People and Planet First: The Imperative to Change Course

27th August 2015

To mark the publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, some 200 invited participants attended the above conference in the Vatican in July. This was a highly significant event confirming the commitment of Pope Francis to the themes of environmental stewardship and tackling climate change. This very readable document was his first encyclical and in it the Pope called for an ethical and economic revolution to prevent catastrophic climate change and growing inequality. In what was an endorsement of the environmental movement from the world’s oldest and largest international organisation, Pope Francis also called for urgent and far reaching cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, including moving away from fossil fuels and developing renewable energy sources. As part of a lead-up to the crucial Paris Conference in November, when a global agreement is hoped for, the encyclical provided a powerful contribution and stressed the need for an internationally supervised agreement to ensure national and local efforts deliver on their commitments. He emphasised the need to move away from a solely economics-based view of the natural world and reminded people that climate change is essentially a moral and ethical problem. Our disconnect with the natural world is leading, he says, to an ecological crisis of our own making as our ‘throw away’ society destroys ‘our common home’.

The main theme of the conference was that of climate justice, essentially that the burdens imposed by the main greenhouse gas emitters on the poor should be recompensed and that the ‘polluter pays’ principle should be recognised. Speakers, including Mary Robinson and best-selling author Naomi Klein, as well as those with on-the-ground experience of climate injustice from Amazonia and central Africa presented highly compelling presentations in support of this theme. Irish attendees included representatives of Trocaire, Fr. Sean McDonagh, and Professor John Sweeney.

The issues raised are highly relevant to Ireland, which has one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emission rates in the world. It is also relevant to the weak Climate and Low Carbon Development Bill, currently making its way through the Oireachtas. In the encyclical itself, Pope Francis was particularly critical of the failings of political leadership and praised the work of non-governmental organisations and civil society groups in holding politicians, paralysed by vested interest groups into inaction, to account.