Mayors at Vatican: Cities play 'very vital role' in addressing climate, poverty

This story appears in the COP 21 Paris feature series. View the full series.

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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Mayors from around the world meeting at the Vatican this week issued a manifesto that recognized the reality of human-induced climate change and underscored the “moral imperative” for action, both in within their cities and the global community.

The two-day summit was held Tuesday and Wednesday and hosted by the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences. In their joint declaration issued Tuesday, 64 mayors and government officials said they came together in the context of Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si’: on Care for Our Common Home,” to discuss issues related to “two dramatic and interconnected emergencies: human-induced climate change and social exclusion in the extreme forms of radical poverty, modern slavery and human trafficking.”

Earlier that day, Francis emphasized to the assembly that his encyclical is not merely a “green” document, but rather “it is a social encyclical.”

“It is true that everything revolves around … this culture of care for the environment. But this ‘green’ culture -- and I say that in a positive sense -- is much more than that. Caring for the environment means an attitude of human ecology. In other words, we cannot say: the person and Creation, the environment, are two separate entities. Ecology is total, it is human … you cannot separate humanity from the rest; there is a relationship of mutual impact, and also the rebound effect when the environment is abused,” Francis said.

Related: "At Vatican, world's mayors vow to tackle climate change, poverty"

Those attending the Vatican summit presented a cross-section of the globe, with 31 countries represented: among them Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Iran, Ivory Coast, Botswana, Gabon, Italy, Jamaica, Germany, Poland, Sweden, and France -- which in Paris will host the U.N. climate summit (COP 21) in December. 

Ten U.S. mayors also participated, hailing from Boston, Boulder, Colo.; Birmingham, Ala., Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York City, Portland, Ore., San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle. California Gov. Jerry Brown was also a participant.

In their declaration, the mayors, who joined the pope in signing it, said their cultural traditions each affirmed the beauty of the natural world and the “moral duty to steward rather than ravage” the planet, and committed to developing more sustainable cities that better protect their most vulnerable residents.

Among the declaration’s highlights:

  • “Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its effective control is a moral imperative for humanity.”
  • “Today humanity has the technological instruments, the financial resources and the know-how to reverse climate change while also ending extreme poverty, through the application of sustainable development solutions, including the adoption of low-carbon energy systems supported by information and communications technologies.”
  • “The financing of sustainable development, including the effective control of human-induced climate change, should be bolstered through new incentives for the transition towards low-carbon and renewable energy, and through the relentless pursuit of peace, which also will enable a shift of public financing from military spending to urgent investments for sustainable development.”
  • The Paris climate talks “may be the last effective opportunity” to negotiate a global agreement to limit human-induced warming below 2 degrees Celsius, and “Political leaders of all UN member States have a special responsibility to agree at COP21 to a bold climate agreement that confines global warming to a limit safe for humanity.”
  • “The high-income countries should help to finance the costs of climate-change mitigation in low-income countries as the high-income countries have promised to do.
  • “As mayors we commit ourselves to building, in our cities and urban settlements, the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations and reducing their exposure to climate-related extreme events and other economic, social and environmental shocks and disasters, which foster human trafficking and dangerous forced migration.
  • “At the same time, we commit ourselves to ending abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of modern slavery, which are crimes against humanity, including forced labor and prostitution, organ trafficking, and domestic servitude; and to developing national resettlement and reintegration programs that avoid the involuntary repatriation of trafficked persons.”

In addition to the declaration, several mayors used the Vatican summit as occasion to announce local plans of action. De Blasio said New York City has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030 along its way to achieving 80 percent reductions by 2050, a goal he announced in September.

But the purpose of the gathering wasn’t to congratulate one another on their progress, he said, but “to take Laudato Si' and give it life.”

“Our hope is that each of us -- and thousands more like us all over the world -- will act boldly, and in doing so, will jolt our national paradigms and the collective global paradigm,” de Blasio said.

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales told NBC News that there was excitement in his city for his Vatican trip, particularly among the young people.

“They say, ‘He’s our pope.’ He’s the ‘Portland pope,’ because his values about the environment and about social justice so closely match the young people who’ve moved to Portland … And they read this document, maybe the first encyclical they’ve ever read, and say, ‘He’s one of us,’” Hales said.  

At the summit’s second day, the mayors turned their attention toward city planning that simultaneously promotes economic growth, equality and environmental protection. According to Catholic News Service, many of the mayors discussed the growing number of poor people in their cities and the increasing wealth gap.

“We live in one valley, but two worlds,” said Sam Liccardo, mayor of San Jose, Calif., which sits in the tech capital Silicon Valley, but has witnessed a growing homeless population.

CNS reported that De Blasio asked his fellow mayors why they remained committed to outdated economic growth models when that “model of development is slowly killing us.” He challenged them to create sustainable cities that address poverty while reducing pollution, even when such work becomes uncomfortable.

“By setting the high goal, we actually force ourselves day by day to take action related to it,” de Blasio said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

Mayors' declaration at Vatican on climate, poverty

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