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Story Publication logo February 3, 2016

Top Vatican Official: Climate Change Action is a 'Moral Imperative'

Image by Justin Catanoso. Italy, 2015.

Latin America's first pope derides our "throw-away" culture while offering a stern prescription for...


Shortly after Pope Benedict XVI's surprise resignation in February 2013, Vatican insiders started making predictions. The next pope, many said, would be starkly different. He would hail from a continent where Catholicism was spreading the fastest. He would be African. He would be the Ghanaian Archbishop of the Cape Coast. He would be Peter Turkson.

The choice, we know now, was dramatic. The cardinals in the Sistine Chapel departed Europe for the first time and selected a Latin American — Pope Francis of Argentina. In turn, Francis put Turkson in charge of one the most important priorities of his papacy as head of the Pontifical Office on Justice and Peace.

For 18 months, Turkson led the drafting of a papal encyclical, a Catholic teaching document of the highest order that lays out the pope's position on climate change. In doing so, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home makes an uncompromising appeal to save the earth from ruination by reducing the unabated and unsustainable consumption of natural resources.

The 180 page document came at a critical time. Published in June 2015, it aimed to pressure world leaders to take action on climate change—something they did in December at the United Nations climate summit in Paris.

Three days after COP21 produced the historic Paris Agreement, I had an exclusive interview with Turkson, 67, in the ornate reception room outside his document-strewn Vatican office. He was blunt, candid, plain spoken, and even referred openly to the church's pedophilia scandal several times. He made it clear that the Holy See—a delegation of just four individuals in Paris—left its mark on the final climate agreement. As did Pope Francis.

Mongabay: When you read the preamble to the Paris Agreement, half of it looks as if it were borrowed from Laudato Si in its references to poverty, creation of decent work, common concern for humankind.

Turkson: That's what our delegation had in mind. The real punch has to [come] there. It sets the tone for the entire document. Our desire was to see how we could make an impact. We tried to see if we could get others to come on board with that kind of thinking.

If you find some resonance between this [preamble] and Pope Francis, it is not just by chance. As you heard in the hall [in Paris], the Holy See was not the only group that talked about Laudato Si. Several other delegates referenced the document. Laudato Si was not foreign or strange to Laurent Fabius [the French president of COP21]. He knew about it, too.

Mongabay: Before you arrived in Paris, did you talk to Francis about what he wanted to see happen?

Turkson: No, no. That was already made clear. He wasn't going to be in Paris. But he knew the group that was going.

Mongabay: How did he instruct you and your delegation on what to say?

Turkson: The moral imperative is we are bound on a course on which we cannot afford to go back, and we must have a commitment to action. So, what he [Pope Francis] wanted to say was clear. He didn't have to be there to get those points across. He had confidence in the negotiators, confidence that something good would come out of it for humanity.

Mongabay: That's why observers say Laudato Si was released in June—so that people could read it and pick up on the principles long before the summit in December, that Pope Francis wanted to have this influence.

Turkson: One has to go back to even when he had the idea to write the encyclical. Since the first Mass of his pontificate in St Peter's Square [March 14, 2013], coinciding with the feast of St. Joseph, in the homily, he had exalted people to be like St. Joseph and be a protector. Be a protector of the environment.

So one can almost say that it is not that this pope came up with this idea just in the past year. He has been thinking about it a long time. He came in as a bishop. He had to deal with some of these issues in Argentina.

Mongabay: In talking with colleagues, from being there yourself, what's your reaction to the Paris Agreement?

Turkson: Everybody knew there had to be compromises, give and take. In all situations of compromise and negotiation, probably some felt that they gave up too much. Right after the document was signed, the delegate from Nicaragua said we just postponed the issue; we have not really dealt with it completely. If we talked with all the participants, some would say it was excellent, some would not. This was bound to happen.

Mongabay: From the agreement, what resonates most with you?

Turkson: I think there are a lot of climate skeptics still around. I think what happened in Paris had the advantage of sending a signal to very many people who still have doubts about climate change. Why would so many people be interested in just wasting time in Paris if this were not a real problem? That should make them reflect a little bit.

It also gives the most vulnerable states a real voice. Compassion is not the language of international forums like the COP, but at least [the negotiators could now] talk about solidarity and the ability to deal with another person and see their worldview and appreciate it. There is something very noble about everything they tried to do in Paris.

I think the understanding that [the negotiators] tried to give to each other: people tried to understand the situations of others from vulnerable states. Yet they also broached the complexity they face — that things that harm the environment, like extraction and drilling, also provide jobs people need.

[The Paris Agreement] is a mutual call for understanding and it's not a coincidence. Yet they had to make room for all these diverse positions and opinions.

Mongabay: There are many references to the poor and vulnerable in the Paris Agreement, like in Laudato Si.

