At Boston College, Turkson maps ‘Laudato Si’’ path to Paris climate agreement

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

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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If Laudato Si’ offered a light on the path to a Paris climate agreement, the U.S. ought to be the one carrying the lantern, said the pope’s chief encyclical envoy Monday at Boston College.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and de facto point person for Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” made the remarks at the open of a four-day conference on climate change. The event was set to explore the implications of the encyclical for faith communities and the upcoming Paris talks.

Turkson said he has little doubt the encyclical’s message “is getting through to most people in most places.” That includes the U.S., where Francis just concluded a historic six-day visit, one that the cardinal hoped brought Laudato Si’ to the American people along with their economic, political, cultural and religious leaders.

“The pope is calling on America to honor its traditions and founding principles,” Turkson said, noting that from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to President Teddy Roosevelt, there’s been “a great stream of environmental reverence in American sensibility and thought.”

He continued: “Today, American support for the United Nations and American international leadership are more needed than ever, specifically to help solve the crisis of climate change. This may well be the most important challenge of the 21st century. It calls for global dialogue and leadership. It is a moral issue of the highest order. No country can tackle this problem alone, nor can the poorer ones without much help."

In 61 days, international leaders and their negotiators will gather in Paris from Nov. 30-Dec. 11 for the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The much-anticipated meetings are expected to produce an all-encompassing -- and perhaps legally binding -- global deal to hold countries to carbon emissions reductions aimed at collectively stunting global temperature rise below 2 degree Celsius, or more optimistically, 1.5 degrees. The deal could also include funding parameters through the Green Climate Fund for industrialized countries to assist developing nations in adaptation and mitigation efforts.

When Francis released Laudato Si’ in mid-June, he said he did so in part to shape the discourse ahead of COP21. Extensions of that effort came last week, Turkson said, in Francis’ addresses to the U.S. Congress -- “a courageous and responsible effort to ‘redirect our steps’” to avoid the serious impacts of human-induced environmental deterioration -- and at the U.N., where the pope stated, “We cannot permit ourselves to postpone ‘certain agendas’ for the future.”

“These are rather gentle words expressing very forceful reminders,” Turkson said.  

In a rallying tone, the cardinal praised the U.S. for its “renowned” selflessness and generosity, tradition of upholding human dignity and religious liberty, and proclivity to take the lead in solving global problems -- citing the post-World War II Marshall Plan, its support of international bodies like the U.N., and efforts of Presidents John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan to build peace amid the threat of nuclear war.

He commended the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan -- set to reduce emissions for coal- and gas-fired power plants by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 -- and America’s pledge of $3 billion toward the Green Climate Fund. He also noted progress in a recent climate-focused meeting of world mayors (10 from the U.S.) at the Vatican, and the advocacy work for climate action by U.S. bishops and groups like Catholic Climate Covenant and Catholic Relief Services.

“Ultimately, I believe that America can marshal its best resources to solve the climate challenge and protect our common home -- its creativity, its ingenuity, its willingness to tackle practical problems, its spirit of hard work.

“America has risen to such occasions before; it can do so again,” Turkson said.

In the course of an hour through a three-tiered, 6,500-plus word speech, Turkson began by explaining the social tenants of Laudato Si’­ -- which he said is “not a ‘green,’ ecological or climate-change document” -- through the history of the Boston Common, where overgrazing by affluent families’ cows in the 1630s threatened the park before a shared agreement ultimately limited the number of livestock.

“When many act on private self-interest, it endangers the common home. The roots of the problem are the bondage of individualism and putting short-term gain above longer-term sustainability,” he said.

Related: Watch Cardinal Peter Turkson’s speech at Boston College

Through his encyclical, he said Francis has built upon a Catholic ecological ethics that views environmental harm as compromising commitments to promote the common good and protect human life and dignity, particularly of the poor and vulnerable. At one point, Turkson compared the encyclical with Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, in that both helped the public better comprehend a social issue and then inspired a willingness to act.

As for the role Laudato Si’ may play in Paris, Turkson pointed first and foremost to Francis, whom people trust as a genuinely caring person.

“This caring appears in Laudato Si’,” he said. “More than any other leader today, the pope firmly links the issues of the natural world with those of the social world. He does so with ‘authority,’ as the Gospels say of Jesus. So, millions ‘connect’ with him and trust him.”

While Francis has not ducked “from naming the ideological distortions and pragmatic errors” that have led to current environmental problems, he has avoided doing so with condemnation, Turkson said, instead seeking change through reflection, self-questioning, and “by dialogue and only by dialogue.”

“These are clearly the attitudes and convictions that set the pope apart and have all leaders of all stripes looking to him for what everyone says is missing but no one admits to lacking: moral leadership!” Turkson said.

The Ghanaian cardinal posed three specific ways the encyclical could contribute to the climate negotiations, first in that it could open up decision-making through 10 virtues and principles espoused in the text, among them: prudence, justice, temperance, solidarity and an adherence to integral ecology.

“In their absence, I am afraid, Paris will reduce to ‘business as usual,’” he said.

A second contribution of the encyclical is through its practical judgements, such as repaying the “ecological debt” of the global north to the global south; placing the global common good above national interests; avoiding a profit-first ideology; and replacing “without delay” highly polluting fossil fuels.

Finally, Turkson said Laudato Si’ could catalyze an agreement “via the actions of others whom it inspires and guides.” He cited Francis’ address to the World Meeting of Popular Meetings in Bolivia in July, in which the pope said that humanity’s future lies not solely in the hands of its leaders, but “It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize.”

Though the pope addressed all people through his encyclical, Turkson said Francis hoped Catholics in their varied contexts pay particular attention and “take the lead.” He credited the Global Catholic Climate Movement climate action petition, and suggested Catholics write letters in local newspapers to lawmakers, form creation care teams at their parishes, and that Catholic institutions bring to the public square “a constant focus” on the moral framework through which the climate discussion must occur.

“A successful COP21 will require the message of Laudato Si’ to be complemented by pro-active, organized efforts of citizens who echo the pope’s message in the halls of power and demand courageous action by leaders on behalf of our common home,” Turkson said.

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

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