Why Pope Francis’s statement is important

It is increasingly odd to realize that the voices of the established order, sources of top-down control and out-dated structures, are suddenly allies. My experience for decades was to deride the International Monetary Fund ( IMF) for perverse “structural adjustment,” the World Bank for bad development, the International Energy Agency for focussing on expanding fossil fuel reserves, and the Vatican for policies so opposed to contraception as to ignore the threat of HIV-AIDS. I now find myself in the oddest of positions as a Canadian. They are all more progressive than my own government.

The IMF and the World Bank are powerful allies in the fight to move off fossil fuels – calling for all governments to end fossil fuel subsidies and to place a price on carbon. The International Energy Agency is calling for two-thirds of all known reserves of fossil fuels to stay in the ground until at least 2050, to avoid a 2 degree C rise in global average temperatures. And now the Vatican is more aware of the science of climate change than is Stephen Harper. Galileo would be amazed.

A Papal Encyclical is a rare event. And this one may be the most important ever. I urge all Canadians to read it, whether Catholic or atheist; Protestant, Jew, Muslim or pagan. It has something to say to us all.

Its political intention is clear. We are six months from the opening of the deadline talks for the acceptance of a new, comprehensive international climate treaty. As the only member of parliament (other than Leona Aglukkaq) to have attended the negotiations in recent years, I have to admit that the prospects for an effective treaty are dim.

Politicians make great speeches about increased ambition and the need for urgent action, but once behind closed doors their diplomats put on the brakes. The exception is Canada where politicians do not make great speeches and their negotiators put on the brakes. No question some nations and groups of nations are far more helpful than others. The EU has the most ambitious climate target, but ever since the economic disaster of 2008, in the talks its strength as a leader has been reduced. The US under Barak Obama is taking executive action to cut GHGs, but the State Department negotiators seem to be getting instructions from George Bush.

In Warsaw at COP19, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, realizing the rate of progress was too slow, announced he would host a major UN climate summit in September 2014 to create more momentum for the COP 20 talks in Lima. The global citizens movement seized on his lead and mobilized the largest ever Peoples Climate Marches – all around the world, with 400,000 on the streets of New York the day before the U.N. climate summit. World leaders came to pledge action (not Stephen Harper, of course). But still, Lima sputtered.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel understands the problem. She capitalized on her role as host of the G7 to make climate a focus. For the first time ever, the world’s largest industrialized countries have declared that our only way forward is to stop burning fossil fuels altogether. Sadly, and shamefully for Canadians, to get Stephen Harper to sign a communiqué using the word “decarbonisation” required shifting the deadline in the draft communiqué from “substantially by 2050” to “by 2100.”

Any close observer of the talks will know that we need a miracle. Enter Pope Francis.

His 74 page open letter to the world is vast in its ambition. It is largely focused on the need for climate action. He places the climate crisis in both scientific and moral terms. The over one billion Roman Catholics in the world will have to take heed – but so too should those of no faith. For in his science he is repeating what the IPCC, IMF, World Bank, IEA, OECD and others have said.

In his appeal to a moral response to the crisis, he also has something important to say to those of no faith. Any observers of our current crisis know that consumerism and greed are at the heart of it. We face a deeply moral challenge at many levels. The industrialized and wealthy world is in no position to say “treat all countries the same.” We have created a crisis and those most at risk are the least responsible and most vulnerable. As his holiness writes “the cries of the earth and the cries of the poor are the same.”

Another dimension of the moral challenge is inter-generational. How can we in our generation condemn our own children and their children to an increasingly unlivable world?

But the Pontiff takes the issue more directly to our current culture. The encyclical takes aim at consumer culture where throwing something away is done without a thought. “Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity.” (211)

I was deeply moved to find words I had helped draft from the Earth Charter:

“As never before in history, common destiny beckons us to seek a new beginning…Let ours be remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace and the joyful celebration of life.” (207)

The six Global Green Values were distilled from the Earth Charter. I was honoured to be an Earth Charter Commissioner, working with an extraordinary group from around the world. The Green Party at our roots is tied to the Earth Charter.

So now we have a voice, one with whom we will never agree on everything. Not surprisingly, the encyclical inserts an argument against abortion. Still there is far more to be embraced than rejected in a call for a greater recognition that we must embrace each other as a human family with a shared destiny and a common home. The call for inter-religious dialogue and respect across cultures and beliefs is powerful. Let us all take it to heart.