18 June 2015, The Tablet

Pressure mounts on politicians after Pope’s climate encyclical

Kofi Annan and the Environment Secretary, Liz Truss, have welcomed Pope Francis’ encyclical that urges politicians, big business and individuals to drastically reduce their carbon emissions to slow down climate change and other damage to the environment.

Laudato Si’ was launched this morning at the Vatican, ahead of UN climate talks in Paris later this year at which experts say it is vital that a global agreement on greenhouse emissions is reached to avoid a major disaster.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said: “As Pope Francis reaffirms, climate change is an all-encompassing threat: it is a threat to our security, our health, and our sources of fresh water and food.”

Annan, who is also chairman of the Africa Progress Panel, added: “Such conditions could displace tens of millions of people, dwarfing current migration and fuelling further conflicts. I applaud the Pope for his strong moral and ethical leadership. We need more of such inspired leadership. Will we see it at the climate summit in Paris?”

Labour MP Maria Eagle asked Ms Truss in parliament today if she agreed with the Pope’s assessment that climate change was largely caused by human behaviour, or the view of the former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, who Ms Eagle claimed is a “well-known climate change denier”.

Ms Truss responded: “I do agree with the Pope. And what I would say is that this Government is absolutely committed to tackling climate change.

She continued: “We have the Paris summit coming up; we have taken the lead in terms of limiting, getting a deal on limiting temperature rises to 2 degrees [Celsius]. It’s an important priority.”

Yesterday the Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd, told an event hosted by the Climate Coalition, which includes the Catholic charity Cafod: “I am absolutely committed to making sure we get this ambitious deal – and as legally binding as possible in December. The UK has been a leader in this area ... I am picking up the baton and will run with it.”

A spokeswoman for Sciaf, the Scottish bishops’ aid agency, accused politicians of “a failure of leadership in this arena”. Writing on The Tablet website Philippa Bonella said: “We’ve been calling on world leaders to take action to promote the common good and address climate change for years. Unfortunately, to date, their actions have fallen well short of what’s needed.”

Neil Thorns, Director of Advocacy at Cafod, said: “I hope that the Pope’s strong words today will encourage leaders – and every single one of us – to take responsibility for the gift of God’s creation and consider the impact we’re having on our brothers and sisters overseas.”

Lord Deben, the former environment secretary who chairs the independent Climate Change Committee, told The Tablet the encyclical would be “extremely useful” in persuading Christians of the need to care for creation. “It will open people’s minds – both Catholics and Protestants will begin to realise this is something they can’t ignore.”

The Conservative peer, a Catholic, hailed the document as “fundamentally prophetic” and said politicians would find it hard to ignore the impact would have on the Church, “much the largest voluntary organisation in the world”. He anticipated that it would also resonate with people who do not profess a faith and cited George Monbiot, who in Wednesday’s Guardian said Laudato Si’ marked “a potential turning point” whereby people can be persuaded to care for the planet not out of economic concerns but out of love for the living world.

The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, launched the encyclical this morning at Our Lady and St Joseph's Catholic primary school in Poplar, in east London.

He told reporters that he hoped politicians would commit to concrete goals to reduce carbon emissions. He went on: "I also would hope that the Prime Minister understands that this challenge takes us deeper than simply carbon emissions and into a discussion that asks about the purpose of business, about the fashioning of global trade."

Standing with his back to the skyscrapers of the City he highlighted a section in the encyclical which "will certainly disquiet some people behind me". He explained: "The Pope continues the very well established Catholic practice of speaking up for the labour contribution to every economy. He says that 'to stop investing in people, for short-term financial gain, is bad business for society'." Turning towards the City, he went on: "On the other hand, he says 'business is a noble vocation, if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.' There's a balanced critique."

However Philip Booth, Editorial and Programme Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, complained that the political-economic analysis in Laudato Si’ was “unduly pessimistic”. He said: "There are falling rates of poverty, global inequality, and deaths from natural disasters, whilst access to education and healthcare improves. Indeed, many environmental indicators have also improved dramatically. There are lessons to be learned from where there has been success, but, in terms of its specific policy proposals, the encyclical does not propose copying the successful models. This is a pity because, as Pope Francis makes very clear, the future of the planet is a moral as well as an economic issue.”

Meanwhile the UK-based Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences welcomed the encyclical. Director Fazlun Khalid told The Tablet: “I am moved that the Pope addresses all faith communities, reflecting the reality of a shared Earth. Climate change is a crisis we have brought about by our collective abuse of the Earth and we can only put this and other environmental concerns to right by working together. It so happens that this is the first day of the holy month of Ramadan in the Islamic calendar. This is the month in which Muslims throughout the world fast, and take no food and water during daylight hours as an exercise in frugality. Isn’t this just the kind of message Pope Francis is attempting to put across?”

You can find full coverage of the encylical – the politics, the spirituality, the influences and the role of St Francis of Assisi – in the 20 June issue of The Tablet.

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