Will Pope Francis have an impact at COP28?

Pope Francis’ trip to the United Nations climate summit in Dubai (November 30 – December 12) will be a significant moment, say Catholics and environmental officials.

Nov 24, 2023

Pope Francis joins others in holding a banner during an audience at the Vatican June 5, 2022 with the organisers of the Green & Blue Festival. The banner calls for financing a “loss and damage” fund that was agreed upon at the COP27 UN climate conference in 2022. (CNS/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis’ trip to the United Nations climate summit in Dubai (November 30 – December 12) will be a significant moment, say Catholics and environmental officials. The event, they say, will provide him an opportunity to raise his powerful moral voice at a pivotal time when planet-heating emissions continue to rise.

But they say that what the Pope says, or the Vatican does, could determine whether his presence serves as a spark to redouble actions to limit climate impacts, or as a distraction for fraught negotiations that face increasing questions of credibility.

Pope Francis will be the first pope to ever take part in the international climate summit in its nearly 30-year history. His visit comes a year after the Holy See formally became a party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Per a schedule from the Vatican, the Pope’s three-day trip will include a Dec 2 address during the high-level summit at the start of COP28. Francis will also take part in private bilateral meetings and help inaugurate the first-ever Faith Pavilion at a UN climate summit.

“The Pope is hard to ignore, and the fact he’ll speak at the start of the summit will, hopefully, set the tone for the rest of the negotiations,” said Lorna Gold, board president of the Laudato Si’ Movement, a network of nearly 900 Catholic institutions working on climate action and eco-spirituality.

Alistar Dutton, secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, the international confederation of Catholic humanitarian and development organisations, called the Pope’s upcoming visit “a crucial moment” for the Church to stand with those facing the impacts of climate change and to reinforce to countries their shared duty under the 2015 Paris Agreement to slash emissions to minimise catastrophic impacts of climate change upon people and ecosystems.

“For me, this is very significant for the Church,” said Sr Maamalifar Poreku, co-executive secretary for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation for the International Union of Superiors General, the umbrella group of women religious congregations. “The Church is not just there to pray. No, the Church is there to make sure that society is a livable place for all creatures — humans and nature.”

Iyad Abumoghli, director of the UN Environment Programme’s Faith4Earth initiative, said the Pope’s presence at COP28, as well as his support for a recent interfaith statement for climate action, “exemplifies the pivotal role faith leaders play” in steering the world toward environmental responsibility, and “underlines that the urgency of climate change is not only a matter of policy but a profound moral imperative.”

Bill McKibben, the longtime environmental writer and founder of grassroots climate groups 350.org and Third Act, in an email to EarthBeat, called the Pope’s presence at COP28 “a powerful sign.”

“Along with Greta Thunberg and a very few others, he’s become the planet’s conscience on the climate crisis,” McKibben said. “It should inject a note of physical and moral reality into the highly contrived greenwashing that usually dominates these talks.”

The opening segment of COP28, called the world climate action summit, is where Francis will join other heads of state in addressing the conference and its expected 70,000 attendees of negotiators, climate activists, civil society actors and industry lobbyists. Presidents and prime ministers often use this time to call attention to negotiating priorities or announce new actions and investments to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.

Many expect the Pope to repeat parts of his recent apostolic exhortation, Laudate Deum, which he focused entirely “on the climate crisis.” The text expands on calls to action he made in his 2015 encyclical, ‘Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.’

The Pope demonstrates in Laudate Deum “a good reading” of the precarious place the world stands on climate change, Manuel Vidal-Pulgar, a former environment minister of Peru and president of COP20 in Lima, told EarthBeat.

Gold, who was part of a Laudato Si’ Movement contingent that met with Francis this month, will be at COP28. She expressed hope that the Pope, with his speech, can give negotiators “a moral focus and set the tone for the whole summit.”

Catholics engaged in the climate talks say it should include calls for deep reductions in emissions, rather than “false solution” methods like carbon capture and sequestration, as well as substantially increased financial support through funding for adaptation and loss and damage from the impacts of climate change alongside mitigation.

They also expressed hope he will highlight the serious impacts that stronger storms and more severe droughts and flooding have on people, including those forced to leave their homes.

Poreku, a Missionary Sister of Our Lady of Africa, added she hopes that hearing the calls for action in Laudate Deum directly from the Pope, rather than reading it off a page, can turn the hearts of heads of state and their negotiating teams to take concrete measures to quickly and substantially curb emissions and move beyond the “talking and talking and talking” without actions that has permeated COPs for years.

“They don’t feel the pinch of what ordinary people, especially those on the margins, are experiencing because of this climate change. … But Pope Francis feels the pinch of those who are suffering this. And that’s why every day he talks about it,” she told EarthBeat.

While an impactful speech may be remembered, to really turn the tide in negotiations and overcome the intransigence of countries’ positions will require the Pope and the Holy See to put forward “deliverables,” or concrete action plans, said Griffin Thompson, a former climate negotiator for the United States under the Obama administration and an adjunct professor at Loyola University, Chicago.

Thompson, who has been serving as a climate expert for the Holy See, said it was rare for heads of state to attend the high-level UN climate conferences without plans to announce a range of deliverables.

“In the absence of the Holy Father announcing a major Vatican contribution to our collective climate change response, his appearance in Dubai could be viewed and used by many parties as purely ornamental. At worst, certain parties could use his attendance to distract from, and cover up, glaring deficiencies in the negotiations,” Thompson told EarthBeat.

“If he is travelling to Dubai only to repeat the sentiments of Laudate Deum, it will be a squandered visit,” Thompson said.

Beyond his speech, Catholics working on climate expressed a desire that the Pope meet with a variety of constituents on the sidelines, whether oil companies and oil-producing countries, or island states and other climate vulnerable nations, or civil society groups and the faith community. More than 60 events are planned at the Faith Pavilion throughout the conference’s two weeks.

“The Pope needs to be the voice of the voiceless. He needs to be the voice of those at the peripheries. He needs to bring the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor to COP,” Moma said.

In 2015, Francis’ decision to release Laudato Si’ ahead of COP21 in Paris was credited with adding momentum to an eventual deal, the first-ever, where all nations committed to reducing their national greenhouse gas emissions. With progress on the Paris accord stalling, Catholics hope this first-ever papal visit can be the push international climate talks need to get back on track.

“Now, more than ever,” said Rodne Galicha, executive director of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines, “we need moral force to address climate emergency.”

“Our faith must move us to take urgent actions, and the presence of Pope Francis is a strong voice in the negotiations wilderness, which will definitely be an echo of conscience in the halls of COP28.” -- EarthBeat, NCR

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