Irish conference hears message: Climate action requires 'new era of solidarity'

Mary Robinson, president of Ireland from 1990-1997, delivers the keynote address June 22 at an international climate conference in Maynooth, Ireland. (Trócaire)
Mary Robinson, president of Ireland from 1990-1997, delivers the keynote address June 22 at an international climate conference in Maynooth, Ireland. (Trócaire)

by Sarah Mac Donald

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A two-day international conference on climate change hosted by the development arm of the Irish Catholic church underlined that the debate around climate science is over and the current issue is how to do something about it.

Trócaire, the Irish bishops' development agency, co-hosted the conference, titled "Meeting the Challenge of Climate Justice: From Evidence to Action," in Maynooth, Ireland, from June 22-23. Other sponsors included Maynooth University and St. Patrick's College Maynooth. Among the speakers were former Ireland president Mary Robinson, environmental activist Bill McKibben and Auxiliary Bishop Theotonius Gomes of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The aim of the conference, said Lorna Gold, Trócaire head of policy and advocacy, was to look at "how we meet our moral responsibilities around climate justice and how we move from the evidence that climate change exists, which is overwhelming, and translate that into concrete pathways for action."

The aid agency has described climate change as representing one of the most serious challenges facing humanity.

David Mkwambisi, an environmental and development expert from Lilongwe University in Malawi, outlined climate change's impact on farming communities across the developing world. Rising temperatures, for instance, affect seed quality.

"Dry spells are coming at different times and causing food insecurity in many households," Mkwambisi said, adding that it is not possible to farm when you do not know when to plant or when to harvest.

In her June 22 keynote address, Robinson, Irish president from 1990-1997 who now acts as special envoy on climate change to the United Nations Secretary-General, told conference delegates, "The climate challenge is immense.

"To deal with it demands global cooperation on an unprecedented scale -- a whole new era of solidarity based on an understanding of our interconnectedness is needed," she said. 

She said climate change is not just an issue of atmospheric science but an issue of human rights. As have other U.N. officials and environmental advocates, Robinson emphasized the importance of adopting agreements at three upcoming international gatherings. They include:

  • in July in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the U.N.'s Third International Conference on Financing for Development;
  • in September in New York, the U.N. General Assembly's review of a new set of sustainable development goals for the period up to 2030;
  • and in December in Paris, the U.N. climate change conference will potentially see global leaders sign an agreement to slow or reduce the pace of global warming.

"We have a moral duty to act, motivated by the injustice of the impact of climate change on the rights and opportunities of the people least responsible for causing the problem," Robinson said.

A day after the conference's conclusion, a landmark ruling from the district court of The Hague in the Netherlands found the Dutch government had violated human rights in failing to take adequate action to prevent the harmful impact of climate change on its citizens. The ruling, in response to a suit brought by the Urgenda Foundation on behalf of nearly 900 Dutch citizens, ordered the government to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 percent within five years.

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, vice chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in his presentation "Climate Science and the Inadequacy of the Response," warned that human activity was responsible for raising temperatures and that only decarbonisation of the global economy can stabilize the climate. However, he said there is not enough political will to tackle this issue that threatens all life forms on earth.

"It is now very clear that for the past 50 years at least the most important factor is the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere like CO2 and methane, which trap heat close to the surface of the planet and contribute to a warming of its climate and an overall change in climate," he said.

The warming, in turn, is linked to the intensification of extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, very intense precipitation events (which increase the risk of floods) and increasing sea levels. The IPCC in its fifth assessment report said global greenhouse emissions would need to be cut by 41 to 72 percent by 2050, compared to 2010 levels, to give the world a reasonable chance of staying below 2 degrees Celsius warming -- the IPCC's threshold for "dangerous" climate change.

McKibben, an American author and founder, identified the fossil fuel industry as the "most irresponsible industry on the planet," stating in his presentation June 23, "If we follow the business plan of the fossil fuel industry, the planet will break."

Added Maynooth professor emeritus John Sweeney, leading Irish climatologist and one of the contributing authors of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, "We need to face up to the reality of climate challenge and face down the vested interests resisting action."

According to van Ypersele, limiting global temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius is an enormous challenge given that two-thirds of the level of carbon compatible with restricting temperature rise has already been emitted. We have totally left the natural range of temperature and levels of carbon and changed the planet's energy balance, he said.

He urged governments to facilitate the implementation of targets needed to mitigate the effects of climate change by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, the dependency on fossil fuels and by promoting the use of cleaner, renewable energy, as well as reducing the dependency on private transport.

The consequences of doing nothing were mapped out by eco-theologian Fr. Sean McDonagh, who advised the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace on the first draft of Pope Francis' encyclical "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home."

Due to climate change, the sixth mass extinction of life on earth is underway and triggered by humans, the Columban missionary told the conference June 23.

The priest, author of Care for the Earth and The Greening of the Church, warned that if nothing is done to stop climate change, up to 1 million species could be extinct within the next 50 years. Other consequences he highlighted included the continued acidification of the oceans, and that a 4 degrees Celsius increase in global temperatures could turn the Amazon into a savannah within 100 years.

Msgr. Hugh Connolly, president of St Patrick's College Maynooth, said in his opening address that advocacy is a priority. "There is an ethical, theological, political and economic imperative which demands unity of purpose and resolve," he said, emphasizing that "intergenerational justice" is "essential" if we are to leave a better world to future generations. 

Robinson summed up the issue of intergenerational justice with the proverb, "We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children."

Describing the pope as "one of the most influential moral voices on our planet today," she praised Laudato Si', saying Francis had shown his "profound understanding of the connection between nature, justice for the poor, human dignity and the need to act in solidarity in the face of climate change."

She added that the pontiff had established climate change and safeguarding the earth as "a fundamental moral issue of our time." Robinson said the timing of the encyclical would help mobilize support for a climate justice approach in negotiations for a new climate agreement in Paris in December.

"2015 presents the world with a significant opportunity to ensure that we deliver a new pathway to the future," she said.

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