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The moral dimension of climate change – and of courage to address it

15 January 2016

Implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change sharpened discussion of the 2015 papal encyclical Laudato Si’ at a UN conference initiated by the Holy See and several permanent missions to the UN on 15 January in Geneva.

Among the presenters at the conference were keynoter Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace; Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, apostolic nuncio at the Holy See’s permanent mission to the United Nations; and World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit.

The encyclical, issued six months before the historic COP21 meeting in Paris last fall, was credited by participants with energizing discussion of the underlying moral imperative of addressing climate change in advance of the negotiations of 195 nations there.

“Laudato si’ catalyzes what churches in various parts of the world and the WCC have been saying about the intimate relationship between the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Presented explicitly by Pope Francis as part of the social doctrine of the church, it marks a turning point by including creation as a key concern and integral ecology as part of the teaching of the church” said Guillermo Kerber, WCC programme executive for Care for Creation and Climate Justice.

Its breadth, said French ambassador María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, makes the encyclical the best example of comprehensive reflection on the deeper philosophical, ethical and broadly social dimensions posed by the contemporary crisis. In fact, said Tomasi, it regards not climate change only but “one complex crisis that is both social and environmental.”

Pointing to a distorted notion of the person as the root cause of the crisis, Pope Francis “urges each of us to an ecological conversion,” said Cardinal Turkson.  COP21 “can enable all of us to make a new start,” a radical turn toward comprehensive solutions for the environmental and social aspects of our collective crisis. “Every decision carries a profound moral dimension,” said Turkson, and we need to engage with the world’s poor as well as with nature.

“We received the earth as a garden,” he said. “We cannot pass it on as a wilderness.”

Roots of moral change

“Quick and effective action” is needed to implement the Paris accord, said UN chief Michael Møller, director general of the UN in Geneva. “The moral leadership of religious communities is crucial.”

The Paris Agreement, which committed nations to limiting climate change to 2 degrees Celsius, will necessitate extensive and substantial economic, political, and lifestyle changes.  “The problem is courage and imagination,” said Moy Hitchen, a Christian Brother representing Edmund Rice International at the meeting.” “What has been missing is the will to implement” the policies and practices that we already know of, he said.

How does one nurture and stimulate the courage among all actors to make the radical changes needed?  Tveit pointed to the quality of hope.

“Confronted with a global crisis of life that has political, economic, ecological, social, cultural and religious dimensions, we begin to see the deep need for change and transformation to sustain life on our planet,” he said. Yet “there are reasons to hope,” he said, pointing to the widespread engagement of churches and individuals in the lead-up to Paris.

“To nurture hope is a fundamental ethical principle in any human relation. It is not a matter of being purely optimistic, or even unrealistic or ignoring risks and problems. It is rather a matter of identifying those realities that are authentic signs of hope.”

Continuing, he observed, “All human beings have a right to hope. Faith in God, who desires fullness of life for all of humanity, is a way to relate to the world as it is with the conviction and the commitment that something more and better is possible than what we can observe immediately. This is one contribution to hope. Therefore we also need to renew a theology of hope. A relevant question in the critique of religion is: are religions and religious leaders conveying hope for all?”

Concluding, he remarked, “It is time for those who shape the moral discourse about sustainable values for the earth as our common home and the human family to point more to the possibilities existing presently to do what serves the future of our planet.”

Read the presentation by Olav Fykse Tveit

See the WCC’s programme on climate justice