A group of Catholic Bishops called on the world’s governments to end fossil fuel use on Wednesday, citing climate change’s threat to the global poor as the lodestar of their concern.
According to the BBC, the statement is the first time senior officials in the Church from every continent have issued such a call. The statement also drops in the middle of ongoing international climate talks in Lima, Peru, as countries continue to hash out what to do about climate change in the run-up to a summit in 2015, where observers and activists hope a new international agreement will be finalized.
“We express an answer to what is considered God’s appeal to take action on the urgent and damaging situation of global climate warming,” the bishops wrote.
Striking a similar note to Naomi Klein’s recent book, “This Changes Everything,” the bishops’ statement also argued that global capitalism and its economic systems, as currently designed, are incompatible with long-term ecological sustainability: “The main responsibility for this situation lies with the dominant global economic system, which is a human creation. In viewing objectively the destructive effects of a financial and economic order based on the primacy of the market and profit, which has failed to put the human being and the common good at the heart of the economy, one must recognize the systemic failures of this order and the need for a new financial and economic order.”
The document calls on the international community to “adopt a fair and legally binding global agreement” to cut carbon emissions at the summit in Paris next year. Specifically, the bishops insist on limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C relative to pre-industrial levels — a considerably more ambitious goal than the 2°C ceiling that’s generally agreed on as the threshold beyond which climate change becomes truly dangerous — and on building “new models of development and lifestyles that are both climate compatible” and can “bring people out of poverty.”
“Central to this is to put an end to the fossil fuel era, phasing out fossil fuel emissions and phasing in 100 percent renewables with sustainable energy access for all.”
The goal of reducing global carbon emissions to zero is already making the rounds in Lima, and the Associated Press reports that dozens of governments are on board with the idea. At its current rate of emissions, the world will actually use up its “carbon budget” — the total amount of greenhouse gases it can emit this century and still stay under 2°C — by 2040, though slowing that rate in the coming years will extend the deadline.
The bishops’ logic and their goal for restraining temperature increase is rooted in prioritizing “the immediate needs of the most vulnerable communities.” Indeed, precisely because of their lack of resources and infrastructure, many of the globe’s poorest populations — particularly those in Southern Asia and Africa — are especially vulnerable to the droughts, floods, rising seas, storms, and other forms of extreme weather that are part and parcel of climate change. Meanwhile, a report released by the United Nations this past Friday determined that the amount poor and developing countries will have to collectively invest in adapting to climate change will run between $250 and $500 billion annually by 2050 even if the world does keep to the 2°C threshold. There’s also at least some scientific evidence that the effects of climate change at a 2°C rise will be considerably more severe than generally thought.
The U.N. report also determined that there is currently a massive gap between what the developing countries will need and what the developed world is willing to pay — a point of considerable tension in the international talks. While China has overtaken the United States as the biggest cumulative emitter, the U.S. maintains are far higher level of emissions per capita. Furthermore, climate change is cumulative, meaning the bulk of the effects are still driven by the carbon the U.S. and the rest of the western world historically emitted in the course of building their wealth. That greater wealth per person also means advanced countries have far more room to invest in cutting emissions and in aiding the still-developing neighbors.
“Those responsible for climate change have responsibilities to assist the most vulnerable in adapting and managing loss and damage and to share the necessary technology and knowhow,” the bishops continue, while insisting that 50 percent of all climate-related public funding go to meet the developing world’s adaptation needs.
While this is a first by some markers, the Bishops’ statement also continues a long tradition of engagement with environmental issues and climate change by the Catholic Church. Pope Francis himself has made the religious case for combating climate change, warning that “if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us!” Earlier this year, the Church held a five-day summit bringing together scientists, economists, philosophers, astronomers, and other experts to explore ways the Catholic church could address climate change and its related challenges. Francis has also singled out the destruction of the rainforest as a “sin,” as is working on an official papal encyclical tackling the environment and humanity’s relationship to it.