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States commit to care for the "common home".

The Catholic Church is no stranger to the important global challenge of reversing the effects of climate change affecting the entire planet. Pope Francis set out the moral path to be followed in his encyclical Laudato si, some of whose lessons have been reflected in the agreement reached at the recent Paris climate summit.

Emilio Chuvieco-January 3, 2016-Reading time: 9 minutes

Pope Francis' recent encyclical Laudato si The framework outlines a theological and moral framework for our relationship with the environment, our relationship with the environment, and our relationship with the environment. "caring for the common home"as this document is subtitled. The text aroused enormous interest in the media and among scholars from various disciplines related to the environment. Part of this controversy was a consequence of its clear position in favor of considering the adoption of substantial commitments to care for nature as a moral duty.

Green conversion

The Pope advocates for a new vision of the environment, which he calls "green conversion". (a term already coined by John Paul II). In the Christian tradition, the word conversion indicates a change of direction. In short, the Pope is asking us in the encyclical for a substantial modification in our relationship with nature, which would lead us to consider ourselves as part of it, rather than as mere users of its resources. "Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the problems that are appearing around the degradation of the environment, the depletion of natural reserves and pollution. It should be a different outlook, a way of thinking, a policy, an educational program, a lifestyle and a spirituality that form a resistance to the advance of the technocratic paradigm." (n. 111).

The attitude of many Catholics to the encyclical ranges from surprise to suspicion. They are confused because they think that environmental issues are marginal, have no relevance compared to many other issues where the future of the family and society is at stake, and do not understand why the Pope is dedicating an encyclical to them. They do not dare to criticize it openly (after all, it is a text of the Pope, and has the highest doctrinal rank of those issued by the Holy See), so they either silence it, or they interpret it by extracting from the text what they understand to be the most substantial (basically the most traditional, what they expected to read). However, a careful reading of the papal text allows us to see how care for nature is not alien to the Catholic tradition, nor is it a marginal issue, but is perfectly in line with the social doctrine of the Church, since environmental and social problems are intimately related.

Re-engineering the system

Those Catholics who have most openly criticized the encyclical do so from a wide variety of positions, but to some extent converge in their disagreement about the seriousness of the environmental situation or the causes of this deterioration. According to them, the scientific controversy has not been taken into account, particularly in the case of climate change, thus riskily endorsing a biased approach to the issue. If environmental problems are not as serious as described by the Pope, or if humans are not responsible for them, it seems that the moral implications and the theological basis for environmental care, which is the main message of the Laudato si.

However, as has been pointed out by leading researchers, the encyclical presents a fairly even-handed view of what we currently know about the state of the planet, based on the best scientific information available to us. As for the Pope's criticisms of the current economic model, it seems to identify the denunciation of the excesses of a system with its frontal opposition. The current model of progress has many problems, which the most lucid thinkers have denounced on numerous occasions. Among them, it is evident that it does not make people happier and that it is environmentally unsustainable. It is not a question of returning to the Paleolithic or endorsing communism (which, by the way, has a lamentable environmental record), but of redirecting the current capitalist system, especially as regards financial capitalism, giving priority to human needs and balance with the environment as opposed to the selfish accumulation of resources that opens the gap between countries and social classes, which discards people and other created beings alike.

Certainly, climate change is the environmental issue where the need to adopt a moral commitment that will help to drastically change the observed trends is most evident. On the one hand, it is a global problem that can only be solved with the cooperation of all countries, since it affects everyone, albeit with varying degrees of responsibility. On the other hand, it implies a clear exercise of the precautionary principle, which leads to the adoption of effective measures when the potential risk is reasonably high.

Finally, it considers the interests of the most vulnerable people, the poorest societies, who are already experiencing the effects of the changes, as well as future generations.

