The Pope Helps Take Climate Change Beyond Government Negotiations

Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he arrives in St. Peter's Square for his weekly general audience ahead of his meeting with President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin on June 10, 2015. (Andrea Franceschini/Demotix/Corbis)

Reining in climate change will require global cooperation at an unprecedented scale, and, believe it or not, there are signs that this is possible. In the lead up to the United Nations climate meeting in Paris in December, where it is very likely a world agreement will be forged, key global leaders have signaled willingness to fight climate change. The US and China, the two largest CO2 emitters, set the stage back in November when their presidents announced an accord; since then, there have been promising announcements on the topic from the G7 as well as six large European oil and gas giants willing to discuss a carbon tax. The Pope’s first encyclical of his papacy, released today, has the potential to elevate climate change action to a moral obligation, and could be a watershed moment for an issue that, despite its urgency, still struggles to capture the world’s attention.

However, the political reality is that no country is bound by law to cut emissions or participate in the UN process, so there is a chance that all these glass-half-full pronouncements will turn up empty. And there are many other factors that hinder action. Climate change represents the archetypal “tragedy of the commons” dilemma at a global level, in which individuals acting on self-interest behave contrary to the best interests of the whole group by depleting a common resource. “A psychologist could barely dream up a better scenario for paralysis,” according to Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University. The short attention spans of individuals and governments also lead them to view climate change as too complicated or boring. Markets are not rising to the challenge either: the much-cited 2006 Stern review called climate change “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen.”

So what can inspire the level of political will that is necessary to act? Part of the pressure has to come from the world’s citizenry, and there are impressive and expanding campaigns supported by the nonprofit sector, as well as large divestment movements and demonstrations across the globe in support of action on climate change. The UN Secretary General’s climate summit in September last year was a key event that increased public attention and galvanized a global climate march that drew 400,000 alone in New York.

The Pope’s encyclical, which agrees with the scientific consensus that climate change is human-induced, could lend much-needed legitimacy to the UN process. Many hope that the Pope’s vote of confidence will cut through the inaction surrounding the topic, especially in countries where climate change registers low as a topic of concern, and deniers hold high office in government and the private sector, such as Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

This would be significant because the US is the second largest emitter of CO2 and thus a crucial part of reaching any emissions goal. As it stands, the United States’ CO2 reduction plan submitted as part of the UN process was the highest it could submit without requiring Congressional approval, as key members of Congress vehemently oppose such plans. (The plan was rated by experts as not very likely to help with the 2-degree target.) But a recent Pew poll found the Pope is viewed favorably by seven out of ten Americans. His appeal could give the topic a much-needed push.

The encyclical also frames action on climate change as a moral obligation to the environment and the poor, who have contributed the least to climate change but stand to lose the most— for example, Bangladesh produces just .03 percent of the emissions driving climate change, but 17 percent of its land could be lost due to sea level rise, displacing about 18 million people. In emphasizing the plight of developing countries, the Pope could help prevent them from becoming political sacrifices during the negotiations. In 2009, Venezuela’s chief climate envoy Claudia Salerno said during the Copenhagen climate summit: “This is not an environmental agreement…It’s one of the largest economic arrangements for the world for the next century.” As a result, the negotiations have sometimes resembled a blood sport. A recent paper from the Grantham Institute cautioned that discussions may be focusing too narrowly on the needs of the emitters and should be approached through the lens of “equitable access to sustainable development” rather than a country’s “right to emit.” And sacrifices have already all but been made: it is believed that capping at 2 degrees will cause small island nations to be destroyed through sea level rise, though 100 of their envoys are desperately arguing to change the cap to 1.5 degrees so they can be spared.

With six months to go before the Paris meeting, policy experts are reporting that reduction pledges from countries are not in line with the 2-degree temperature target. A recent Global Observatory post by Fergus Green said that this should not constitute a failure. “It is unrealistic to expect climate change to be ‘solved’ in one big conference,” he writes. “It does, however, mean that countries will need to focus on how to build greater and greater ambition over time so that the gap is progressively reduced.” Green and others have noted that to ensure this, a mechanism should be built into the agreement to review the commitments every five years and adjust as necessary.

The Earth is already.85 degrees hotter that the global average since 1880, which eats up nearly half of the 2 degrees Celsius cap. Many who study the issue say that they don’t believe 2 degrees is feasible, though agree it has a strong role as an acceptable target. The International Energy Agency released a report Monday that said the global temperature rise will likely be over 4 degrees C, and bringing it down to 2 degrees would have to be done through negative emissions. Scientists have also cautioned against thinking that 2-degrees is a “safe” limit. To quote the IPCC report: “The ‘guardrail’ concept, in which up to 2C of warming is considered safe, is inadequate and would therefore be better seen as an upper limit, a defense line that needs to be stringently defended, while less warming would be preferable.”

The Secretary-General’s climate summit last year shows the UN recognizes the need to reach out beyond member states for the process to be successful. In addition, Peru, the host country of last year’s climate conference, held a parallel event “with the aim of creating a space for participation, dialogue and learning on climate change,” showing there are countries also willing to take on this role.

But to meet the UN target, more spheres of influence must be brought on board. There is a strong need for leadership from the energy sector and in conservative organizations. There is also a huge potential for the private sector and investment industry to play a role. Recently, the Australian investment consulting firm Mercer released a climate change investment report that warns, “investors who remain ignorant of or deny climate science will be big money losers compared to those who are climate-savvy.” The global support for innovation and renewable energy should be intensified, and not serve just as a talking point for member states.

Recently, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere reached an auspicious milestone: for the first time in over 400,000 years—200,000 years longer than humans have been alive—it passed 400 parts per million. When asked what that meant to him, climate scientist Gavin Schmidt said, “We are a society that has inadvertently chosen the double-black diamond run without having learned to ski first. It will be a bumpy ride.”