Vatican declarations set vision for low-carbon climate solution

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

Two strong statements on climate change came out of the Vatican last week.

At the close of a one-day conference April 28, scientists, world leaders and interfaith leaders issued a declaration, which in part stated “Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity.”

It continued:

The poor and excluded face dire threats from climate disruptions, including the increased frequency of droughts, extreme storms, heat waves, and rising sea levels;

The world has within its technological grasp, financial means, and know-how the means to mitigate 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;

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The financing of sustainable development, including climate mitigation, should be bolstered through new incentives for the transition towards low-carbon energy, and through the relentless pursuit of peace, which also will enable the shift of public financing from military spending to urgent investments for sustainable development

“Climate-change mitigation will require a rapid transformation to a world powered by renewable and other low-carbon energy and the sustainable management of ecosystems …” the leaders said in calling for average global temperatures be kept below 2 degrees Celsius. “All sectors and stakeholders must do their part, a pledge that we fully commit to in our individual capacities.”

A day after the Vatican climate summit, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences issued a longer joint declaration, the product of a series of workshops through 2014, to both inform and prepare for Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical on the environment.

Climate Change and the Common Good -- prepared by leading scientists and social scientists from around the world and bishops such as PAS chancellor Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo -- examines the issue from a number of angles, from the historical context, how human activity has led to “a decisive and unmistakable impact on the planet” and what changes have been detected, to the risks of “business as usual” and necessary societal and economic responses.

It cites scientific evidence that more than 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have been emitted into the atmosphere, with CO2 concentrations in relatively short time having increased by 40 percent “and now exceeds the highest levels in at least the last million years.” Air pollution from “unsustainable consumption of natural capital,” it said, results in 7 million premature deaths annually.

The PAS/PASS statement offers five climate recommendations:

  • Reduce worldwide carbon dioxide emissions without delay, using all means possible (including strengthening carbon sinks by stopping deforestation), and “focus on a rapid transition to renewable energy.”
  • Prevent 100 million premature deaths and hundreds of millions of tons of crop loss by 2050, by reducing concentrations of “short-lived climate warming air pollutants” by 50 percent.
  • “Prepare especially the most vulnerable 3 billion people to adapt to the climate changes, both chronic and abrupt, that society will be unable to mitigate.”
  • The Catholic church and other religious leaders mobilize public opinion and public funds to meet the poorest 3 billion people’s energy needs, and to raise their incomes, education, healthcare and quality of life.
  • “Over and above institutional reforms, policy changes and technological innovations for affordable access to renewable energy sources, there is a fundamental need to reorient our attitude toward nature and, thereby, toward ourselves.”

Together, the two declarations stress the urgent need for action to shift from carbon to clean energy, informed by principles of prudence, justice and respect for life:

While the actual warming could be smaller than expected, it could also be much larger, causing even more dire disruptions than those that have been identified. Prudence and justice demand that we take note of these risks and act upon them in time, for the sake of all humanity, but especially for the weak, the vulnerable, and the future generations whose wellbeing depends on our generation’s actions.

“Deep de-carbonization” of the world’s energy system must occur by mid-century and near-zero carbon emissions by around 2070, the longer document said, in order to avoid the 2 degrees Celsius or higher rise. In addition, there’s a need for reviewing socioeconomic factors in part responsible for the current predicament, and to modify national measures of progress to better reflect costs to nature and human dignity.

In December, nine bishops from five countries and four continents issued a letter calling for action to keep average worldwide warming to 1.5 Celsius, which some scientists consider a safer bound. The Global Catholic Climate Movement has taken the bishops’ appeal online and made it into a petition all can sign. 

Both the shorter and longer documents emphasize that zero-carbon energy as the way forward, for sustainable development, education and poverty alleviation and even to save civilization. They note the important role religious institutions “can and should take” to bring about “a new attitude towards Creation.”

The bishops, scientists and social scientists in the PAS/PASS declaration did not shy away from discussing population or characterizing some technologies as “inappropriate,” combined with unsustainable consumption and the already record human population size “are causally linked with the destruction of the world’s sustainability and resilience” in addition to the loss of millions of species and widening wealth inequalities present in many societies.

“We are an inseparable part of the living world, entirely dependent on it for every aspect of our lives,” they state. “... The destruction of so many of what are, as far as we know, our only living companions in the universe, is clearly, as Harvard Professor E.O. Wilson has put it, the sin for which our descendants will be least likely to forgive us, as it is completely irreversible.

“To save as much of the sustainable fabric of the world as possible, we need to take many steps, among them reaching a level and sustainable population; just consumption rates throughout the world; the empowerment of women and children everywhere and their incorporation into the management of our one planet; and the development of many new and more sustainable technologies that must be made widely available …Without taking these steps, there is little hope for societal advance in the future.”

The joint PAS/PASS declaration maintains that “Generations to come will experience and will likely suffer from the environmental consequences of the fossil fuel consumption of the last two centuries. They are likely to wonder what took 21st century citizens so long to respond to these frightening climate trends.

“The problem is not one of how well our children and grandchildren will fare in the world of the future, but whether civilization as we know it can be extended beyond the next 100 years,” they said.

[Marie Venner is chair of the National Academies’ Transportation Research Board subcommittee on Climate Change, Energy, and Sustainability and former co-chair of the Risk and Resilience Planning and Analysis subcommittee. She is also a member of the Global Catholic Climate Movement.]

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