On Poverty and Climate Change

(This article was written by Gerard O’Connell, special correspondent in Rome, and originally published in America 4-29-15, and then reprinted in the Saint Ignatius Catholic church bulletin on May 17, 2015.)

“We are the first generation that can end poverty and the last generation that can avoid the worst impacts of climate change.” UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, told this to a conference of 60 scientists and academicians, political leaders (including the Presidents of Italy and Ecuador), business experts and representatives of the world’s major religions, at a summit in the Vatican on April 28.

Pope Francis gives his thumb up as he leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

Pope Francis gives his thumb up as he leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

He addressed the high-powered gathering after “a fruitful and wide-ranging conversation” with Pope Francis, during which the pontiff confirmed that his encyclical on protecting the environment is finished and being translated, and expected to be published in June.

“I am very much looking forward to the upcoming encyclical,” the UN chief said; “it will convey to the world that protecting our environment is an urgent moral imperative and a sacred duty for all people of faith and people of conscience.”

Indeed, he noted, “eradicating extreme poverty, ending social exclusion of the weak and marginalized, and protecting the environment are values that are fully consistent with the teachings of the great religions.” Listening to him were representatives from the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the World Council of Churches, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, all of whom expressed full support of the call for action.

The Korean-born UN leader commended Pope Francis, and the faith and scientific leaders present, “for raising awareness of the urgent need to promote sustainable development and address climate change.” He identified climate change as “the defining issue of our time” and emphasized that on this subject ”there is no divide whatsoever between religion and science.” He believes the leaders of the world’s major religions now have a key role to play in the quest to get the community of nations to truly embrace sustainable development and reach a global agreement to address climate change.

Cardinal Peter Turkson

Cardinal Peter Turkson

“2015 will be a defining year” in this regard, Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, told the conference. In a wide-ranging talk he recalled “the great achievements of the last two centuries,” marked by remarkable scientific, technological and economic progress that has led to “significant numbers enjoying lifespans, livelihoods and lifestyles unimaginable for our ancestors”; a progress “that has lifted hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty” and transformed transport and communications.

This progress, however, has come with “unacceptable costs” and “starkly rising disparities,” the cardinal stated. It has left “vast numbers of people excluded and discarded, their dignity trampled upon,” in what the Pope has branded as “the throwaway culture.” As a result of this, “at least three billion of the seven billion inhabitants of the planet are mired in poverty, a third of them in extreme poverty, while privileged global elite of about one billion people control the bulk of the wealth and consumes the bulk of the resources.” He recalled how “the world produces more than enough food to feed its 7.3 billion inhabitants, but over 800 million (over 11%) go hungry,” while each year “one third of all food produced for human consumption in the world is lost or wasted.”

“We have treated the natural world with the same indifference, abusive treatment and throwaway approach,” the cardinal stated. Thus today, “the ever-accelerating burning of fossil fuels that powers our economic engine is disrupting the earth’s delicate ecological balance on almost-unfathomable scale.”

“In our recklessness – he said – we are traversing some of the planet’s most fundamental natural boundaries. And the lesson from the Garden of Eden still rings true today – pride, hubris, self-centeredness are always perilous, indeed destructive. The very technology that has brought great reward is now poised to bring great ruin.” He mentioned the disasters that have happened already in the Philippines and elsewhere.

The Vatican cardinal concurred with the UN Secretary-General and the renowned scientists present including Nobel Laureates such as Paul Crutzen, as well as representatives of the major world religions, and leading authorities in the field like Jeffrey Sachs, that climate-related disasters are a reality both for poor countries on the margins of the modern economy and for those at its heart.”

Speakers concurred that all the evidence leads to one conclusion: “We must fundamentally change our ways” (Ban Ki-Moon); “We clearly need a fundamental change of course, to protect the earth and its people” (Turkson). Participants later gave voice to this in a joint statement at the end of the day-long conference, which was held in the Vatican at the headquarters of the Pontifical Academy of Science, whose president, Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chaired the meeting.

Both the UN chief and the cardinal explained that crucial agreements to ensure a safer future for the whole of humanity and greater social justice are within reach at the high-level international conferences that will be held in 2015, if there is the political will. In July, the third International Conference on Finance for Development will be held in Addis Ababa. In September, the UN Special Summit on Sustainable Development (and the goals to achieve this) will be held in New York, at which Pope Francis will give the opening address. Finally, government leaders will gather in Paris from 30 November to December 11 to forge a meaningful agreement on climate change.

An essential goal for a meaningful agreement on climate change requires states to sign onto an accord to prevent global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius. But Ban Ki-Moon warned that this is imperative because “we are currently on course for a rise of 4-5 degrees Celsius, and this would alter life on earth as we know it.” To keep within the 2 degrees limit means moving to a low-carbon pathway and investing in clean energy that can power truly sustainable development.

Jeffrey Sachs

The technology exists to effect such a change, at a relatively low cost in global terms. Professor Jeffrey Sachs told the conference. “To stay below the 2 degrees Celsius limit we have to decarbonize the world’s energy system. It requires us to move to a very low-carbon electricity through the use of solar, geo-thermal and hydro-powers. This requires putting a price on carbon to create proper economic incentives so that utilities move to a clean system and away from fossil fuels.”

He explained later in interviews that “this means leaving ‘stranded assets’ such as oil, gas, coal, underground” but here, he noted, “the largest oil-producing countries and the major oil-companies are the ones that are most resistant to the changes that are needed to make the world safer.”

Asked about the minority who deny the scientific evidence that climate change is due to man and are against such a move to decarbonize the world’s energy system, Sachs said they ignore the fact that climatology is an established science for over a hundred years, and that the scientific evidence “is overwhelming.”

Professor Sachs said these people persist in a libertarian ideology that wants to operate freely without government interferences, whatever the cost. He said misinformation about climate change is disseminated by a smaller group that has a lot of political power in the USA right now: the very rich, the power of the oil and coal industries, and they pay politicians. Such misinformation is spread by the media linked to the fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – industries, such as that of the Koch brothers. That same propaganda is also very strong in Robert Murdoch’s media. Nevertheless, Sachs believes that about two-thirds of Americans understand the issue properly; they know that it’s dry in California and there are big storms, and they know things are changing.

He’s calmly optimistic that agreement on climate change can be reached in Paris. The signs are good as many leaders in the oil industry are taking personal responsibility and reflecting on the risks to the world, and saying we need to do something. But he’s waiting to see if, for example, Exxon-Mobil in the United States will come on board and take a moral stance too.

He noted with joy that shareholders around the world are saying we will not invest in irresponsible practices; they are calling for shareholder resolutions and divestment protests. Many universities and foundations have now divested and the Sovereign Wealth Fund of Norway, which is the world’s largest wealth fund at almost a trillion dollars, is going to scrutinize its investments through a moral framework.

Sachs said the call from scientists and religious leaders is very important in helping people understand the urgent need for change, and he believes that Pope Francis’ encyclical will have a big impact in supporting the dynamic for change at “this historical moment.”

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