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Pope Francis’ Historic US Visit at a Critical Juncture for Climate Action

In his most significant apostolic journey, Pope Francis will be calling for action on climate change.

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Yesterday, Pope Francis landed in Washington to begin a historic US visit. In a rare break with protocol, President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden greeted him from the plane at Andrews Air Force Base. Today, he will meet with the president at the White House and tomorrow he will be the first pope to ever address the US Senate and House of Representatives in a joint session of Congress.

The address will be watched by more than 40,000 people on TVs erected on the West Lawn of the Capitol and by millions throughout the world. The day after his address to Congress, on September 25, Pope Francis will formally address the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. His visit takes place during Climate Week, with less than three months to go before world leaders meet in Paris for the COP21 climate summit.

At his election, the pope adopted the name of St. Francis of Assisi, who he described as “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation,” the world, as he says, “with which we don’t have such a good relationship.” His visit to the United States is his most significant apostolic journey and could prove to be his greatest challenge.

The Pope’s Groundbreaking encyclical

On June 18, the pope released his groundbreaking encyclical “Laudato Si (Praise Be), On the Care of Our Common Home,” which called for action on climate change. The encyclical provides desperately needed leadership. The pope appealed to our unique place as human beings in the world, our relationship to our surroundings and the need to put the common good before profit. The pope spoke of the “unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem” and warned that failure to act would have “grave consequences for all of us.” He urged world leaders to heed “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” and to take “decisive action, here and now” to save the planet from environmental ruin.

In his encyclical, the pope also appealed, “for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

Since the release of the encyclical, the pope has been traveling the world delivering his environmental message. At a meeting of political, economic and civic leaders in Quito, Ecuador, he said, “As stewards of these riches which we have received, we have an obligation toward society as a whole, and toward future generations.” He also called for the protection of the rainforest and its inhabitants.

As well as warning of the imminent threat of catastrophic climate change, Pope Francis has criticized consumerism and humanity’s exploitation of natural resources. At a speech in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, during his visit to South America in July, he said, “Our common home is being pillaged, laid waste and harmed with impunity. Cowardice in defending it is a grave sin.”

Addressing the House of Representatives

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the speaker of the House of Representatives, is the House’s most senior Catholic. He has been inviting popes to speak before Congress for more than 20 years. He sent invitations to John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They were declined. Tomorrow, Boehner’s patience will finally pay off. It is ironic, however, that it is Pope Francis who accepted the invitation, a pope “so clearly at odds with the priorities of the Republican Party and with the priorities of the current House of Representatives,” according to James Weiss, professor in Catholic Church history at Boston College.

It is expected that the pope will raise his environmental concerns before Congress tomorrow and address poverty and inequality. Time magazine reports that in his address he will speak about “bilateral relations and multinational relations as a sign of progress and coexistence.” John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, predicts an “appeal to our hearts and souls” on the issue of immigrants. Pope Francis may also mention divisive topics such as abortion and climate change. I hope he will address the issue of the death penalty.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) is optimistic that the pope’s address will make climate change a less partisan issue, commenting, “if he inspires us to consider policy, that will be a very successful effort.” President Obama’s adviser Charles Kupchan has said the pope’s “essential messages will resonate very much with the President’s agenda.”

The pope’s climate change mission has divided opinion, along both religious and party lines. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a Catholic, said, “There is no theology about global warming that exists in the Old or New Testament, so to be advocating along those lines I think dilutes the message from the spiritual perspective that we need to hear.” Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) is boycotting the address because the pope will “act and talk like a leftist politician.” To add fuel to the fire, Pope Francis arrives in the United States following his visit to Cuba, where he met with Fidel Castro to discuss the common problems of humanity, including environmental degradation. Detractors have not forgotten the role he played in restoring diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

Addressing the UN General Assembly

Pope Francis’ environmental message may be more enthusiastically received in New York on September 25, when he addresses the UN General Assembly. Dozens of streets will be closed for his arrival and flyers have already been dropped in New York calling on people to “rally with Pope Francis in the call to moral action for climate justice.”

Ahead of the COP21 climate summit in Paris in December the need for a successful outcome is more urgent than ever. The pope’s address to the UN may prove a galvanizing force. With his guidance and moral leadership there is hope that we may get a comprehensive and legally binding global climate change agreement needed to prevent catastrophic climate change, with provisions for the poorest and most vulnerable that would protect the rights of local communities and Indigenous people.

