The Pope Weighs in on the Climate Debate

4 MINS READJun 19, 2015 | 01:06 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Pope Francis' much-anticipated encyclical calling for environmental stewardship was officially released Thursday. Given his position at the helm of the Holy See, which has diplomatic relations with most countries, the pope is uniquely positioned to influence events. But even the broadly popular Pope Francis lacks the heft to bring about a global climate agreement that would be enforceable and yield measurable results. Economics and the varying priorities of individual countries, not calls based on moral argument, will continue to dictate decisions on whether to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The pope's remarks should not come as a surprise. The Jesuit order to which he belongs has a tradition of being reform minded, outspoken and highly involved in educational endeavors and politics. Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has been regarded as a progressive whose new tone has improved the image of the Roman Catholic Church.

Though the new encyclical is not the Holy See's first foray into the topic of climate change — Pope Francis spoke out in support of a robust deal at last year's climate talks — it is the first papal missive devoted solely to the topic. Traditionally, an encyclical is a letter from a pope or bishop meant to guide and direct the leaders of the faith on a specific topic. Pope Francis, however, stated that he aims for a larger audience for this document: In it, he urges the entire global community to take action to protect the environment.

International negotiations to tackle climate change ahead of the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Paris that begins Nov. 30, however, have been moving at a snail's pace. The Bonn Climate Conference wrapped up June 11 without producing much in the way of progress toward a binding agreement on lowering greenhouse gas emissions; negotiations are scheduled to resume at the end of August. But with just under six months to ago until the main talks in Paris, it seems unlikely that a significant, enforceable agreement will emerge. Any agreement that emerges from the conference is likely to be watered down.

The release of the encyclical was clearly intended to influence the ongoing negotiations, but this raises the question of just how much political heft the pope enjoys. The papacy, of course, has long played a significant role in international affairs, but its influence has diminished greatly over the past century, particularly since the end of the Cold War. Still, as an Argentine and the first non-European pope, Francis carries considerable weight in Latin America, home to roughly 40 percent of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics. Brazil alone is home to 12 percent of the world's Catholics. But these numbers won't necessarily translate into papal influence on the climate debate: Brazil, for example, accounts for only 1 to 2 percent of total global carbon dioxide emissions. By contrast, China, which does not have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, contributes more than 27 percent of global emissions. And therein lies the problem. Even if all the world's Catholics followed the pope's bidding, their efforts would not be enough to overcome the behavior of other nations, especially the key emitting nations of China and India.

This is the same basic conundrum that those seeking to address the emissions issue have long faced — that efforts by developed and developing countries to mitigate climate change will be asymmetric. It has been difficult to get developing nations to agree to implement expensive green technologies when already developed countries were allowed to use cheaper fossil fuels during their developing phases. As a result, compromises find developed nations bearing the brunt of the costs, while developing nations implement lesser measures with the financial aid of richer nations. This can be a hard sell.

Countries can be expected to base their decisions on perceptions of immediate national interests, not necessarily on potential consequences years or even decades down the road. It simply may not be in the immediate economic or political interest of a country such as India to implement policies for the benefit of the broader international community.

This doesn't mean, however, that complete inaction will be the order of the day. Recent progress on reducing emissions outside the U.N. framework includes the G-7's recommitment to a 2009 framework to provide $100 billion of climate financing by 2020 and to accelerate renewable energy adaptation in Africa. Meanwhile, several countries, including the United States and China, have publicly pledged future actions to reduce emissions.

But absent a binding agreement with enforceable consequences, pledges often are not fully carried out because of immediate national political and economic goals. Any international agreement coming out of Paris will therefore likely be weak, despite the pope's best efforts. 

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