one that tackles not only climate-change prevention, but also implementing defenses against natural disasters.

“Wisdom demands that we take a dispassionate look at it and try to do the one thing that Catholic social teaching often talks about: the well-being of the human being in all these situations,” he said.


‘Respect for Nature’

That means engaging with the U.N., Cardinal Turkson stressed, even if the international body sometimes supports policies antithetical to Church teaching. And with Francis’ popular global standing, the cardinal said his moral voice is being heard.

“There has never been a pope whose writings have been quoted so profusely at a meeting like this one,” Cardinal Turkson noted. “And when the quotes are read, it’s not what the Pope said about climate change; it’s about what the Pope has said about respect for nature.”