So, September 2023 was the hottest ever September in the UK. And the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation expects 2023 to be the hottest year humanity has ever experienced.
What warnings do we see on the ground this week? Wildfires have flared up again in Tenerife and Indonesia, with thousands fleeing their homes. More than 100 people have been washed away in the north-eastern state of Sikkim in India after heavy rain over a mountain lake triggered massive floods. Roads and rail lines were flooded in Scotland after deluges last weekend. Storms this year have generally unleashed more intense rainfall because a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture.
Well, we can’t say the Catholic Church is not in touch with these concerns. On 4 October, the Feast of St Francis – Pope Francis released Laudate Deum, the follow-up document to the landmark environment encyclical of 2015, Laudato Si. In this papal exhortation, he says responses to the concerns raised in Laudato Si’ were “not adequate” and “the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point.” Of particular concern is the disastrous impact on poor and vulnerable communities, particularly in the global south.
These apocalyptic words and not a message any of us want to hear, but Pope Francis is recognising in the climate crisis a key sign of our times. This is another landmark document, and it picks up on concerns that Columbans have raised for more than three decades. Why is it so important?
Focus on ‘climate crisis’
The fact that Pope Francis uses the term ‘global climate crisis’ rather than ‘climate change’ is very significant. “Despite all attempts to deny, conceal, gloss over or relativise the issue, the signs of climate change are here and increasingly evident,” he says. Extreme weather phenomena are caused by a “global imbalance” and he specifies the cause – “unchecked human intervention on nature in the past two centuries”.
The high temperatures are frightening but they could be used by responsible politicians and economic leaders to build the momentum that is needed for an accelerated green transition. And this will mean an urgent move away from burning fossil fuels which channel greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Giorgio Parisi, the Nobel prize-winning physicist, has said Laudate Deum “accurately describes the situation” based on scientific data. He points out that Francis is speaking with authority and responding to climate change sceptics/deniers, including those inside the Church.
Scientists have already been telling us that every time the global temperature increases by 0.5° C, the intensity and frequency of heavy rains and floods increase in some areas severe droughts in others, extreme heat waves in some places and heavy snowfall in others. They warn that if it should rise above 2 degrees, the icecaps of Greenland and a large part of Antarctica will melt completely, with grave consequences for everyone. Low-lying areas of the UK, such as East Anglia, would be underwater. Francis highlights that the speed of accelerated warming means it is happening within only one generation, not centuries or millennia.
Unfortunately, that one generation is ours. It’s a toxic legacy for our children – and I think especially of my little grandchild of one-year-old – but we are feeling the impacts now. However, Pope Francis acknowledges that people with power and affluence are shielded from the worst impacts of the climate crisis by their financial resources – at least for now. But we are called to be guided in urgent action by the experience of vulnerable communities who cannot escape disasters.
Not just an environmental problem
Pope Francis describes the climate crisis as “a global social issue”. He suggests that “once and for all, let us put an end to the irresponsible derision that would present this issue as something purely ecological, ‘green’, romantic, frequently subject to ridicule by economic interests.” He calls the climate crisis “a human and social problem on any number of levels.”
Columban Sean McDonagh pointed this out 30 years ago in his first book, ‘To Care for the Earth’, based on his experience in the Philippines. This week, Josianne Gauthier, secretary general of CIDSE, an umbrella organisation for Catholic development agencies in Europe and North America, said: “We cannot continue to hide from the reality and our shared responsibility towards ecological destruction. The violence towards the planet and the poor are both being fuelled by an unjust economic system, where power is concentrated in the hands of the few.”
African bishops refer to the climate crisis as an example of social sin. Laudate Deum says, “The reality is that a low, richer percentage of the planet contaminates more than the poorest 50% of the total world population and that per capita emissions of the richer countries are much greater than those of the poorer ones.” It asks, “how can we forget that Africa, home to more than half of the world’s poorest people, is responsible for a minimal portion of historic emissions?”
Energy transition from fossil fuels urgent
Politicians and business leaders should be giving priority to the transition to renewable forms of energy, as well as efforts to adapt to the damage caused by climate change. Francis says “the countless jobs in different sectors” that could be generated is very welcome.
Francis addresses political power and propaganda, as well as challenging the common understanding of what progress is, inviting us all to reflect on the true social and environmental costs of our current economic and technocratic model. Too often we have the belief that a technological fix will solve the climate crisis. This perspective is not based on science. We must be humble and acknowledge that humanity is part of a whole web of life. Francis says, “God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement”. Care for Creation is a key component of Catholic Social Teaching and we are called to be more sensitive to it.
Role of radical groups
Francis defends climate protesters, saying, “the actions of groups negatively portrayed as ‘radicalised’, are in reality filling a space left empty by society as a whole, which ought to exercise a healthy ‘pressure’, since every family ought to realise that the future of their children is at stake.”
‘The Big One’ event in April showed the power of friendly protest but also its limitations. Christian Climate Action, Westminster Justice and Peace, Columban missionaries were among 200 groups involved in three days of calling for more serious climate action. More than 60,000 people marched – families, doctors, scientists, and religious and social justice groups from around the country descended on Westminster. Despite the positive energy and momentum generated by ‘The Big One’, it didn’t attract the same level of media coverage as disruptive protests by handfuls of people. Smaller protests were also held outside all the major government departments, demanding they change their destructive policies. But the muted response from wider society left some people feeling frustrated. The Big One highlighted that friendly, non-confrontational protest tactics are simply not enough to convey urgency.
Regrettably, the climate crisis is not exactly a matter that interests the great economic powers, whose concern is with the greatest profit possible at minimal cost and in the shortest amount of time. What is being asked of us is nothing other than a certain responsibility for the legacy we will leave behind once we pass from this world. Radical groups take this responsibility and we must remember that protest – as long as it is nonviolent – is a fundamental part of democracy. Christian Climate Action will be holding prayer vigils on 16 and 18 October outside a London hotel hosting an Oil and Money Conference – I might well join them!
Hope for COP28
Francis calls for hope in the multilateral process for climate action, specifically that COP28 in Dubai during December is a turning point. We must retain hope that COP28 will allow for a decisive acceleration of energy transition, with effective commitments subject to ongoing monitoring. “We must move beyond the mentality of appearing to be concerned but not having the courage needed to produce substantial changes,” says Francis. Speaking as part of a Columban missionaries’ delegation at the 2015 UN climate talks in Paris and the 2021 talks in Glasgow, I say AMEN to that. Too often promises made are not implemented, by the UK government, or by others.
Francis says, “may those taking part in the Conference be strategists capable of considering the common good and the future of their children, more than the short-term interests of certain countries or businesses.” And we have plenty of opportunities to lobby them through Columban campaigning work.