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Vatican presses COP21 negotiators for strong climate agreement

  • Papal officials have been making the rounds of global leaders since the Vatican released Pope Francis’ landmark environmental and climate change encyclical last June.
  • “We are seeking to be a kind of catalyst” of effective climate change diplomacy, said Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, head of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, in an exclusive interview with
  • While the Pope’s delegation has no negotiating power, the Vatican’s COP21 team has worked behind the scenes to remind negotiators of how vital a climate agreement is to the preservation of the environment and to protecting the world’s poor and most vulnerable.
Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, head of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace at a COP21 press conference in Paris. Photo by Justin Catanoso

Pope Francis released his Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home in June, and Church officials have been spreading the word about this climate change and environmental protection teaching document ever since — from America to Africa, and now to the UN Climate Summit in Paris. The Catholic Church has a major delegation at the event.

“We are seeking to be a kind of catalyst,” said Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, the head of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, in an exclusive interview with “This is already happening. We have spoken at world events. We have encouraged bishops in different countries to take the message to their heads of state. Our hope as we came to Paris was that those leaders would feel our moral support and trust.”

The impact of those urgings on the COP21 negotiations is difficult to assess. The four-person delegation from the Holy See, which kept a low profile until Tuesday, has been able to sit in on all negotiations. But it was not given status to negotiate.

“We have seen a universal willingness to arrive at an accord that is ambitious, legally binding and transformative. But we have noted a number of substantial difficulties, too,” reported Monsignor Bernadito Auza, speaking at a COP21 press conference. He is the Vatican’s representative to the UN, and a member of the summit delegation.

Those difficulties, Auza said, often turn on the relative wealth of nations, and how badly those countries are being ravaged by global warming.

Reverence for the earth vs. jobs for the poor

While reporting in Peru last summer, I met with poor miners who, though they expressed their love and respect for Francis as the first Latin American pope, also expressed fears that his uncompromising stand on environmental protection could cost them their jobs.

Pope Francis, one of the most popular leaders on the world stage, in Paraguay this summer. The Pope’s tour of South America focused on his climate change and environment encyclical. Photo by Hazaña17 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

I shared the miners’ thoughts with Cardinal Turkson at COP21, who responded: “This pope is the last person who wants to take away people’s jobs. It’s not possible that the same pope who challenges the church to create jobs for people and tells fathers who cannot put bread on the family table that they are people who risk their dignity. We cannot have a pope talk so much about having jobs, and still have people think he wants to take away those jobs.”

Instead, Turkson stressed, the world’s nations owe their citizens better, safer jobs — jobs that will enable them to make a living, but not compromise their health or the well-being of their families and planet. That is a key teaching of Laudato Si, that must be learned, he said.

Pope watchers say that Francis, while not leading the debate in Paris, has used his unprecedented encyclical — the first ever on a non-religious topic — to help pave the way for successful climate talks.

Recognizing a vacuum in global leadership in aggressively attacking and reducing carbon emissions, Francis — one of the most popular and influential leaders on earth — wanted to establish a moral presence at COP21 to remind policy makers that he himself expects them to achieve their best.

Pope Francis speaks to the US Congress, a body that has strongly resisted passing climate change legislation. Photo courtesy of the US Capitol

“We are here to try to provide a moral boost,” Turkson said. “The point of the encyclical is to provide moral fiber and stimulus [as] Pope Francis focuses on, and identifies, certain fragilities within human society, like abusive treatment of both the earth and the poor.”

For 18 months, Turkson was the pope’s point man in pulling together global experts in climate science, capital markets, sociology, economics and theology for the drafting of Laudato Si. He is now an expert on these matters, and speaks confidently about both climate science and the pope’s most important focus — respect and protection of the poor.

“The big thing the Vatican is here to do is draw attention to the vulnerabilities, such as the air itself,” Turkson said at COP21, on a day when Beijing, China, was so choked with smog that it made front-page news with an emergency edict telling citizens not to go outdoors. “The treatment [of the earth] is abusive. Then there are the vulnerable populations, the poor, people living on the periphery. These people are excluded and must be invited into the mainstream.”

No blame for capitalists and carbon polluters

At an afternoon COP21 press conference, Turkson took things a step further. The Vatican does not seek to point fingers of blame “at those who have contributed the most to the problem,” he said, parties that include the United States, the European Union and China among other industrial nations. “What we seek is the solidarity of the human family as we pursue solutions.”

Cardinal Turkson has become an expert on climate science and policy and contributed heavily to the Pope’s encyclical on climate and the environment. Photo by Justin Catanoso

Earlier in the day, he told “Most urgently now is to recognize that some island nations stand the chance of losing their land to sea-level rise. We have received bishops from those places. They have come to Rome and told us their stories. Part of that was the motivation for the encyclical. It’s a point of reference wherever we go.”

Now it’s all about spreading the word, he said. “The pontifical council [in Rome] is set up to push the message out to all the [Catholic] dioceses in the world. Every diocese is encouraged to have a commission on justice and peace. From there [the message] must get to the parishes and the Catholic schools. The priests must be educated. If they don’t know about [environmental and climate change risks], then you have a lot of people in pews who don’t know anything about it either.”

Pope Francis and his delegation in Paris are clearly playing a long game, recognizing it will take years for the encyclical to become as ingrained as other church teachings, and for Catholics to come to see climate change and the environment as a moral issue. That’s fine. But the government leaders negotiating at the UN climate summit? They need to be aggressive, said Cardinal Turkson. They — and we — are running out of time.

“Humanity is one family,” Turkson said. “As brothers and sisters, we have only one common home. The earth was given to us as a garden. Let’s not make it uninhabitable for the children who come after us.”


Justin Catanoso is director of journalism at Wake Forest University. His reporting is sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, D.C., and the Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability at Wake Forest.