Caritas: Pendulum of COP 21 must swing in favor of the poor

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

by Michel Roy

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In the 1990s, Caritas organizations in Oceania were already warning the world about rising sea levels. Climate change has been an important issue for Caritas for a long time -- whether we’ve been sounding the alarm bells, dealing with climate emergencies or helping people adapt to weather extremes.

Climate change isn’t new for any of us. We remember the talk of greenhouse gases and the Kyoto Protocol in the 1980s and 1990s. Countries started to ban aerosols as early as the 1970s. We were already aware of the damage we were creating and started to take action.

But how much awareness raising do we need to do? Everyone knows about the damage, who’s responsible and who’s suffering the most because of it. Now is the time to not just put our foot on the brake but to find new ways of sustainable development. 

Caritas is taking the voices of those most affected by climate change to Paris. We had planned to take part in the climate march in Paris Nov. 29, but after the devastating terrorist attacks on the French capital last week we don’t yet know if the march will take place. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families and their presence will be felt very strongly during COP21.

There are marches in other parts of the world and Caritas is organizing participation by supporters in many cities. In addition, we will hold a side event in Paris during which the First Minister of Scotland and representatives from Caritas New Zealand and Caritas Brazil will talk about the impact of climate change.

We will also take part in an ecumenical prayer event. We will work shoulder to shoulder with the Holy See, with our sister organization CIDSE (the international alliance of 17 Catholic development agencies which also includes some Caritas member organizations) and other organizations with a unity of purpose.

There are so many examples in the world of countries struggling because of their unpredictable climate. Look at Bangladesh: the melting Himalayan glaciers and rising sea levels mean large parts of this small, low-lying and over-crowded country get flooded. At the other extreme you have droughts in the Sahel region of north-central Africa, which force people to either adapt their lives and farming techniques or else leave their homes.

Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” strongly emphasizes our responsibility toward caring for creation. It says how our present model for living is wrong and we must place people at the center of our decisions rather than finance.

Caritas’ strategic vision for the next four years is “One Human Family, Caring for Creation.” In this plan we heed the call for “ecological conversion” that Pope Francis made in Laudato Si’.

We cannot just think that the revolution that will stop climate damage is just in the hands of world leaders. We have to recognize our responsibility as individuals, as societies and as the inhabitants of the Earth toward the human family and future generations.

“A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power,” Francis says in Laudato Si’.

The road of true ecological conversion is a long one, but now in Paris we are hoping that the red light of danger turns to an eco-friendly green. What we want from COP21 is very simple: that world leaders reach a binding and just agreement to reduce gas emissions which will then be introduced in national law. The cost of the damage must be borne principally by those who have polluted the most in the past and the world’s main polluters today.

We want leaders and industrial powers to stop thinking about short-term gains and instead look toward a horizon where we take care of our planet and each other with real commitment.

In his encyclical, Pope Francis gives leaders very clear guidance on what they must do: “Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most.”

Change is hard and the gas and oil industries don’t seem to be that ready to change at the moment. This is why we don’t really know what will come out of COP21. If the conference fails, it will be due to an unwillingness to commit the financing for climate change. But the pendulum is swinging, and for Caritas it must swing in favor of the poor. 

[Michel Roy is secretary general of Caritas Internationalis.]

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