The day COP26 concluded, the world’s best known environmental activist Greta Thunberg tweeted, "The #COP26 is over; here's a brief summary: Blah, blah, blah. But the real work continues outside these halls. And we will never give up, ever!”
A few days earlier, addressing a massive protest on the streets of Glasgow, Thunberg said “It is not a secret that COP26 is a failure. It should be obvious that we cannot solve the crisis with the same methods that got us into it in the first place. The COP has turned into a PR event, where leaders are giving beautiful speeches and announcing fancy commitments and targets, while behind the curtains governments of the Global North countries are still refusing to take any drastic climate action.”
Antonio Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations, warned of an impending ‘climate catastrophe’; most of those who welcomed the deal in Glasgow said a huge amount of work remained to be done. Guterres acknowledged the shortcomings of the agreement. In a statement, following the deal, he tweeted: "The #COP26 outcome is a compromise, reflecting the interests, contradictions and state of political will in the world today, It’s an important step, but it's not enough. Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread we are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe” In a follow-up tweet, the UN chief sent a message to ‘young people, indigenous communities, women leaders, all those leading on #ClimateAction’: "I know you might be disappointed. But we're in the fight of our lives & this fight must be won."
The 26th Session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) which was held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November 2021 was high on expectations. The world was hoping that finally the global leaders would demonstrate the much-needed statesmanship, sagacity, sincerity and synergy to address the catastrophe of climate change before the whole planet is destroyed. But that was not to be. Though high on rhetoric, the final deal was woefully short of non-negotiable commitments which should have come spontaneously and with that much needed urgency. Thunberg bluntly refers to the outcome as ‘blah, blah, blah’; Guterres is more cautious and refers to the ‘state of political will’ prevalent in the world today!
Whilst most countries (particularly those of the Global North) are in the dock for not committing and ensuring implementation to much more, the two countries of COP26 that did not agree to have a greater global concern are India and China. Normally rivals, both India and China clubbed together to ensure that the final agreement had the words “phase down coal” instead of the “phase out coal” which was there in the earlier versions. The change in a decisive step caused great disappointment and concern over whether the world can limit the average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C. This prompted the President of COP26 Mr. Alok Sharma to quip, "China and India will have to explain themselves and what they did to the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world."
In the early days of the summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made several promises on the global platform. These included cutting emissions to net zero by 2070, reduce carbon emissions by one billion tonnes by 2030, and raise the share of renewables in the energy mix to 50%, among others. Given the power of the mining mafia, particularly those in the colliery sector, these ‘tall promises’ for whatever their worth, were naturally welcomed. So, the last-minute intervention by India to water down the wording of the final agreement were treated with disdain.
The earlier versions of the agreement contained a commitment to phase out unabated coal (unabated refers to coal that is burned without carbon capture and storage technology, which advocates say significantly decreases emissions). The argument given by India was "How can anyone expect that developing countries make promises about phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies? Developing countries still have to do deal with their poverty reduction agenda." Though there is certainly a point by some who insist that all fossil fuels need to be phased out (including oil and gas) and not only coal. All, however, were not buying those arguments with one diplomat saying, "The longer you take to phase out coal, the more burden you put on natural environment and your economy."
Pope Francis has been one world leader who has shown unflinching commitment to the care of our common home and of his concern on the havoc wrought by climatic changes. In a very incisive message to the President of COP26 at the start of the summit, Pope Francis said, “As the Glasgow Conference begins, all of us are aware that it has the vital task of demonstrating to the entire international community whether there really exists a political will to devote – with honesty, responsibility and courage – greater human, financial and technological resources to mitigating the negative effects of climate change and assisting the poorer and more vulnerable nations most affected by it. At the same time, we realize that this task has to be undertaken in the midst of a pandemic that for almost two years has devastated our human family. Covid-19 has brought immense tragedies in its wake, but it has also taught us that, if we are to succeed in overcoming the pandemic, there is no alternative: all of us must play a part in responding to this challenge. And that, as we know, calls for profound solidarity and fraternal cooperation between the world’s peoples.”
He went on to add, “COP26 can and must offer an effective contribution to the conscientious construction of a future in which daily actions and economic and financial investments can genuinely protect the conditions that ensure a dignified and humane life for the men and women of today and tomorrow, on a “healthy” planet.”
On May 24, 2015, Pope Francis gave to the world his path-breaking Encyclical Letter ‘Laudato Si’ ‘On Care for Our Common Home’. It was the first major Papal teaching on a subject of critical importance namely ‘the environment’. ‘Laudato Si ' meaning “Praise be to you" are the first words of the celebrated ' Canticle of the Creatures' of St Francis of Assisi. The Encyclical which came months before the landmark 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, (COP 21) which was held in Paris, in fact set the tone for world leaders to come to grips with real causes which were responsible for environmental degradation and which ultimately caused climatic changes with disastrous results everywhere.
