Pope Francis begins his historic visit to Cuba and the United States this weekend, when he will address the US Congress and the United Nations. It is a chance to influence policymakers on issues that will shape the future of the planet. But there is another platform he should be invited to join
The way Pope Francis kicked off September gives a clue to his agenda when he travels this coming week, first to Washington DC and the United States Congress, then to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. His decision to stage a day of prayer on the first of this month “for the care of Creation”, and to invite congregations across the world to focus on the changing environment of our planet, also mirrored a thought he planted within hours of being elected Pope in March 2013.
Consider back then his explanation of his choice of the name Francis, and his comment regarding Francis of Assisi: “The man who loved and cared for Creation … in this moment we don’t have such a great relationship with the Creator”. Almost from Day one, Pope Francis framed the planet as God’s own acre, and assumed responsibility for protecting it.
I have worked in both the US Congress and the United Nations, first as a journalist, then as a UN diplomat. I believe the Pope has chosen a unique moment to enter the fray on the future of the planet we share, and that he can make a genuine difference in the days ahead.
Certainly, in both institutions, he will have the freedom to speak his mind. Neither the leadership of the US Congress, nor my old bosses at the UN in New York, will have set conditions on the Pope’s speeches, beyond a gentle reminder of time and length.
Memories are long at UN headquarters of the late Muammar Gaddafi speaking for 90 minutes when normally a president is limited to 20 minutes. The Pope, I’m told, can have as long as he wants, but it will be under an hour because his schedule is tight.
Significantly, just after the Pope speaks at the UN, that same morning world leaders go into a summit to establish how best to eradicate poverty in the next 15 years, part two of the campaign of Development Goals that the UN set at the start of the new millennium 15 years ago.
“In a very real sense, the Pope has a window to set the stage for a summit that is a watershed in terms of the global campaign on development,” according to one of the Secretary General’s senior advisers.
It is highly likely that Pope Francis will return to the well of issues he has made his own: poverty, number one, immigration surely too, human rights, jobs for the next generation, the need to confront what he has called “the globalisation of indifference” or “the economy of exclusion”. And of course the future of the planet amid environmental disaster – a big issue for Francis.
Former colleagues in the media, politics and at the UN, in London, New York and Washington DC, have all been debating the origins of Pope Francis’ interest in climate change.
As a one-time Vatican correspondent, in the 1970s, an age when papal encyclicals blended caution with conservatism, I can share a measure of astonishment at seeing Pope Francis use that vehicle as a clarion call to warn us all that our planet is in danger, as he did in June with his encyclical, Laudato si’.
A read of the document quickly reveals the Pope lambasting humanity for destroying biodiversity, polluting water, soil and air, and being categorical about human beings responsible for climate change: “all these are sins”, he concludes, insisting that the poor in the developing world end up paying the price. As always, Pope Francis hones in on the battle against poverty, but he sees the climate change debate as a key component.
Likewise, his summit in Rome in July, with mayors from the world’s major cities assembled in the Synod Hall, represented a substantive break with tradition at the Holy See. The Pope ended the meeting with a strong warning for my erstwhile colleagues at the UN, currently planning their latest, make-or-break summit on the issue in Paris this December.
“I have great hopes for the Paris summit,” the Pope told the mayors. “The UN needs to take a strong stand on this.”
From my perspective, which includes a spell as a UN representative in the Pope’s native Argentina, Francis’ motives on the environment are clear, and so too are their genesis.
Look no further than the recent history of his beloved country. In the year leading up to his election as Pope in 2013, Argentina suffered as perhaps never before from the impact of our changing planet. The central province of Córdoba, one of the world’s leading bread baskets, was hit by drought, losing 30 per cent of its corn and soya. In the Andes, Mendoza had a fine year for wine in 2012, but parts of the province suffered a devastating lack of rain and creeping desertification.
Yet in Salta, in the north of Argentina, at the same time, came just the opposite: floods amid record rainfall. In the province of Buenos Aires, home to Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio before he became Pope Francis, it was the same story: the farm belt buried under water. Indeed, in the days immediately after his election, dramatic storms claimed dozens of lives as parts of the capital and the city of La Plata looked like Venice, to recall one memorable headline.
Remember the new Pope’s first words to the world, on his election: “The cardinals had to choose a new Bishop of Rome, and it seems they went to the end of the world to find him.” Father Jorge, as he was known in Buenos Aires, brought with him a perspective on our planet framed by the consequences of climate change in the most southerly of major capitals.
Then there is the Pope’s strong, personal view of the UN. In one chance meeting at a reception, during my time as a UN director in Argentina, Cardinal Bergoglio said: “You have important work to do. The UN must represent all of humanity, and bring the best of humanity to the table.”
Subsequently, I learned that this Pope judges the UN to be the last, best hope on planetary issues, albeit flawed, and sometimes infuriatingly ineffective. “Just look at those climate-change summits in Copenhagen, and Rio,” to quote one of his long-time confrères in Argentina. “One step forward, two steps back. But the Pope knows the UN is the best forum we have to advance.”
The Pope’s savvy, adept use of the microphone means that his words in Washington DC and New York will echo via the media landscape across the world. His political instincts, fine-tuned back in Argentina where politics is a blood sport and where Cardinal Bergoglio navigated hostile waters with genuine aplomb, ensure that he will unify rather than alienate when he speaks next week.
Then there will be the private meetings he holds with leaders too. Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Holy See’s permanent observer at the UN, said last week that Pope Francis’ private meeting with Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, could be “the most solid part of the event”, where “they say things they don’t want to say publicly”.
In both venues, one day after the next, Francis will be big news. And the Pope calling for action on our global environment will make headlines, upping the ante on the major players – the US, China, India and Russia – to respond.
The UN leadership will weigh his message carefully, hoping to build momentum towards that end-of-year summit. So too will the White House, where US?President Barack Obama has wagered a good deal of his political capital of late on the issue of climate change. But in this age, attention spans are short, and 10 long weeks stretch out between the Pope’s speeches and negotiations on the future of the planet.
So here’s a thought. If Ban Ki-moon, wants to kick-start the climate-change summit in Paris this December out of the status quo, then he should invite Pope Francis to join him onstage in challenging the world’s lead polluters to walk the walk, instead of simply talking the talk, as they have done at such summits for so long. President Obama, who has led on this issue in recent months, should support the Secretary General on this.
This Pope has carved for himself extraordinary moral authority on this issue. He is determined to be part of the process in the week ahead, as he makes history again by addressing first the US Congress, then the UN General Assembly. He has placed himself in a unique position to challenge us all and bring about change.
Mr Secretary General, Mr President, don’t waste this opportunity to bring much more of humanity to the table. Think boldly. Invite the Pope to join you in Paris.
David Smith, a former foreign correspondent for Channel 4 and ITN, represented the UN Secretary General in the Americas 2004-14.