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Gerard O’ConnellNovember 27, 2023
Pope Francis greets Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny during his annual audience to give Christmas greetings to members of the Roman Curia at the Vatican Dec. 21, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis is slated to travel to Dubai, the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, on Dec. 1-3, to address the U.N. Climate Change Conference, COP28. It will be his 45th foreign trip, and he will be one of more than 120 heads of state to address the conference.

To understand why he is going to this conference, and what he hopes to achieve, Gerard O’Connell, America’s Vatican correspondent, interviewed Cardinal Michael Czerny, S.J., in Rome on Nov. 20 and followed up via email. The cardinal is prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and will accompany the pope on this historic trip.

Gerard O’Connell: Why is the pope going to go to Dubai on Dec. 1?

Cardinal Czerny: On Oct. 4, 2023, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi and the first anniversary of the Holy See’s accession to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement, Pope Francis published “Laudate Deum.Its subtitle reads, “To all people of goodwill about the climate crisis.” It was written to update “Laudato Si’,” published in 2015 before COP21 in Paris, and it looks back anxiously at how little has been done since then. “Our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point” (“Laudate Deum,” No. 2).

COP28 runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12, and the pope’s visit is Dec. 1-3. He is slated to address the COP28 summit. His purpose is to drive home the urgent, compelling message of “Laudate Deum.”

What, according to “Laudate Deum,” is the problem?

Human activity causes greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn cause excessive heat. More than 195 parties [194 states plus the European Union] have now joined the 2015 Paris Agreement and set voluntary targets to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century. But not nearly enough has been done to put these commitments into effect, and results are continuously falling short of the target.

We are now heading dangerously close to the 1.5° to 2° Celcius ceiling targeted by the accords; the dangerous tipping points looming within the next several decades are getting closer and closer. We are quickly approaching the point where humans are incapable of facing the problems that we are causing. To continue generating problems greater than we can solve—surely this is a recipe for many failures and finally disaster.

Pope Francis is slated to travel to Dubai, the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, on Dec. 1-3, to address the U.N. Climate Change Conference, COP28.

A minority of humanity has been misbehaving for too long and abusing the natural environment for its benefit. It is the duty of those who have played a greater role in polluting the atmosphere to take greater responsibility and leadership in the fight against climate change. Such a duty is clearly defined in international environmental law as the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” All states are responsible for addressing global environmental destruction yet with “differentiated responsibilities,” according to both their contribution to the problem and their capacity to respond.

It is also worth noting that the short-term benefits extracted from the Earth as a result of the processes inducing climate change have not been enjoyed by those now suffering from its worst effects. Tackling climate change cannot be sidelined “as something purely ecological, ‘green’, romantic, frequently subject to ridicule by economic interests” (“L.D.,” No. 58) but rather as a fundamental human and social problem to be collectively tackled. “This is a global social issue,” Pope Francis insists, “and one intimately related to the dignity of human life” (No. 3).

What would you consider an important step in the right direction at COP28?

“Laudate Deum” calls with utmost urgency for a new and true multilateralism. Multilateralism is the process by which countries join with one another and make mutually binding pledges to do what needs to be done. Multilateralism requires “more effective world organizations, equipped with the power to provide for the global common good, the elimination of hunger and poverty and the sure defense of fundamental human rights” (“Fratelli Tutti,” No. 172).

A successful example is the multilateral air law treaties. It’s obvious that, for air travel to be safe, it must be regulated by binding agreements that everyone honors.

Another two examples address huge environmental issues. The Montreal Protocol to reverse the depletion of the ozone layer entered into force in 1989 and still prevails, with nine revisions along the way for needed adjustments. And the High Seas Treaty to protect biodiversity beyond nations’ boundaries was signed on Sept. 20, 2023. It complements the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and provides for the common governance of about half of the Earth’s surface and 95 percent of the ocean’s volume. The adoption of this agreement is a historic achievement marking the successful conclusion of more than a decade of multilateral work. This proves that multilateralism can work if the need is obvious. The need to manage our enormous environmental problems by implementing effective worldwide rules for “global safeguarding” is more than obvious.

I was struck while reading “Laudate Deum” by this appeal to multilateralism at a time when multilateralism isn’t functioning well.

