Climate change cannot become a religious agenda

Pontifex's call to provide a moral foundation for climate change could harm the efforts to reduce global pollution.
Climate change cannot become a religious agenda
Climate change cannot become a religious agenda
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Image Courtesy: White House

Six months from now the world is expected to have a new deal on climate change where the rich will pay, the poor will prosper and grumblers will fall by the wayside, or so goes the theory. In reality, nations across the world are sharpening their pencils to see who they can poke and what they can strike off to secure a legally binding United Nations (UN) document on Climate Change.

Now, there is a new entrant in the talks, one who promises to be a heavy-hitter. Pope Francis is preparing a Climate Change Encyclical which will be released this summer ahead of the talks in Paris (November 30 to December 11 2015). Countries are seeking an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Previous negotiations of the UN Climate Change Conference (Copenhagen and Lima) agreed to outline actions they will take in the run-up to Paris. These commitments are known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) or INDCs.

Ban-Ki moon, the Secretary General of the UN has received a boost by the papal advocacy which is expected to extoll the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to “embrace” climate change. At a recent summit in Rome on climate change and poverty attended by an eclectic group of thinkers including the UN’s top official, Cardinal Peter Turkson said that in “our recklessness” 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-centredness are always perilous, indeed destructive. The very technology that has brought great reward is now poised to bring great ruin,” he has warned. On a worrying note Cardinal Turkson said institutions can and should take the lead in bringing about that change in attitude towards Creation.

The Vatican is calling for nothing less than a moral revolution to deal with climate change. And here’s the rub. When science is read and taught through the prism of religion, faith and beliefs, it poses a problem. When ending poverty is seen not as a fundamental right of poor people, but more as a sacrifice that the rich have to make, there is a problem. What the Pope is proposing could permanently lock over 3 billion people in a perpetual circle of want and poverty. No country is going to give up its privileges without getting something in return, and current economic models have shown just how unsustainable they are as societies grow and ambitions widen.

Global talks to save our planet have been stuck in that paradigm for over three decades now with western countries failing to fulfil their financial and technological commitments while requiring large developing countries like India to fall in line.  Widening inequalities, unsustainable consumption, disappearing species, warm winters and cold summers and unseasonal rains all point with data that something is seriously wrong. In addition, fifteen percent of the world cannot consume all that is available while leaving the rest to make do with the remains. However, from carbon-dioxide emissions to ozone layers and hydro fluorocarbons, the Pope’s pitch is going elsewhere.

The sudden reference to Garden of Eden too is disturbing. The Pope sits on two chairs – one as head of state and the other more important one as leader of 1.2 billion Catholics. By framing global warming as a rich versus poor issue, he is creating islands of plentitude and poverty within and outside nations. What is equally disturbing is this. The Pope wants to work with other religious leaders “…to develop a sustainable relationship with nature (that) requires not only the engagement of scientists, political leaders, educators and civil societies, but will succeed only if it is based on a moral revolution that religious institutions are in a special position to promote.”

Only time and open support will tell how the Vatican’s call for a moral revolution will affect the Paris talks. One thing is certain - moral revolutions do not bring food on the table have. Market access does. It is for individual countries to chart their destiny within a global framework – not the other way around.

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