Turkson: Yes. There is a sense that everyone is entitled to their dignity. That's new language. But it's the same concern for the vulnerable and for those whose dignity is at risk. It's the same concern. I think they tried to make room for that expression in this document.

Mongabay: Critics say the agreement is fragile, and because it's largely voluntarily, it can easily fall apart.

Turkson: Perhaps, but even the United Nations' charter manifests fragility. At the end of the day — and this will be a crucial contribution of Pope Francis — there has to be the appeal of the human heart. When the human heart is not with this, we will be in trouble.

Mongabay: So much of the Paris Agreement is monitoring, measuring and accountability. Do you see Pope Francis playing a role as someone who will ask the largest countries in the world to keep their promises?

Turkson: He will never play that policeman role! Pope Francis, however, will remind people of this moral consciousness and the moral sense of commitment. He essentially is a pastor. And the pastor's role is to raise people's vision just one step higher, from the purely mundane to the transcendent and the divine. When he spoke before the Congress of the United States [in September]… there were people who thought there wasn't room for anyone like the pope being there. But there he was, a pastor. And he speaks as a pastor.

It's an irreplaceable role. This is a point he makes — inviting the states, or the different sciences, to make room for the voice of religion, or the voice of faith, when we have issues confronting all of humanity.

Mongabay: This is all so new, for a pope to be a leader on such a secular issue. What does that role look like?

Turkson: In a figure like Pope Francis, you see the consistency, the consistency of a figure who is teaching people who he is. It is not a role he puts on and then takes off. He is not acting. This is just him. If he feels strongly enough to bring this up—Laudato Si—then he believes that this is what must be for humanity. It's in his heart. It's going to stay with him.

Mongabay: The preservation of forests is a big part of the Paris Agreement. Laudato Si goes to great lengths to describe the ecosystem services provided to the world by forests.

Turkson: If people feel they must have a wood paneled floor, and paneled walls, that's a problem. As long as there is that kind of consumer demand, they [the forests] will not be left alone. But when that changes, they will be. Lumbering can be made sustainable. Industries should spend money replanting trees. Too often countries are paid by the company to do the replanting, but no trees get planted.

I come from Ghana.… There is a lot of lumbering. Many trees get taken down. The government is paid by the lumber company, but nothing gets done. If I were in charge, I would oblige the companies to do the replanting. As you know, governments are in charge for only a few years, and after that, who carries out the policy? The basic question of Laudato Si is: What kind of world are we going to leave to our children? That should be driving all of these decisions. But that's not happening.

Mongabay: What role will the Vatican play in continuing to encourage documents like Laudato Si and the Paris Agreement to become a part of Catholic teaching in the dioceses and parishes of the world?

Turkson: This office has a corresponding structure with every diocese at the bishop conference level. In every diocese, there should be a commission of justice and peace. That's who is on the ground. This is how it filters down. It starts here, moves to every diocese and then hopefully to the parish level.

Mongabay: So that's how an army, with a 1.2 billion members, gets organized.

Turkson: This is the Catholic Church. It is a large organization and there is a hierarchy that is always in place. Even if you don't see the pope, people know that during a Mass the priest always prays for the pope. It's a structure that tries to make a reality of its center known.

Mongabay: Because of Laudato Si, and this pope, many are calling this the Catholic moment when it comes to environmental protection.

Turkson: It's also been referred to as the Pope Francis factor.

When one looks at Pope Francis, they want to compare him to his predecessors. That is useful sometimes, but not really. Francis cannot be Benedict, nor can he be John Paul II. He became pope at 76, John Paul was 58. Benedict became pope after being a prefect from a congregation. Francis came from a pastoral background. Nevertheless, the institution they take care of is the same.

[A]t the time Pope Francis took over, the church had a lot of very serious challenges. It's not that they've all gone away. Pedophilia [among priests] was at its raging height. Ok? And a whole lot of accusations and all of that. The church Pope Francis inherited had a lot of bruises. It's not that the bruises are gone. But his own sense of leadership, simplicity, authenticity, credibility have helped to shove a whole of this bad stuff into the background.

The church has thus won a lot of credibility. So if this is the time for the Catholic Church, it is because of his leadership.

Mongabay: So you're saying he dealt first with these debilitating scandals to clear the air for Laudato Si and its message of "care for our common home"?

Turkson: Yes. It's not to say Benedict didn't do anything. But Francis' style of leadership is different. You [no longer] open the New York Times every day and read about pedophilia and all these scandals. It's as if those are things of the past.

Mongabay: When I ask about the Catholic moment, it's not just about Francis, it's about all people of all faiths whom this pope summoned to this cause. Is this the moment people of faith fill the vacuum of leadership when it comes to environmental protection?

Turkson: There is collaboration between religions that Francis is promoting for just this purpose. It could be a Catholic moment. There is a new evangelistic streak that is led by the pope himself. He is playing that role. So yes, a Catholic moment or Christian moment—for the better or for the worse.


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Environment and Climate Change

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