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Kevin ClarkeDecember 15, 2023
Activists demonstrate for climate justice and a ceasefire at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Dec. 9, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)Activists demonstrate for climate justice and a ceasefire at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Dec. 9, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

Pope Francis had been expected to be a voice of moral reason at the COP28 climate meeting in Dubai, which concluded on Dec. 12 with an agreement that summit conveners described as a breakthrough in climate change mitigation. But a respiratory infection kept the pope from attending. (A prepared address from Pope Francis was read into the record by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, O.M.R.I.)

“Pope Francis is a voice of clarity and passion in the climate space, so his presence would certainly have just energized everything,” Gina Castillo, the chief climate policy and research advisor for Catholic Relief Services, said in an email to America. But even without Pope Francis, Ms. Castillo believes that the presence of representatives from different faiths around the world made a difference in the deliberations.

“Faith actors at COP28 were there to be the moral voice of the climate talks,” Ms. Castillo said, “reminding negotiators that their words, the texts that they fight about, have real consequences in people’s lives.” “Our duty is to bring the struggles of those who are on the frontlines of the climate crisis to these spaces,” she said. “Catholic actors did that, as well as [actors from] other faiths.” The faith perspective at COP28, she added, was also “about providing hope for all generations, but especially for young people.”

“Faith actors at COP28 were there to be the moral voice of the climate talks, reminding negotiators that their words, the texts that they fight about, have real consequences in people’s lives.” 

Ms. Castillo was on her way back from the Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, commonly known as COP28. Representatives from U.N. member states have been meeting since 1995 in pursuit of a unified strategy to confront global climate change.

The multinational spectacle drew hundreds of delegates from all over the world for two weeks of talks in the most populous city of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates. The conference concluded on Dec. 12 with a first-ever commitment to move away from planet-warming fossil fuels.

That agreement was reached without the floor fight many delegates anticipated, but representatives from island nations most at risk from sea-level rise associated with global warming complained that they had not been present when the final vote was taken. Within minutes of opening Wednesday’s session, COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber gaveled in approval of the central document, hailing it as a “historic package to accelerate climate action,” but without giving critics a chance to comment.

The final agreement was far stronger than a draft that had been circulated earlier in the week that had concerned delegates from many nations, but the text does not call for an outright phase-out of oil, gas and coal energy production, and it offers nations significant wiggle room in the strategies they may employ in transitioning away from those fuels.

Alistair Dutton, the secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, the umbrella agency for Catholic relief, development and direct service agencies around the world, called the commitment to transition from fossil fuels “a pivotal moment that should not be underestimated, as were [other commitments] to establish the Loss and Damage Fund, triple renewable energy generation and the links that were made between agriculture and climate change.”

“Pope Francis’ unequivocal call for the elimination of fossil fuels at the start of COP28 raised people’s expectations of a fossil-free future and reverberated around the conference.”

But in a response to America submitted by email, he worried that the final document lacked “the details, urgency and funding that will be needed to drive down emissions, adapt to increasingly extreme and erratic weather patterns and recover from the climate-related losses that are already being suffered by those who have done the least to create the climate emergency.” Mr. Dutton said a comprehensive strategy is still “urgently needed” to keep hope alive for the effort to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

And, according to Ms. Castillo, the outcome of COP28 “was very disappointing for developing countries,” which are seeking more support for localized efforts to respond to climate change. “They wanted a framework with ambitious targets and one that outlined a roadmap that would drive more money for adaptation, which continues to receive less funding than mitigation.”

Unfortunately, she said, the final text this year still lacked quantitative targets to reduce greenhouse gases and did not include language “that lays the responsibility for financing at the feet of developed nations, like the United States.” She said that “more developed countries, the ones that have historically been contributing to the climate crisis, need to provide funding for adaptation efforts.”

Jose Aguto, the executive director for Catholic Climate Covenant in Washington, called the agreement’s language “a modest rhetorical step in the right direction,” but was concerned that, like the Paris agreement reached in 2015, the COP28 text lacked any substantive commitment, leaving “a lot of loopholes for continued development of some false solutions, like carbon capture and sequestration, and also an out for continued development of natural gas.”

Pope Francis noted in his recent exhortation “Laudate Deum” that 80 percent of the world’s energy is still dependent upon fossil fuels. “The challenge,” Mr. Aguto said, “is how do we pragmatically extricate ourselves from this dependence” and counter the political and economic power of fossil fuel interests who “are very canny about moving sideways to continue” extracting and commodifying fossil fuels.

How do we pragmatically extricate ourselves from this dependence on fossil fuel and counter the political and economic power of fossil fuel interests?

Many climate activists take a confrontational, “naming and shaming” strategy in protests before the world’s powerful oil and gas multinationals. But faith-based advocates like the Catholic Climate Covenant, he said, can follow a different tack in seeking practical outcomes.

“From the faith perspective, we ought not be condemning even those who are in these [fossil fuel industries] because we cannot hold ourselves pure. We are those people who are dependent on fossil fuels, that 80 percent… so can we, as people of faith, enter into humble conversation that results in shared conversion with those [fossil fuel] interests?”

Establishing dialogue toward a mutual ecological conversion, a strategy endorsed by Pope Francis in “Laudato Si’,” would represent a huge victory for efforts to confront climate change, according to Mr. Aguto. He said that moral persuasion will have to be among the mix of tactics deployed by activists in addition to protest and disinvestment campaigns. He explained, “It’s not just big oil, these five or six major, private or publicly held companies” that have to be convinced to support a transition from reliance on fossil fuels for energy production. “It’s also the petro states, which are immune from divestment” but “hold the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves.”

American Catholics, he said, are challenged to reach decision makers in industry and politics to put to them a question asked by Pope Francis in both in “Laudate Deum” and “Laudato Si’”: “What would induce anyone at this stage to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?”

Those kinds of moral appeals had a palpable impact at COP28, according to Mr. Dutton, noting that the various interventions by the Holy See were recognized as valuable contributions to the negotiations.

“Pope Francis’ unequivocal call for the elimination of fossil fuels at the start of COP28 raised people’s expectations of a fossil-free future and reverberated around the conference, with many—notably from Oceania and Colombia—pushing for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty,” he said.

And despite his absence, “the principles Pope Francis emphasized….such as equity and common but differentiated responsibilities, helped set a moral framework for the negotiations that is crucial for ensuring a just and fair process.”

For the first time, U.N. organizers included a “Faith Pavilion” at COP28, recognizing the contribution of faith-based agencies in advancing dialogue on climate change and creating a space for their delegates to meet and connect across borders and faiths. Mr. Dutton judged it a welcome addition to the proceedings that “contributed significantly to fostering collaboration.”

“The pavilion played a crucial role behind the scenes, supporting progress toward an ambitious climate pact,” he said. “Faith leaders provided moral support to diplomats, and for the first time, interfaith representatives participated in formal negotiation sessions.”

With reporting from The Associated Press

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