Nuns sense energy among delegates to reach climate deal for France

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

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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Negotiations toward a global climate treaty have ebbed and flowed here, according to several U.S. sisters observing the proceedings. Still, they sense a deal likely to emerge, in part due to the host country.

"There's a strong sense that the delegates want to do it for France," said Ursuline Sr. Michelle Morek, coalition coordinator for UNANIMA International.

"They all stand up and applaud France's courage in pushing through with this and insisting that it go on. And they're saying, we must come up with a document -- a good document -- for France, to honor their courage in holding this," she told NCR.

Two weeks before COP21, the United Nations climate change conference, opened, terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State group executed a series of attacks around Paris, killing 130 people and injuring more. The train commute from central Paris to the conference site in Le Bourget taken by many participants passes the Stade de France, near where three suicide attackers detonated explosive vests that left one civilian dead.

Despite the attacks, French officials insisted the climate summit proceed. Even with a high security presence, a given with the early attendance of roughly 150 world leaders, COP21 has not had the feel of a military zone. Still, armed guards man the main entrance gate as others roam the forest of flag pillars outside the main negotiator venue, known as the blue zone.

Even with momentum to make the meetings successful for France, there have been the usual periods of uncertainty for a deal. Morek said that she thought everything was about to fall apart on Friday. The Ursuline sister has maintained a daily blog, on which she talked that day about discouragement with the slow pace of negotiations.

Come Monday, she said the attitude flipped as negotiators passed a draft text to ministers. The sessions opening the second week, in particular a speech delivered by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, felt like a pep rally and provided "a shot in the arm," Morek said. The trick, though, has been sustaining the enthusiasm of speeches into the deliberations.

Morek and Congregation of Notre Dame Sr. Stacy Hanrahan, another UNANIMA member attending the conference, repeated many of the sticking points to the agreement widely discussed: differentiation in the financial and other responsibilities of countries historically responsible for greenhouse gas emissions; how to implement an agreement, and what level of emissions reductions they make the target.

"The countries are trying to deal with the issue as it affects them," Hanrahan said.

Both Hanrahan and Morek expressed pride with various aspects of U.S. positions, including support for the 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature goal advocated by many island and developing nations. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry told Mashable, "I think we should embrace it as a legitimate aspiration." He added the U.S. favors wording in the final text that indicates the 1.5 C target while maintaining the 2 C goal as a way to garner broader support.

The UNANIMA sisters said it stands as an early victory for island nations that the talks have included so much discussion about 1.5 degrees. However, mere talk won't give them greater security about the future of their homelands.

The two are among at least a dozen women religious serving as observers to the U.N. climate negotiations here. As observers, they can attend plenary sessions as well as meet with delegates. At the Ecuador pavilion, the sisters saw a banner stating Texaco and other oils companies "ought to pay" for environmental damage they caused in the country.

The biggest role at COP21 for observers, though, is through their presence. Morek particularly recalls a message Ban gave to civil society before the Rio+ 20 Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012.

"He said, 'Go to Rio and the nations know you are there, and they know you are watching them, and they act differently when they know NGOs are there and civil society is watching them.' And so, we think that is part of our role, so we go up there and we fill up that gallery up there in the plenary," she said.

In interactions with diplomats and U.N. officials, Morek said they strive to connect climate change with a multitude of other issues, including women and children, trafficking, water and disarmament. The latter, an important focus for Hanrahan, has been largely omitted from the talks.

During an intervention in Tuesday's high-level meetings, Cardinal Peter Turkson, a member of the Vatican delegation to COP21, raised the issue of military investment in calling for delegates to be ambitious in their work.

"Experts tell us that the world's clean energy investment should be about $2 trillion a year between now and 2030. This enormous figure amounts to less than 2 percent of world GDP, and is roughly the same as annual military spending world-wide," he said in prepared remarks. "Thus, clearly, the issue is not so much 'Can the economy afford it?' as 'What are our priorities?'"

Turkson, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, also used the opportunity to place the Vatican in the camp of a Paris agreement seeking a "well under 2 degrees" temperature limit. He went on to highlight public displays of environmental and social concern, including the Global Climate March (Nov. 29) he invited bishops worldwide not only to pray for but to encourage their dioceses to join.

"A great deal is at stake for every country," he said. "Progress has too long been based on fossil energy, to the detriment of the environment. This is the moment to take action."

The cardinal in his comments made frequent reference to Pope Francis' recent comments about COP21 and his encyclical "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home."

"Humanity is one family. As brothers and sisters, we have only one home, one common home, and we all must care for it," Turkson said.

Hanrahan said that Francis and other faith leaders "have made it okay to say 'a moral imperative'" in the climate talks, a phrase in the past year more common on the lips of government officials.

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

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