The pope has criticized the lack of leadership on climate change and the “failure of global summits” to produce meaningful agreements. In his encyclical, he said, “There are too many special interests, and economic interests [that] easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.” I fear Pope Francis is right.

Climate Change and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

What can we expect from COP21 in Paris? I have been attending the climate change conferences since COP13 in Bali in 2007. Each of them has failed to produce what is required to prevent catastrophic climate change. The International Energy Agency has already issued its bleak outlook for the climate summit in Paris, reporting, “It is well known that the [greenhouse gas reductions pledges] will fall well short of what is needed to be on a path to the 2°C goal.” There is, unfortunately, enough reason to be skeptical about this year’s outcome.

Miguel Cañete, the European Union commissioner for climate action, who will lead the EU’s 28 member states at the COP21 negotiations, has warned, “There is no plan B if agreement is not reached in Paris. Nothing will follow. This is not just ongoing UN discussions. Paris is final.”

Will world leaders realize that COP21 is the end of the line and seize this opportunity to address the threat of catastrophic climate change or will they continue to procrastinate?

For decades, scientists have been warning us about the effects of climate change and its impact on the world: how tropical and subtropical regions in Africa, South Asia and Latin America will heat up more and more, with temperatures becoming increasingly intolerable; how rising sea levels will endanger between 147 and 216 million people, particularly those in low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, the Marshall Islands and the Maldives, as well as people in Tokyo, Shanghai, New York and London; and how melting glaciers will flood river valleys and then, when they have disappeared, unprecedented droughts will occur, affecting large parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report finds that land and ocean surface temperatures have increased globally by nearly 1 degree Celsius since 1901. It is important to note that in parts of Africa, Asia, North America and South America surface temperatures have already risen by up to 2.5 degrees Celsius.

Earlier this year, world-renowned climate scientist James Hansen published a study outlining a scenario of rapid sea level rise combined with more intense storm systems. In the study, Hansen and 16 other experts on ice sheets warn that the reality exceeds worst-case scenarios and even limiting average global temperatures to a rise of 2 degrees Celsius is “highly dangerous.” They conclude: “that multi-meter sea-level rise would become practically unavoidable. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea-level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”

To avoid catastrophic climate change, world leaders need to reach an agreement that keeps carbon dioxide levels below 350 parts per million. According to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography of the University of California in San Diego, the current carbon dioxide levels of 398.82 parts per million are the highest they have been in the last 800,000 years, with the average annual rate increasing by 2.11 parts per million.

A few months ago, I spoke at the Climate Summit of the Americas in Toronto. To the west of the city are the vast mountain glaciers of the Canadian Rockies and the Pacific Northwest. Seventy percent of those glaciers will disappear by 2100, if climate change is not slowed. Some 140,000 species of animal live in Canada, only half of which have been identified and never will be if their habitats are destroyed.

On the opposite side of the world, the Antarctic ice cap is melting at its fastest rate since records began. A Princeton University study, published in May 2015 in the Earth and Planetary Science Letters journal, found that more than 92 billion tons of Antarctic ice melted every year between 2003 and 2014 and that the rate of melting is accelerating. This is very alarming – if this ice were stacked on the island of Manhattan, that amount of ice would be a mile high, more than five times the height of the Empire State Building.

One of the report’s researchers, Christopher Harig, said, “[Melting Antarctic ice has the] potential to be a runaway problem. It has come to the point that if we continue losing mass in those areas, the loss can generate a self-reinforcing feedback whereby we will be losing more and more ice, ultimately raising sea levels by tens of feet.”

Our Common Future Under Climate Change

Between July 6 and 10, 2015, nearly 2,000 climate change experts gathered in Paris at the Our Common Future Under Climate Change conference. The aims of the conference were to:

• Provide state-of-the-art scientific knowledge on climate change, one year after the release of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report
• Explore ways to combine climate change mitigation and adaptation, and sustainable development
• Assess the potential for evidence-based solutions to climate change challenges

The delegates recognized the need to act with even greater urgency – because a two-year UN scientific review concluded that even limiting the rise of the earth’s temperature to 2 degree Celsius from pre-industrial levels is inadequate and that the goal must be to limit the increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

According to this review, “in some regions and vulnerable ecosystems, high risks are projected even for warming above 1.5°C.” The same study found that “not only are we not on track to meet the long-term global goal, but the current emission rate is accelerating … emissions need to be cut significantly and immediately.”

