Bruce Duncan. Pope Francis & the bushfires.

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6 February 2020.

Pope Francis warned of the dangers of ‘catastrophic’ weather events, like savage fires resulting from climate change, in his 2015 document, Laudato Si’. He still refers to it constantly and gives copies to his visitors. It is the most authoritative of his writings, and has been widely acclaimed by experts in many fields, especially leading scientists, economists and climate specialists, as well as many international organisations.

Laudato Si’ is so significant since it deals with two of the most urgent global issues, climate change of course, as well as global inequality and the economic mechanisms driving increasing inequality.

Climate Change

The traumatic bushfires in Australia have forced climate change to the top of the political agenda, and concern has grown about the impact of higher temperatures resulting in rising sea levels, more ferocious storms, increasing droughts and the displacement of millions of people. Such scenarios are part of school curricula, and as we see in the climate school strikes and protests, youth people are greatly alarmed at the consequences of climate change for their own lives.

Why should we be surprised that the Swedish girl Greta Thunberg speaks so powerfully to the United Nations and at Davos? Her words are resonating around the world, and not just with youth. Seven million people marched in the climate strike protests in September. Half a million reportedly marched in Madrid on 6 December for the climate conference. Pope Francis encouraged Greta when they met on 16 April 2019 to keep going with what she was doing. ‘Thank you for standing up for the climate, for speaking the truth.’

Some critics think they are both too extreme in their views, but they are repeating the overwhelming warnings of climate scientists that the imminent disaster scenario is not fanciful or extreme, but the awful and shocking truth. Not to act now will result in even more frightful outcomes.

Inequality

Laudato Si’ also challenges the staggering inequality between rich and poor, with an unimaginable concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority, while hundreds of millions still struggle with great difficulty to feed their families or suffer from acute hunger. Attacks by Francis on such global injustice focus on the concentration of economic power in the hands of giant corporations, buttressed by the ideology of neoliberalism in economics, which assumes that the outcomes of poorly regulated free markets will produce the most efficient and fairest outcomes.

Francis argues that the international systems have been corrupted by giant corporations and other special interests, as we see in Australian royal commissions and other investigations into corporate malpractice. This worship of the ‘golden calf’ of money also risks destroying the resource base of the planet through destructive mining practices, deforestation of crucial rainforests, and failure to reduce emissions from fossil fuels especially, which produce the great majority of greenhouse gases.

Some critics of Pope Francis argue that this is not the business of the church, and dismiss his views as uninformed pontificating. In response, Francis reiterates that whatever involves human wellbeing, especially on such a planetary scale, is most certainly the Church’s business, for it is not hyperbole to say that lives are at stake, indeed hundreds of millions of them.

Collaboration

In drafting Laudato Si’, Francis has been astute in collaborating with leading world experts in economics, international affairs, governance and climate change. One of the world’s top authorities helped launch Laudato Si’ in Rome in 2015, Professor Hans Schellnhuber from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research. Leading economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs, with many others, were involved in consultations preparing Laudato Si’, and have strongly supported it. Stiglitz in his various books is a strong critic of this inequitable form of globalisation, blaming powerful special interests and neoliberal ideology. He writes that there is a moral crisis in economics itself as a discipline and among economists who allowed the Global Financial Crisis to happen. He warns that the world has still not learnt the lessons of the GFC.

Francis has also worked collaboratively with other Christian traditions and the world religions. After Laudato Si’, parallel statements on climate change came from leaders of Islamic, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist traditions.

The Pope prepared Laudato Si’ also in collaboration with the United Nations agencies as it worked to garner support from every country for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is no accident that Francis addressed the UN General Assembly almost immediately before the delegates voted overwhelmingly to approve the SDGs in September 2015. Sachs credited the Pope’s efforts in his speeches, meetings and late night phone calls to world leaders as helping ensure the success of the COP21 Paris climate summit in December 2015. Francis said that if leaders did not act for the common good, those who would suffer as a result ‘will not forget this failure of conscience and responsibility.’

These 17 SDGs are the world’s most significant program ever to tackle the great global problems of hunger, poverty, inequality, climate change, universal education, health care, reducing maternal deaths and mortality among children, providing sanitation and potable water for everyone, caring for the oceans and fish stocks, improving agriculture to sustain a population expected to grow by two billion by 2050, family planning, improving nutrition and food security, providing social security against sickness or unemployment, more equitable trade, and increased aid for struggling countries, and so on.