In the opening statements of the Encyclical, Pope Francis makes his intention clear “to address every person living on this planet” saying, “this sister (mother earth) now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”
In the first Chapter, he states that “we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation”; he deals here with several ‘aspects of the present ecological crisis’: pollution, waste and the throw-away culture; climate as a common good; displacement and migration caused by environmental degradation; access to safe drinking water as a basic and universal human right; loss of bio-diversity; decline in the quality of human life and break down of society; global inequality. He also denounces unequivocally the use of pesticides and the production of genetically engineered (GE) crops.
Pope Francis strongly notes that “the earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production.” In making such statements, in taking a stand for the ‘care of our common home’, Pope Francis made several enemies among the rich and powerful who are bent on profiteering; those engaged in the extractive industry by plundering very precious and scarce natural resources. This was indicative from the fact that Gallup Poll conducted in the United States a little after the Encyclical was released, showed that his ratings had plummeted by more than 18% points among fairly large sections of Americans and particularly the wealthy and other vested interests.
Pope Francis insists that we have been called to be stewards of the creation which God has entrusted to us. He ensures that ‘Laudato Si’ focuses on human rights violations and injustices. He does not mince words when he says “in the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, committing oneself to the common good means to make choices in solidarity based on a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters.”
What is paramount in the final analysis, says Pope Francis, is a radical commitment to ensure positive change, which is the need of the hour. For this, he says, every section of society must play a definite role in a collaborative and concerted manner. The Pope does not spare the priests of the Catholic Church and he calls upon them to engage with the faithful on environmental issues. Further, he challenges international and national Governments and mechanisms saying, “the same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty. A more responsible overall approach is needed to deal with both problems: the reduction of pollution and the development of poorer countries and regions.”
‘Laudato Si’ makes one uncomfortable! Therefore, there is always the danger that many would like to cosmeticize this powerful document: to tinker with bits and parts, to be selective and comfortable in its reading; to do non-threatening acts like growing trees, propagating alternative technologies, not using plastics, to indulge in acts of tokenism like environmental ‘education’, or project work. Whilst all these acts are surely good and would hopefully lead to something more sustainable, no Pope would waste his time and energy writing an Encyclical on matters which are either fairly pedestrian or just have to be done! ‘Laudato Si’, however, is path-breaking, radical in nature, it shakes one out of one’s complacency by touching every single dimension of our human existence. The Pope invites all to an ecological conversion, to change directions so that we can truly care for our common home; not to pay heed to Pope Francis’ prophetic words; to rubbish this timely and important message or to relegate it to mere tree-planting and other ‘feel-good’ acts would certainly be a great disservice not to the Pope, but to Planet Earth.
By and large, the Church in India (barring a few notable exceptions) has failed to translate the visionary words of Pope Francis into concrete and substantial actions. Environmental concerns have become projects, the ‘beautification’ of Church/convent compounds and ‘models’ shown within one’s comfort zones. Several so-called ‘natural’ catastrophes have not only devastated the fragile eco-systems but have had a negative and long-lasting impact on the poor and their livelihood. The Government in a systematic way has been destroying the environment in nexus with their crony capitalist friends. In keeping with the mandate and responsibility entrusted to her, the Church in India must demonstrate a decisiveness to take on those responsible for the environmental degradation.
In his message to COP26, Pope Francis reiterates the Church’s position, “sadly, we must acknowledge how far we remain from achieving the goals set for tackling climate change. We need to be honest: this cannot continue. Even as we were preparing for COP26, it became increasingly clear that there is no time to waste. All too many of our brothers and sisters are suffering from this climate crisis. The lives of countless people, particularly those who are most vulnerable, have experienced its increasingly frequent and devastating effects. At the same time, we have come to realize that it also involves a crisis of children’s rights and that, in the near future, environmental migrants will be more numerous than refugees from war and conflicts. Now is the time to act, urgently, courageously and responsibly. Not least, to prepare a future in which our human family will be in a position to care for itself and for the natural environment”.
In Laudato Si, Pope Francis asks an uncomfortable question: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” His message to COP 26 re-echoes similar words, “The young, who in recent years have strongly urged us to act, will only inherit the planet we choose to leave to them, based on the concrete choices we make today. Now is the moment for decisions that can provide them with reasons for hope and trust in the future”.
The question we are all called to answer is whether we have the prophetic courage to turn the big talk into big, concrete and substantial commitments? We need to act NOW!
(The writer is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)