Vatican summit participants: Catholics, encyclical could make powerful impact on climate change

This article appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

The Vatican summit Tuesday on climate change and sustainable development brought together a mix of researchers and religious leaders “to help strengthen the global consensus on the importance of climate change in the context of sustainable development,” according to the event’s program.  

Ahead of the event, NCR heard from several of its participants, including U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs and Janos Pasztor of the United Nations during a Friday conference call with the media, and in a telephone interview the same day with Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a professor of atmospheric and climate sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego.

Ten years ago, Ramanathan was asked by Pope John Paul II to join the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. At the time, he was in the Indian Ocean researching the impact of black soot particles on the atmosphere.

“I about fell out of my chair,” Ramanathan recalled.  

He had assumed, like many people, that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, or PAS, was composed of Catholic scientists. Rather, the academy is made up of some of the best scientists in the world that it has been able to find to discuss and provide advice on current science topics.

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Ramathanan, who is not Catholic, led the development of the 2011 PAS report on the fate of mountain glaciers and co-organized the May 2014 Vatican workshop on “Sustainability Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility,” which assembled thought leaders from around the world. 

Ramathanan spoke to NCR by telephone Friday about the Vatican summit and climate change. His comments have been edited below for space and clarity.

NCR: What do you think is really needed at this point to address climate change?

Ramathanan: The science has been done over the past 100 years. We all know what is in store for us in the future on the current unsustainable pathway. There are two major moral issues. … if we keep going as is, by mid-century we will see temperatures on Earth that haven’t been seen in 10 to 20 million years. Instead of this beautiful planet, we would be leaving behind a much damaged one, for 1,000 years.

A second issue: There are 3 billion people who have not even discovered or able to afford fossil fuels, propane, et al. And they will be affected the worst by climate change. They will be stuck adapting or improvising, but unlike California, now going through a big drought these past four years, just one drought would make people at this income level homeless and penniless. The fossil fuel consumption that is in the atmosphere today has been emitted by the top 1 billion.

When I joined the PAS 10 years ago, I saw it as a huge opportunity to address the defining problem of our age. As scientists, we have no authority to talk about moral issues. Even national politicians often do not feel they have this license. But the religious community does. And on top of that, we are unbelievably lucky to find ourselves with Pope Francis. He is even trained with a scientific background. He is a moral leader, beyond Catholicism, beyond Christianity. Many other religions see him as a moral leader.

Some have asked how investment can be shifted away from fossil fuels, when powerful interests are aligned that direction. Do you have any ideas or comments on that?

Worldwide, 7 million people die every year from air pollution, and 4 million die from indoor pollution from firewood. Finance questions were beyond our purview, but this problem will not be solved without participation by business people. Presumably, many of these business people belong to some religion. When they hear a declaration and call from religious leaders, loudly and clearly, that this has become an issue that requires moral action, hopefully they will respond. I may be naïve, but I am optimistic.

With regard to utilities, only God can help us there! With regard to providing renewable energy in Kenya and India, remarkable transitions are in process, with development of microgrids and clean cookstoves that can cut emissions by 90-95 percent. Many of these are still too expensive for people living on less than $1 a day, but the technology is there.

With regard to utilities, I think they will find that renewables are competing effectively. We are lucky to have guys like Elon Musk [CEO of Tesla Motors and chair of SolarCity] and NGOs. Many of the innovations are coming from the bottom up, and are being financed from the bottom up, if at all. More support is needed. There is no magic bullet to making the transition off of fossil fuels, but all need to know this is a common cause.

Any concluding thoughts on next steps and what may be helpful?

Everyone knows that Pope Francis is working for the common good. What could have a powerful impact after this summit would be to organize a conference call with influential bishops and offer an opportunity for them to respond and also ask questions of the scientists involved in the Pontifical Academies and these meetings.

As a scientist, I am always looking at larger time scales. Ten years from now, [climate change and the social and environmental consequences] will get so much worse that we will leave behind the dark age of skepticism. But we will be witnessing deep suffering by the poor. 

This is exactly the problem that Catholics are good at tackling. Catholic missionaries, other religious and charitable organizations. That’s what Catholics do. 

We can tell people how to avoid it and suggest how to cope with it. Ultimately, this is an issue for every church, temple, mosque and synagogue. Once the people are speaking, those in power may listen.

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Also on Friday, the economist Jeffrey Sachs and Janos Pasztor from the U.N. spoke to media about the Vatican summit.

Sachs, who works with the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network and is an active participant in PAS and PASS meetings leading up to this year’s encyclical, called the Tuesday conference “a culmination of efforts to bring the best knowledge to bear on sustainable development, climate change, and human trafficking.” On climate action, he said there’s been “an extraordinary surge of support,” and stated “faith communities play an important role in pressing for change in behavior.”

Pasztor, the U.N.’s assistant secretary-general on climate change, affirmed the role of religion, adding “they help us also understand our responsibilities and how to live and develop sustainably in a world of finite resources.” He noted U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has engaged faith communities in the past, such as meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury before the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, and during an interfaith summit on climate change in September convened by the World Council of Churches.

Both Sachs and Pasztor said they expected there will be a major focus on climate change in the pope’s upcoming encyclical on the environment.

“Science and religion are aligned and hopefully this can help us come to a universal, equitable, and ambitious agreement,” said Pasztor. “2015 represents an extraordinary opportunity to set the world on a path to a sustainable future. We are the first generation that can end poverty and the last generation that can avoid climate change.” 

Sachs mentioned how past encyclicals have had a global reach, such as 1963’s Pacem in Terris, and 1991’s Centesimus annus, both of which addressed in part the Cold War.

“We should expect that important statements, encyclicals can make a big difference. Pope Francis has generated phenomenal interest. There is no question Francis represents moral leadership of the whole world. He has extraordinary personality and vision. That’s why interests and expectations are so high right now,” Sachs said.

He added that “Now is our last chance to reach climate safety. We are right up against the wall.” He said there are social demands on traditional fossil fuel companies and banks that lend them money. Sachs predicted policy changes will “make it unprofitable to wreck the planet,” and that companies that continue extracting fossil fuels “will pay a very heavy cost,” as will financial institutions supporting them, due to stranded assets -- in the form of oil and gas left in the ground -- should policies curbing carbon emissions be implemented worldwide.

“The world is changing, the context for investors is changing, and to continue with the old way is not only unethical but will also lose a lot of money,” he said.

When asked how the papal encyclical would move positions in the U.S., Sachs said he expects it will be “extremely positive,” and that is had already generated much discussion and reflection.

“The encyclical and religious leaders across many faiths coming together will move a lot of people and deepen, enrich and inform action,” Sachs said.

When asked about climate deniers in the church, Sachs said that many bishops and cardinals are actively participating.

“Scientists, bishops and the pope have sent an extraordinarily strong signal. They have been clear we have a very serious problem,” he said.

[Marie Venner is a researcher and the 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 a also a member of the Global Catholic Climate Movement.]

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