Comment: Could Church lead new front against climate change?

By Ed King

On Christmas morning Pope Benedict XVI, leader of the Roman Catholic Church, will deliver his annual address to the faithful.

Stalin may have once scorned the Papacy, asking how many divisions the Vatican could muster, but this small city with no army still wields considerable influence as a global opinion former.

With a history of over 2000 years, congregations on five continents of the world and an extensive network of religious leaders, diplomats and observers at the United Nations, the Catholic Church boasts a political arsenal many states would be jealous of.

Judging by his recent comments to Vatican Radio, it is likely Pope Benedict will speak about a ‘spiritual vacuum’ in the world; one symptom of which he says is the current economic and financial crisis. But it may be the Pontiff also chooses to draw the narrative of climate change into his address; a subject he appears to be increasingly concerned about.

Before the international climate summit in Durban the Pope, who sent two observers to the talks, called on ‘all members of the international community [to] reach agreement on a responsible, credible response’ to climate change, which he described as “complex” and “disturbing”.

The Vatican has long been the target of critics over the centuries for a perceived lack of progressive thinking, particularly where science, gender and sexuality are involved. Yet on the economic crisis and climate change debate it appears to be leading from the front.

As Occupy protests started to spring up across the world in October 2011, the Vatican’s Justice and Peace department released a timely report arguing that the financial downturn had revealed behaviours like “selfishness, collective greed and hoarding of goods on a great scale”.

The department’s head, Cardinal Peter Turkson, made the ambitious proposal that “a supranational authority” with worldwide scope and “universal jurisdiction” should be established to guide world economic policy.

Equality, equity and poverty

Worldwide unease with greed, inequality and who ultimately bears the consequences of risk on the planet is a theme that has close links with the climate change debate. These wider contexts of equality and equity were subjects Indian negotiator Jayanthi Natarajan alluded to in the final stormy hours of COP17 in Durban, in her blistering address to the plenary at 3am.

“Let us finally announce then in Durban, which would be the greatest tragedy, if we finally say goodbye to the principle of equity, if we finally say goodbye to common but differentiated responsibility, that would be the biggest tragedy of all time,” she concluded, in a speech that was greeted by loud applause and cheering.

The text was subsequently changed to a format all parties could agree on, but the interface between the developed world and developing countries seeking higher living standards for their populations is a sore that cannot be erased by carefully worded documents.

A key factor in the Catholic Church’s approach to climate change is that it does not see the current economic crisis and global warming as separate issues. With its huge congregations in sub-Saharan Africa it is acutely aware of the issues surrounding equity, and the increased stresses that are being placed on these communities.

Martin Palmer, Secretary General of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) told RTCC: “We have to put all this in context…for the mainstream churches climate change is not the major issue…it is a manifestation of the major issues, which are sin, greed, arrogance, sloth and evil. What’s happening to the environment is part of a deeper problem.”

And it is not just the Catholic Church that is taking a stand. The Anglican Communion under Archbishop Rowan Williams has long warned of the dangers of climate change, while in the USA the powerful Evangelical movement has been putting huge pressure on the White House to change its policies.

Boasting global congregations numbering in the billions, and not subject to four year terms or stringent economic targets, the world’s religions are one of the more potent political weapons against global warming.

Accused of being off the pace on a number of issues, a renewed focus on environmental degradation and poverty alleviation from the Christian Church this Christmas could prove a catalyst for more effective political leadership in the new year.

Which is why despite the Catholic Church’s unrivalled propensity to shoot itself in the foot, and a legion of recent scandals, we should not underestimate the power of the words one old man will utter to the faithful in St Peter’s Square on Christmas Day.

To contact the author email [email protected] or Tweet @rtcc_edking

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Watch Indian negotiator Jayanthi Natarajan address the COP17 plenary and voice her concerns about the lack of ‘equity’ in the discussions.

India negotiator Jayanthi Natarajan 11/12 from Responding to Climate Change on Vimeo.

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