Vatican Climate Change Summit to Frame Action as Moral Imperative

The Vatican is hosting a climate change summit that will focus on the need for decisive action to combat global warming as a moral imperative and Christian duty, especially given its impact on poor people.


The Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity meeting in Rome on Tuesday is a precursor to the release of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, which is due out in June or July and is expected to centre on the duty of the faithful to address climate change, whatever its causes.

Pope Francis is not scheduled to speak at the summit but was due to have a private meeting with the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, who will be delivering the keynote address. The planned remarks by Cardinal Peter Turkson, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, will also be closely followed because of his role drafting the encyclical.

The summit – which will include speakers and representatives from all major religions – has brought about a rare meeting of minds between scientists and religious officials on climate change, even if they frame their arguments in different ways.

Teresa Berger, a professor at the Yale Divinity School, said she believed the encyclical would have an overarching theological vision: one of “a God-sustained universe, anchored in a theology of creation as articulated in the biblical witness. And based on this, Pope Francis will probably not mince words, but note as evils, for example, the sin of exploiting the Earth.”

Francis has already said that he believes global warming is mostly man-made and that a Christian who does not protect God’s creation “is a Christian who does not care about the work of God”. He has also linked environmental exploitation to social and economic inequality, saying: “An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it.”

Activists hope the summit and the encyclical will influence the next round of international negotiations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which will take place in Paris in November. The Argentinian pontiff, whose foray into diplomacy helped spur negotiations between the US and Cuba, is expected to address the topic in a speech before the UN in New York in September.

Some conservatives in the US, where the Republican party has fiercely resisted attempts to regulate greenhouse gases and questioned the scientific consensus on global warming, have criticised the pope for getting involved in the issue.

“Francis sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologised propaganda,” Maureen Mullarkey wrote in First Things, a conservative journal.

Another conservative group, the Heartland Institute, which seeks to discredit established science on global warming, held its own meeting in Rome on Monday – and will hold a second on Tuesday – in which officials derided the pope for taking on the issue.

“You demean the office that you hold and you demean the church whom it is your sworn duty to protect and defend and advance,” said Lord Christopher Monckton, a prominent climate sceptic and former policy adviser to the former British leader Margaret Thatcher. Monckton’s opinions have been refuted by scientists, who have called his statements “very misleading” and “profoundly wrong”.

The summit at the Vatican has been organised by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and its stated goal is to help “elevate the importance of the moral dimensions of protecting the environment in advance of the papal encyclical and to build a global movement to deal with climate change and sustainable development”.

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