The Paris Agreement is legally binding but only in certain ways. For instance, nations must announce their nationally determined contributions, but they cannot be forced to implement them. This is a perennial problem: Referring to the 1972 Stockholm Agreement, the pope declared that “the accords have been poorly implemented, due to lack of suitable mechanisms for oversight, periodic review and penalties in cases of noncompliance. The principles which they proclaimed still await an efficient and flexible means of practical implementation” (“L.S.,” No. 167).

“A minority of humanity has been misbehaving for too long and abusing the natural environment for its benefit.”

That’s why “Laudate Deum” urges a new multilateralism, and why Pope Francis is going to address COP28 to contribute “with word and gesture” to the much-needed search for appropriately courageous and demanding agreements.

What kind of agreement can Pope Francis hope for? All countries are suffering from climate change; everyone is becoming the victim of this man-made crisis. Does he hope that he can convince the United States, Russia and China to come together on one issue when they obviously don’t agree on almost anything?

No one can deny the terrible effects of the climate crisis, and one could add many sufferings to the list due to extreme weather events, floods, droughts, mammoth forest fires, etc. These are affecting all countries with various intensities, and usually, it is the poorer populations who are hit the hardest.

Those who accept human responsibility for the crisis are ready and willing to agree on the changes necessary to slow down the deterioration of the climate and eventually reverse it. But others claim that the changing climate is on a natural cycle, and so there’s no point in, for example, abandoning fossil fuels for “clean” energies. Between these contradictory stances, we have to find a responsible way forward.

However, a “new treaty” is not the goal. Rather it is to correct the weakest areas of the Paris Climate accords, including legal backup on national commitments and focusing on those vested fossil fuel interests who are lobbying to weaken results.

Is Pope Francis’ goal to try to kick-start multilateralism?

Let’s not bet on rapid developments where many actors are naturally going to represent their own rights and interests. I imagine the pope wishes to tip the ambition of world leaders away from denial and toward solutions; away from each country just protecting its self-interest, its prosperity, and toward embracing the common good as the overriding compass.

Pope Francis has published “Laudate Deum” and now he is going to the COP28 in Dubai. The grand imam of Al-Azhar is going to be there also, and the Summit of Faith Leaders has just taken place in Abu Dhabi. It seems that he is betting that the religions of the world can somehow tilt public opinion to push their political leaders to some kind of decisive action. Is this a correct interpretation?

I think it’s a correct interpretation. At the end of “Laudate Deum,” Pope Francis reminds “the Catholic faithful of the motivations born of their faith,” and he encourages all our “brothers and sisters of other religions to do the same since we know that authentic faith not only gives strength to the human heart but also transforms life, transfigures our goals and sheds light on our relationship to others and with creation as a whole” (No. 61).

When the official delegates arrive in Dubai, their respective government’s position will be pretty well determined, and their instructions were clearly drawn up. The substantive decisions, the core positions, are fixed in the home capitals. So, it’s up to the citizens to encourage their government to come to COP28 with openness, honesty, realism and willingness to negotiate. “The demands that rise up from below throughout the world, where activists from very different countries help and support one another, can end up pressuring the sources of power” (No. 38). [It can] pressure them to act realistically and urgently, courageously and generously, in order to reach clear and binding commitments to implement the 2015 Paris climate accords.

In the negotiation pavilion, then, they put their cards on the table.

Yes, they come to COP28 and put their cards on the table, and then in less than two weeks, their negotiations need to overcome the contradictions so that, on Dec. 12, truly ambitious agreements can be signed. That’s what the process expects of every delegation; there’s no exception. Besides pointing out the challenges, Pope Francis will encourage the delegates to listen, to be courageous and flexible, and to reach binding agreements for the greater good of all. He will challenge the COP28 delegates, and especially their governments, in personal terms to “be strategists capable of considering the common good and the future of their children, more than the short-term interests of certain countries or businesses” (“L.D.,” No. 60).

The presence of Pope Francis and of the grand imam at COP28 is an attempt to provoke their respective religious constituencies, which are very big, to take action before it is too late.