The conference’s Outcome Statement found “a two in three probability of holding warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less will require a budget that limits future carbon dioxide emissions to about 900 billion tons, roughly 20 times annual emissions in 2014. To limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, emissions must be zero or even negative by the end of the 21st century … The window for economically feasible solutions with a reasonable prospect of holding warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less is rapidly closing … Every nation has a role. Bold action in 2015 can be decisive in assuring a common future of sustainable, robust economies, equitable societies, and vibrant communities.”

In July 2015, a group of 24 British institutions (including the British Academy, the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Institution of Civil Engineers) issued a joint letter calling for immediate action to be taken by governments to avert the worst impacts of climate change. They said that tackling climate change now would drive economic progress, benefit the health of millions by cutting air pollution and improve access to energy, water and food.

National Pledges to Cut Emissions

Under the current UN process, pledges by individual countries to cut emissions, called intended nationally determined contributions, or INDCs, will largely determine whether in the short term, and possibly in the longer term, we succeed or fail in limiting global temperature rise beyond acceptable levels. As the World Resources Institute states, “The INDCs will largely determine whether the world achieves an ambitious 2015 agreement and is put on a path toward a low-carbon, climate-resilient future.”

COP21 is less than three months away and 64 countries have submitted their INDCs. Key states, including Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Turkey, are yet to submit their pledges. Without these pledges it is difficult to assess whether the INDCs will be enough.

After the climate negotiations in Bonn at the beginning of September (Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action ADP 2.10), Climate Action Tracker published a joint statement from its four European research groups (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Climate Analytics, NewClimate Institute and Ecofys) reporting that current INDC emission cuts ahead of COP21 are insufficient and will lead to average warming of around 3 degrees Celsius by 2100, compared to pre-industrial levels.

Economist Lord Nicholas Stern agrees that commitments already made by world governments to cut carbon emissions are not enough to keep global warming below the crucial 2 degree Celsius target – but, he thinks a strong deal is still possible in Paris.

COP21 is our last chance. If negotiations fail, the world will be a dramatically different place. We are at a critical crossroads and the world needs every country to be ambitious, bold and uncompromising with its greenhouse gas emissions reduction pledges.

Hopes for a Legally Binding Climate Agreement

World leaders must do everything in their power to produce an agreement based on scientific facts, not on political expediency and vested interests. At COP21, they must deliver a comprehensive, just and legally binding climate agreement, with provisions for the transfer of technology to developing countries, and adequate adaptation, loss and damage, mitigation and implementation mechanisms, with safeguards throughout for communities’ and Indigenous peoples’ rights.

The current draft text of the agreement that is working its way toward Paris in December contains much to be commended, but it is not enough.

It is imperative that the final draft includes clauses on Indigenous rights and land use. While these terms appear in the current draft, they must be given prominence near the top of the operative paragraphs so that they can guide subsequent paragraphs relating to mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage. This would ensure the rights of Indigenous people throughout the world receive adequate protection.

As the pope said in his encyclical, it “is essential to show special care for Indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.”

I would like to add to the pope’s eloquent comments, that mega-dams are also putting pressure on Indigenous people. In the Amazon basin, 412 dams are being built, with 242 of these in Brazil alone.

A Critical Juncture in History

It has been over 23 years since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was established to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” We have endured years of COP negotiations, promises, distant targets and shattered hope.

On the road to Paris, I am reminded of the expectations of COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. Our hopes were high, and they were dashed. World leaders failed to deliver a comprehensive, legally binding, global climate change treaty. We can’t let this happen again when world leaders meet in Paris in December. Paris is our last chance, the final opportunity to address the greatest threat of our time.

At this critical juncture in history, world leaders should reflect on Winston Churchill’s address to British Parliament on the eve of World War II: “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”

I hope that world leaders attending COP21 will listen to Pope Francis, act with courage and conviction, and emerge from the conference with an agreement that, in the words of the pope, “protects our common home” and “brings the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development,” and to preserve “resources for present and future generations.”

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