Pope Summons Scientists to Shape Climate Change Debate

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Pope Francis
Pope Francis blesses the faitfhul during his weekly general audience at the Vatican on April 15. Photographer: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

Pope Francis summoned scientists, government officials and religious leaders to a villa in the manicured Vatican Gardens on Tuesday as he stepped into the heated climate-change debate.

“Climate change is a defining issue of our time,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon told attendees at the Vatican conference. “It is a moral issue, it is an issue of social justice, human rights and fundamental ethics.”

The conference, which is being held under the auspices of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, precedes a papal encyclical scheduled for publication in June. The encyclical, a letter to the world’s bishops but with broader resonance because of the pope’s moral and political authority, will aim to influence a UN summit in Paris at the end of the year, at which nations may pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The pontiff’s action on climate change “is the most aggressive of any pope,” John Thavis, author of “The Vatican Diaries”, said in a telephone interview. “Francis won’t just repeat platitudes in the encyclical about our being stewards of creation, he wants to engage scientific and political leaders, and influence public policy.”

“Corporations and financial investors must learn to put long-term sustainability over short-term profit and to recognize that the financial bottom line is secondary to and at the service of the common good,” Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, told the scientists, government representatives, religious leaders and business figures attending Tuesday’s conference.

Secret Encyclical

Although the encyclical is so far secret, the official program for the Vatican conference offers some clues as to what the leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics will write.

The notes say the meeting’s goal is to raise awareness “with a special focus on the most vulnerable” and “to elevate the debate on the moral dimensions of protecting the environment”. It also seeks to build “a global movement across all religions for sustainable development.”

The outcome, the notes add, will be a joint statement on “the moral and religious imperative” of sustainable development, underscoring “respect for people - especially the poor, the excluded, victims of human trafficking and modern slavery, children and future generations.”

These themes echo the 78-year-old pope’s call for “a poor church for the poor” just after his election in March 2013, and his choice of the papal name “Francis,” itself harking back to Saint Francis of Assisi. The saint lived in poverty and was declared the patron saint of ecology by Pope John Paul II in 1979 for his love of animals and the environment.

According to Vatican watchers, the pope is expected to insist that both rich and developing nations have an obligation to act and fund measures against climate change, despite several developing countries blaming richer nations for the problem.

Moral Issues

“For Francis climate change has a scientific side, but we all have to discuss the moral issues too. He sees climate change weighing the most on the poorest people, and he’ll likely say that developing countries have the political and economic power to act,” Thavis said.

Even before he publishes his encyclical the pope - who trained as a chemist before entering the priesthood - has drawn fire from critics who say he has no business meddling in a scientific issue like climate change.

“The Pope has no special knowledge, insight or teaching authority pertaining to matters of empirical fact of the sort investigated by, for example, physicists and biologists,” Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, wrote in the Christian journal First Things in January.

High Hopes

For Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, senior analyst with the National Catholic Reporter newspaper, the pope has very high hopes for his encyclical. “The pope wants to make the environment one of the signature issues of his papacy,” Reese wrote last week.

Reese recalled the pope’s comments to journalists shortly after his election. The pope explained he had chosen the name Francis partly because St Francis was “the man who loves and protects creation.” The pope added: “These days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we?”

In January 2014, he told diplomats at the Vatican: “God always forgives, we sometimes forgive, but when nature -- creation -- is mistreated, she never forgives.”

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