Yes, but it’s an uphill struggle when many governments are more beholden to special interests (finance capital, extractive industries, militarism) than to the greater good of their own citizens, let alone our common home. It’s very difficult, given the sad state of democracy, for people to persuade their governments to bravely do what’s needed. Meanwhile, the prospect of more than 2° Celsius of global warming portends horrible outcomes for the residents of every country and indeed of all creation.

The big corporations will also be present in Dubai?

Yes, they will be there. Some of them will try to speed up the process, others to slow it down and deny that current models of industrialization, finance, trade and consumption are consuming the planet’s resources at an unsustainable rate.

What other significant representatives will be present at COP28?

Another important participant is civil society, especially young people who are inheriting a less and less liveable world. Their participation contributes to different voices, innovation and accountability. “The demands that rise up from below throughout the world…can end up pressuring the sources of power” (“L.D.,” No. 38). Consider, for instance, the 1997 Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel mines, which according to Pope Francis “shows how civil society with its organizations is capable of creating effective dynamics that the United Nations cannot” (No. 37).

When COP27 was held at Sharm el-Sheikh in 2022, the Ukrainian war had started and little was achieved. Now we’ve got an even bigger war between Israel and Palestine, which also involves a lot of other countries, including those that produce oil and gas. How do you think this war is going to impact COP28?

I really don’t know. Since war and peace are not the topic of the conference, the huge problem of the many wars underway can be overlooked, even neglected and intentionally denied. But at least indirectly, the wars will be addressed, since many conflicts are related to resource extraction and the deterioration of agriculture.

One would wish that the wars would impact COP28 by shaking things up to the point where different thinking can begin to favor collaboration. The Holy Father is surely the world’s principal peace advocate, and hopefully, his words that inspire a willingness to begin caring for our common home will spill over and inspire leaders to take up the challenging task of peace. For peace today also requires the revival of multilateralism, based on mutual respect and the common sharing of common problems. The alternative is war.

If you were to identify one, two or three results that you would be looking for to

measure success at the COP28, what would they be?

Pope Francis describes what would count for success as follows: the world settles on new binding measures for energy transition that are efficient, obligatory and readily monitored. This in turn involves three requirements: that the measures be robust, cut deep and rely upon all parties fulfilling their common but differentiated responsibilities. “That is not what has happened so far,” and only such results will “enable international politics to recover its credibility, since only in this concrete manner will it be possible to reduce significantly carbon dioxide levels and to prevent even greater evils over time” (“L.D.,” No. 59).

Among the specific objectives, there is first of all the Global Stocktake, the assessment mechanism stipulated by the Paris Agreement every five years; second, the phase-out of fossil fuels; third, the transition to clean energy needs to be “fueled” by $100 billion per year toward the climate finance commitment, promised at Paris but not delivered so far; fourth, adaptation efforts to strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change need to be boosted and implemented.

What was the weakness of the Paris accords?

The implementation process of the Paris Agreement is still in the phase of strengthening the mechanisms to make it more efficient, obligatory, binding, enforceable and susceptible to monitoring.

I see there’s also the question of compensation for loss and damage that needs to be agreed upon in Dubai. Could you explain that?

New, additional and predictable public finances are needed to pay for the loss and damage that poorer countries suffer from the adverse impacts of climate change. Such funding should be available to communities suffering damage and losses so that they receive the resources they require, as grants not loans, empowering them as protagonists in shaping their own future.

Pope Francis has chosen to go to COP28 with the grand imam. How significant is this in your estimation?

The dialogue, cooperation and friendship between Pope Francis and Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar, is like the mustard seed in the parable of Jesus: It started off as tiny, but it has now grown into a fully articulated relationship, which addresses, both in deed and symbolically, some of the world’s greatest tensions. That model of listening is absolutely indispensable if, with all our differences, we are going to live as siblings and together take care of our common home.

When you leave Dubai, what would be the light that you would like to see at the end of this tunnel of crisis?

For me, the encouraging bit of light at the end of the huge tunnel called “climate crisis” will be how many countries agree to the agreements to undertake tangible, measurable and verifiable changes. One criterion will be the courage to ask their own populations to make the needed sacrifices.

Let’s be honest, says Pope Francis, “and recognize that the most effective solutions will not come from individual efforts alone, but above all from major political decisions on the national and international level” (“L.D.,” No. 69). COP28 is our next big chance, and there may not be many more.

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