Recalling Columban presence at the Paris Climate Talks

Ellen Teague reflects on the Paris Climate Talks five years ago and looks at the role the Church played in pushing for an international agreement to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Ellen Teague with Fr. Charles Rue at the Paris Climate Talks in 2015.

I know exactly where I was on this weekend five years ago. I was in Paris with a Columban delegation lobbying the UN Climate talks. I’ve been looking over my 10 blogs for ICN – given below – and celebrating the role the Church played in pushing for an international agreement to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Those ten days saw the arrival in Paris of People’s Pilgrimage walkers from around the world, and the Laudato Si’ Westminster J&P cyclists from Britain. We watched Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, cry as she received the faiths’ petitions at an event just before the talks started. “The powerful faiths lobby will empower those working on the COP21 agreement to be bold” she told us.

Cardinal Claudio Hummes from Brazil spoke about Laudato Si’ at that gathering and was the first to recommend a target goal of limiting global temperatures to a 1.5 degree rise. Before that the figure had been 2.0 degrees. While music played at the end of the meeting, dancing erupted spontaneously around the hall at Saint-Denis and we left feeling inspired and hopeful. And indeed an Agreement was reached and signed on 12 December.

The Global Catholic Climate Movement had one of its first gatherings in Paris and has gone on to become a powerful focus for Catholic action and reflection, particularly pushing the Season of Creation celebration. Columban Missionaries and Westminster J&P sat alongside CIDSE, Trocaire, Ecojesuit, Franciscans International, and a number of missionary groups. Ghanaian Archbishop Gabriel Justice Yaw Anokye of Kumasi, the President of Caritas Africa and the second vice-president of Caritas Internationalis, was at one end of the room and Yeb Sano, the famous Filipino climate campaigner at the other. New campaigns such as fossil fuel divestment and the halting of new coal-fired power stations were all discussed, along with awareness-raising based on the then new encyclical, ‘Laudato Si’.

On Saturday 12 December I will be joining a webinar that coincides with the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement signing. This is part of Pope Francis’ Commission on the response to COVID-19 and building on faiths’ contributions to reaching the Agreement in 2015. One speaker will be Cardinal Peter Turkson, Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and representing the Vatican Commission.

Of course, we’re still at it – tackling what is now called, the ‘climate crisis’ and trying to get that Agreement implemented. Over the past five years climate instability has been wreaking havoc across the world. Record heatwaves, more frequent hurricanes, bigger floods and more devastating droughts are already destroying the livelihoods, health and lives of millions of people. And those most affected are people in the global south. Key witnesses to it are communities of faith, including Columbans in the Philippines, Pakistan and Fiji. Fr Charles Rue, an Australian Columban who was in Paris, regularly writes liturgy materials linking faith and ecology.

This week the prime minister vowed to cut emissions by 68% by 2030 based on 1990 levels. Making the new pledge, Boris Johnson urged other world leaders to follow with ambitious targets at the virtual climate summit he is hosting on 12 December, and all this leading up to the November 2021 COP26 climate talks in Glasgow. Scientists have urged him to impose policies to back up his ambitions. And what about tackling the top 20 fossil fuel corporations which contribute more than one third of global emissions. Not only have they failed to make the shift towards a zero carbon economy, they’ve spent a lot of time and money persuading governments not to legislate for this either. They are also preventing governments from implementing laws and policies that will protect the environment by suing them in corporate courts to protect their profits. It is almost unbelievable, but it is happening.

Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, said recently: “The economic power of faiths, turned to responsible investments and the green economy, can be a major driver of positive change, and an inspiration to others, as we rebuild better.” Five years ago, the Paris Climate Agreement seemed to be the end result of years of work, including the commitment of people of faith. Now we know that in terms of hearing “the cry of the Earth and the poor” and of coordinated international action, it was just the beginning.

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Read all ten of Ellen's ICN blogs on the Paris Climate Talks.

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