Vatican Global-Warming Conference Displays Climate of Cooperation

Delegates at an April 28 conference lauded the Holy See for its commitment to sustainable development, but others dispute whether humanity has caused climate change.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (l), flanked by Ecuador's President Rafal Correa, attends a Vatican conference on the environment, at the Vatican on April 28.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (l), flanked by Ecuador's President Rafal Correa, attends a Vatican conference on the environment, at the Vatican on April 28. (photo: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

VATICAN CITY — The Catholic Church, together with other religions, could take a “decisive role” in helping to solve the problem of climate change by mobilizing public opinion, participants of a major Vatican workshop on the issue have said.

In a statement issued at the end of an April 28 workshop entitled “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Humanity,” delegates said finding ways to develop a “sustainable relationship with our planet” requires “a moral revolution.”

“Religious institutions can and should take the lead on bringing about such a new attitude towards creation,” they said. The Church could accomplish this “by mobilizing public opinion and public funds to meet the energy needs of the poorest 3 billion in a way that does not contribute to global warming but would allow them to prepare better for the challenges of unavoidable climate change.”

The April 28 workshop, opened by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, aimed to “raise awareness and build a consensus that the values of sustainable development cohere with values of the leading religious traditions, with a special focus on the most vulnerable.”

The meeting, timed to coincide with preparations for the U.N.’s Conference on Climate Change in Paris in December, was also meant to support Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical on the environment, said Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The document is finished and awaiting translation, Bishop Sanchez told the participants.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences co-hosted the event at its headquarters in the Palazzo Casina Pio IV in the Vatican Gardens, along with the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Religions for Peace.

Opening the workshop, Ban said climate change is the “defining issue of our times” and that it is “important faith groups are in harmony with this issue.”

“Science and religion are not at odds on climate change. Indeed, they are fully aligned,” he said. “Together, we must clearly communicate that the science of climate change is deep, sound and not in doubt.”

The U.N. leader said that if “ever there were an issue that needed unity of purpose, it’s climate change.” Society, he added, “must transform” its “thinking and values.” Faith groups and the Church in particular have “enormous” influence, he continued, and now is an “unprecedented opportunity” to create a “sustainable future and dignity for all.”

“Nature does not wait for us; we cannot negotiate with nature. We have to adapt to change,” he continued and stressed that we are the “first generation that can end poverty in our lifetime and tackle climate change before it’s too late. … Future generations will judge us harshly if we fail to uphold our responsibilities.”


Ban: Pope Is ‘Very Committed’

Ban, who explained the United Nations is aiming to secure a climate-change budget of $100 billion by 2020, followed by a further $100 billion per annum, later told reporters that he wants the moral authority of faith groups.

“Business leaders and all civil society are on board” with the mission to combat climate change, he asserted. “Now we want faith leaders. Then we can make it happen.”

He said he was “very encouraged” that Pope Francis is “very committed” to the issue. During their meeting, he said the Holy Father had assured Ban that he would cooperate “with the U.N. and world leaders, scientists and faith leaders to have this realized for humanity.”

In his address, Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, warned that the problems facing the environment are “imperative,” that humanity is “recklessly traversing” some of the world’s fundamental natural boundaries, and that “the very technology that has brought great reward is now poised to bring great ruin.”

But he also pointed out that, given the vastness of the problem, “solutions cannot be merely technical, nor commitment merely contractual, but must be grounded in morality and measured in terms of human flourishing and human well-being.”

He called for “brave and determined leadership,” a “shift away from an infatuation with GDP and accumulation” and urged societies to work towards sustainable development. A “moral obligation extends to all,” to those living “today and those not yet born,” he added. The world needs an “economy for inclusion and opportunity where all can flourish,” and it has a “moral duty” to provide it.