Strong measures

The encyclical devotes paragraphs in several sections to climate change, showing the seriousness of the problem: "Climate change is a global problem with serious environmental, social, economic, distributional and political dimensions, and poses one of today's major challenges to humanity. The worst impacts are likely to fall in the coming decades on developing countries" (n. 25). Consequently, the Pope exhorts us to adopt strong measures to mitigate it: "Humanity is called upon to become aware of the need to make changes in lifestyles, production and consumption in order to combat this warming or, at least, the human causes that produce or accentuate it" (n. 22).

The recent Paris climate summit adopted for the first time a global agreement that involves all countries and has a clear objective: to avoid exceeding the limit of 2 degrees Celsius in the increase of the planet's temperature above pre-industrial levels. It also recognizes the different responsibilities of each country in the problem, urging the more developed countries to collaborate to generate a fund (estimated at 100 billion dollars a year) to enable the less advanced countries to advance their economies with cleaner technologies. The most debatable points of the agreement are the lack of binding commitments on the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by each country, although they are required to have national reduction plans and to report to the agreement's monitoring committee on trends using a common protocol for all countries.

To better understand the importance of this agreement, it is worth recalling that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Since then, the signatories to the agreement (in practice all UN member countries) have been meeting to assess the situation and reach agreements to mitigate the foreseeable effects of climate change. Of these annual meetings (called COP, conference of the parties), the most important was the one held in Kyoto (Japan) in 1997, where the first binding agreement to reduce emissions was signed, although it only affected developed countries. The Kyoto Protocol was ratified by all the countries of the world, with the exception of the United States. Although its reduction targets were modest, it was a first step in raising awareness of the need for global agreements on this issue. At the Copenhagen summit in 2009, the aim was to extend the binding commitment to all countries, including the emerging economies, which already accounted for a significant percentage of emissions, but the agreement failed and it was agreed to continue negotiations to propose a more stable framework to replace Kyoto, which was due to expire in 2012.

Three blocks

Basically, the positions that were expressed at that time, and which were again expressed at the Paris COP, can be summarized in three blocks: on the one hand, the European Union and other developed countries, such as Japan, in favor of a more ambitious and binding agreement, particularly in the use of renewable energies; on the other hand, the United States and other developed countries, plus the oil producers, who did not want to adopt binding agreements if they did not affect the emerging countries, currently responsible for the greatest increase in emissions; and finally, this group of countries with high industrial growth, the so-called G-77, which includes China, Brazil, India, Mexico, Indonesia and other developing economies that do not yet have the technology or the economic capacity to fuel their economic growth without using their fossil fuels. They say they are not responsible for the problem and that they need to develop their economies, while the United States argues that, without a commitment from these countries, their efforts would be in vain. In reality, there is a final group, that of the poorest countries, which suffer the consequences of global warming without being responsible for its generation and which suffer from the lack of truly effective agreements.

After several COPs where progress was very modest, the Paris conference was considered key to promoting a more lasting agreement to continue the Kyoto Protocol. Finally, after tough negotiations between the aforementioned groups of countries, an agreement was reached that can be considered global, since, as mentioned above, it affects all countries for the first time, not only the economically developed ones. In this sense, it can be considered the first environmental treaty with planetary characteristics, which gives an idea of the seriousness with which climate change is currently being addressed.

Causes of heating

There are already very few voices critical of the scientific basis of the problem, since the accumulation of evidence in very diverse fields of knowledge points in a consistent direction. The global warming of the planet is evident in the loss of the arctic and Antarctic ice surface (mainly the former), in the retreat of glaciers, in the rise in sea level, in the geographical mobility of species, as well as in the temperature of air and water. The causes also point in an increasingly evident direction, since other factors of natural origin, such as variations in solar radiation or volcanic activity, which obviously played a leading role in the climatic changes that occurred in other periods of the planet's geological history, have been discarded. Consequently, it is highly probable that the main cause of warming is the reinforcement of the greenhouse effect produced by the emission of GHGs (CO2, NOx, CH4emissions), resulting from the combustion of coal, oil and gas, associated with energy generation, as well as the loss of forest masses as a consequence of agricultural expansion.