Madrid Climate Summit

While Australia was enduring the worst fire season in our history, delegates at the COP25 climate conference in Madrid were stunned at the fierce fires in Australia, illustrating the impact of global heating. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said failure to take ‘drastic action’ will result in ‘catastrophic heat waves, storms and pollution’. The World Meteorological Organization reported record high levels of greenhouse gases in 2018 would confront future generation with severe impacts from climate change. Guterres wrote that we must cut greenhouse emissions by 45 percent by 2030, to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 and limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees by 2100. He called for progress on carbon pricing, an end to subsidies and preventing any new coal plants by 2020.

In 2017, the world spent $5.2 trillion on subsidies for fossil fuels, according to the International Monetary Fund. Five of the G7 countries (except UK and Japan) pledged to end such subsidies by 2025, though the fossil fuel industry is accelerating production, planning to spend nearly $5tn in the next ten years to develop new reserves, according to George Monbiot.

A new report from the UN Environment Programme, ‘Emissions Gap Report 2019’, warned that global emissions had risen about 1.5 percent each year on average over the last decade, and global temperatures were set to increase as much as 3.2 degrees Celsius by 2100. Greenhouse gas emissions would have to fall by 7.6 per cent a year to reach the Paris goals, a goal so far nowhere in sight. To achieve the 1.5 degrees limit requires nations to increase their pledged emissions fivefold. Further delaying urgent action would make our prospects much more dire.

Francis has repeatedly warned of ‘catastrophic’ consequences of climate change, and he is acutely aware how this will greatly exacerbate efforts to eradicate hunger and poverty, and undermine the Sustainable Development Goals. He called a special Synod for the Amazon in October 2019 highlighting the ecological issues, with the extensive fires and deforestation greatly damaging the global climate.

Are we making enough noise, changing policies?

Yet in Australia where are the strong voices reinforcing the message of Pope Francis and his scientific collaborators? We must refuse to be ‘quiet Australians’ on one of the greatest moral issues of our time.

Australia is a major contributor to greenhouse gases, responsible for 1.3% of annual global pollution, 16th on the ladder of polluting nations, and emitting more than Britain, France or Italy. On a per capita basis, we emit more emissions than any other developed country, and we are third largest for exported emissions. We are the world’s biggest seller of coal, and are first or second for natural gas. Many Australians would be stunned to learn that our government subsidises fossil fuels to the extent of $29 billion a year.

A group of 80 eminent academics from the Australian Research Council Laureate Fellows on 29 January 2020 appealed to the Australian government urgently to ‘reduce greenhouse gas emissions in time to safeguard against catastrophe’ from global warming.  They said scientists had been warning for decades that events like the bushfires were coming. They warned that ‘the world is only at the beginning of the climate change phenomenon… The dire outlook demands stronger mitigation of carbon emissions’.

Professor Steven Sherwood, a climate scientist from the University of New South Wales, said that unless strong action were taken to reduce greenhouse emission, in many cases adaptation would no longer be achievable, and the world would be unable to ‘still support human societies in their current form and maintain human wellbeing’.

Yet when Scott Morrison addressed the National Press Club on 29 January he again shirked the issue. Instead of tackling the causes of global warming, he only gave serious attention to symptoms, the immediate practical things (like hazard reduction burning, better design of houses, new dams etc). He was like a doctor giving bandaids to patients instead of curing the causes of illness. Instead of outlining good policies to transition to renewables, he wanted more gas available in Australia as if it did not add to the greenhouse gases. Expert opinion expects the role for gas will be minimal, not greater, in future.

Many Australians were hoping that the savage bushfires would have driven home how serious climate change is, yet our government has barely shifted from its views last December when it deemed it inappropriate even to talk about climate change, or consider why the bushfires were so severe. A climate scientist from the University of New South Wales, Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, was ‘bewildered’ that the federal government was deliberately ignoring the bushfire crisis. ‘Here we are in the worst bushfire season we’ve ever seen, the biggest drought we’ve ever had, Sydney surrounded by smoke… They’re burying their heads in the sand while the world is literally burning around them’.

As Ken Henry, former Secretary to the Treasury 2001-2011, wrote recently: ‘It would be fair to say that the Australian posture on climate change commitments has generally been to negotiate the smallest respectable abatement target.  We have had our reasons, but none of them has a shred of moral decency’.

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