Various speakers drew attention to the wider impact of human action on the environment. Botanist Peter Raven pointed out that the world’s population is 7.3 billion at present, that 220,000 extra people are being added every day, who have to be “fed more each day.” He warned that the world is producing greenhouse gases at an “enormous rate” and said hundreds and thousands of species are becoming extinct as agriculture expands — a rate not since the age of the dinosaur.

In its final statement, the participants said the world must achieve “deep de-carbonization of the energy system by mid-century and reach near-zero carbon emissions by around 2070 if the rise in mean global temperature is to be below the 2°C upper limit.”


‘Global Warming’ Skepticism

But the climate-change science being put forward at the workshop was disputed by skeptics who also felt uneasy about Pope Francis and the Vatican participating in such an event.

Lord Christopher Monckton of Brenchley, a former adviser to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and a well-known climate-change skeptic, told the Register that, according to his research, the underlying warming rate of the climate is 0.2 Celsius per century and that there have been no unanimous findings showing a significant increase in global warming for 18 years.

He also claimed that, according to figures he had obtained from the Global Policy Foundation, the number of people dying from extreme weather is “at its lowest since meaningful records began.”

Retired scientist Richard Keen, professor emeritus of climatology at the University of Colorado, told the Register there is “very little to show there’s global warming” and that the models being used “need more work or need to be ditched.” He questioned why billions more are being spent on research if the science is already settled.

Monckton, who addressed a parallel conference skeptical of climate change hosted by the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based think tank, further dismissed the often repeated claim that 97% of the world’s scientists back the consensus on global warming.

In 2013, he issued a peer-reviewed paper containing his own research, which showed that only 41 of the 11,944 scientific papers referenced for the 97% figure were fully convinced that global warming since 1950 was man made. “So the figure is actually 0.3%,” he said.

“It’s as though a governing class, foolishly now joined by the Church, in my opinion, has gone into a kind of bubble where it doesn’t want to hear any evidence about the science,” he told the Register.

Marc Morano of Climate Depot, a publication of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, a Washington think tank, said he was concerned that Pope Francis, unlike his predecessors, was “essentially lobbying” for a climate-change treaty to be signed in Paris in December. This, he warned, puts him in danger of bringing into play a “whole host of issues that are diametrically opposed to Catholic teaching, such as population control, abortion and contraception.”


Advocates of Population Control

A key protagonist of the workshop was economist Jeffrey Sachs, who, along with Ban, has publicly advocated controlling population growth. Speaking to the Register, Sachs deflected the charge that tackling climate change necessarily leads to population control, saying, “It isn’t really the essential issue here; that’s a topic for a different day.”

The main issue for the conference, he said, was “decarbonizing the world’s energy system” and moving away from fossil fuels in an “extraordinarily short period of time.”

Ban sidestepped the issue of population control, telling reporters the topic was “ideological” and wasn’t discussed in his meeting with Pope Francis. “What’s important as population increases is that it will affect our resources and our capacity,” he said. “But depending on how we adapt and change our behavior, we can make a huge impact on climate-change discussions.”

Asked about concerns over climate change and population control, Cardinal Turkson told the Register that the relationship between population and development “has always been a thorny issue that we have looked at several times in the past in our office.”

“Whether the population of the world will get to a point where it won’t be able to support the population, this has been used before by population-control groups,” he said.

But he didn’t accept that it was a bad idea to invite Ban, Sachs and other population-control advocates to the Vatican.

“The Church comes to the U.N. to offer its inspiration of its vision,” he said. “When it’s at variance with the U.N., it will say so; when it supports it, it will say so.”


‘Risks Are Enormous’

Sachs, who has contributed to the Pope’s new encyclical, said climate-change skeptics are “in very serious error” and that 2014 was the “warmest year in instrument record on the planet.” He said climate-change science is long established, and skeptics don’t understand the science. “The risks are enormous, the time is short, and we have to move forward,” he said.

Along with references to the topic in the encyclical, the Pope is expected to raise the issue of climate change when he becomes the first pope to ever address the U.N. General Assembly in session, during his visit to New York in September.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.