The UN Climate Change Summit (COP 21) being held in Paris this week has brought together nearly 200 countries to decide whether or not to reach an agreement to a legally binding document to limit planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
The COP 15 held in Copenhagen in December 2009 was associated with the expectation of a binding agreement that could replace the Kyoto Protocol. That expectation ended in disappointment, as the agreement did not materialise.
It is now expected that the COP 21 climate conference might succeed this time around, that is through a binding agreement to guarantee that the rise in the global average temperature in 2100 is kept at or below 2°C compared with the average temperature of the pre-industrial period.
Climate change was the main theme on the agenda of last October’s plenary assembly of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU (COMECE) held in Paris. I had the opportunity to participate in this meeting representing Archbishop Charles Scicluna and to contribute in the discussion on a strongly-worded report on climate change prepared by an ad hoc working group of experts in different scientific disciplines appointed by the bishops of COMECE.
Aware that the EU is a major player to any successful, just, legally binding and sustainable international agreement on climate, the EU bishops presented this comprehensive report on climate issues, based on Christian social thinking, to the negotiators, to concerned EU citizens and to all who care about the future of our one and only planet Earth.
The report reflects primarily Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato si’ (LS) which sets the moral framework for COP 21. While Malta years ago proposed at international fora that the climate should be considered as the “common concern of humankind”, Pope Francis describes “the climate as a common good”.
Inspired by the broad ecological vision of Laudato si’, the European bishops propose two political changes for the consideration of world leaders currently meeting in Paris.
The first proposal concerns the concrete plan of action that the industrialised nations need to implement to counteract the consequences of climate change. The prolonged exploitation of fossil fuels, the associated increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the reduction of or damage to greenhouse gas sinks (rain forests/oceans) by the industrialised nations have substantially contributed to climate change. It is therefore a matter of justice that “the countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialisation, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused.” (LS 170)
Ecological conversion means moving away from an attitude of domination over nature and towards awareness that there is a close relationship between humans and all other creatures
Pope Francis maintains that it is the responsibility of the industrialised countries to repay their “ecological debt” (LS 51) built up over a long period of time. They have the responsibility to contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to a greater extent and pay an appropriate part of the costs to remedy the consequences caused by climate change. This also includes financial and technological support for the developing countries to enable them to switch to low-emission energy sources.
The second proposal supports the interaction urgently needed at the local, national and global levels to find a sustainable and effective solution to climate change. The impact of climate change is “borderless” while having a local impact at the same time. In order to find solutions to this complex crisis, to take appropriate decisions and to monitor their implementation, a “global regulatory framework” or “global governance” (LS 175) is needed which must, however, endeavour to balance the local, national and global levels and take account of the different cultures.
Pope Francis calls these radical proposals as concrete steps of “ecological conversion” which demands a different lifestyle. In their report, the European bishops say that climate change is only one symptom of the unsustainable way of life, modes of production and patterns of consumption that have evolved in the industrialised world. It is then clear that exclusively technical solutions or a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions alone cannot solve the problem of sustainability.
Real change is needed at a deeper, cultural level of our behaviour. Ecological conversion means moving away from an attitude of domination over nature and towards the awareness that there is a close relationship between humans and all other creatures, the growing insight to preserve the intrinsic value of nature and not understand it in an exclusively instrumental way.
At the individual level, this conversion means, at least in the wealthier industrialised nations of the world, freeing oneself from the obsession with consumer goods.
At the structural level, ecological conversion means moving away from an exclusively profit-oriented economy and towards a social, ecological economyoriented in particular to the common good and human flourishing.
Ecological conversion also means dealing with time differently, both as an individual and as a society. We need to rediscover the “rhythm of time the alternation between work and rest with Sunday as the commonly shared weekly day of rest.
The EU bishops rightly insist that education is the key to conversion. Conversion to an integral ecology, a different lifestyle and a sustainable way of life cannot simply be imposed or decreed.
It requires reflection, exchange of experiences and practising patterns of behaviour. Its key elements are dialogue and participation.
During his recent visit to the United Nations Office in Nairobi on 5 November 2015, Pope Francis expressed his heartfelt hope that the climate change conference in Paris “will achieve a global and ‘transformational’ agreement” based on the principles of solidarity, justice, equality and participation to “lessen the impact of climate change, fighting poverty and ensuring respect for human dignity”.
But words and declared principles are not enough.
He urged against “particular interests” prevailing over the common good. Moreover, he insisted that “the economy and politics need to be placed at the service of peoples, with the result that human beings, in harmony with nature, structure the entire system of production and distribution”.
Let us hope that the Paris climate summit will accomplish for the benefit of present and future generations what the Copenhagen summit held in 2009 failed to achieve.
Emmanuel Agius is the Dean of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Malta and a member of the European Group of Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) of the European Commission.