As is well known, the greenhouse effect is natural and key to life on earth (our planet would be 33º C colder in its absence). The problem is that we are reinforcing this effect in a very short time, which implies an imbalance of many other processes and can have catastrophic consequences if drastic measures are not taken to mitigate it. The earth has been warmer than now, no doubt, but it is also key to consider that these natural changes have occurred over a very long time cycle (centuries or millennia), and what we observe now is occurring very quickly, in decades or even years, which will make it very difficult for plant and animal species to adapt.

If the main cause of the problem is GHG emissions, the best remedy would be to reduce them by being more efficient in the use of energy or producing it from other sources (renewable, nuclear). As this is a key sector of economic development, it is understandable why poor countries are reluctant to impose restrictions on themselves when they have not caused the problem, and why rich countries are concerned about the impact that such an effort will have on their economies. For most scientists, it is essential to take these measures so that the situation does not reach a point of no return, endangering the future habitability of the planet. This goal is now set at a 2ºC increase over the average temperature of the industrial period. At present, an increase of 1ºC has been recorded, while the concentration of CO2 for example has risen from 280 parts per million (ppm) to over 400 ppm. The foreseeable impacts are based on our best current knowledge of how the climate works, which is still imprecise. However, the potential global effects are very serious and may drastically affect different species, animal and plant, as well as human activities: loss of glaciers, which are key resources for the water supply of many peoples; sea level rises that will mainly affect large coastal urban agglomerations; greater droughts in already semi-arid areas; more intense flooding in some places; or even, paradoxically, a cooling of the climate in northern Europe, due to the alteration of ocean currents. Regionally, there may also be positive impacts, such as improved agricultural yields in cold areas of Central Asia or North America, but the overall balance can be considered very worrying, with possible feedback effects that could become catastrophic.

Common commitment

The Paris agreement is actually a "roadmap" indicating agreement on the seriousness of the problem and the need to collaborate globally to solve it, or at least mitigate it. It represents a common commitment by all countries to take effective action towards an economic transition to less dependence on fossil fuels. More ambitious commitments will still need to be made, but at least it shows three very positive elements: 1) willingness to collaborate between developed and developing countries, 2) recognition of the different responsibilities for the problem, and 3) acceptance that individual interests need to take precedence over the common good.

These three principles are at the core of the Laudato si. Although not explicitly stated, there is no doubt, in my opinion, that Pope Francis is also part of the success of the Paris agreement. His undoubted moral leadership and the clarity with which he has spoken out on this issue have made many leaders reflect on the need to go a step further, to put aside particular interests and seek a consensus based on the honest pursuit of the common good. In this sense, he affirms in the Laudato si: "International negotiations cannot make significant progress because of the positions of countries that privilege their national interests over the global common good." (n. 169). It is a commitment, moreover, that recognizes diverse responsibilities, since contributions to the common climate fund will be proportional to the wealth of each country, as Pope Francis also recommended: "It is necessary that developed countries contribute to solving this debt by significantly limiting the consumption of non-renewable energy and providing resources to the countries most in need to support sustainable development policies and programs [...]. For this reason, it is necessary to maintain a clear awareness that there are diversified responsibilities in climate change." (n. 52). The impact on the poorest countries and future generations cannot be ignored: "We can no longer speak of sustainable development without intergenerational solidarity." (n. 159).

I am sure that Pope Francis will have rejoiced enormously at the Paris agreement, and I am also sure that he will remember in the future the importance of complying with it and of continuing to move forward along these lines in order to mitigate the threats that the impacts of climate change can bring to the most vulnerable societies. I am also sure that his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who had also spoken with great clarity and forcefulness on this issue, will have rejoiced at this news. And not just spoken, but also acted, making Vatican City in 2007 the world's first CO2by covering the entire surface of the Paul VI Hall with solar panels. The Church not only preaches but also tries to put into practice what it recommends.

The authorEmilio Chuvieco

Professor of Geography at the University of Alcalá.

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