Lots of work needed to save vulnerable

By  Simon Appolloni, Catholic Register Special
  • December 30, 2009
{mosimage}Rimbocchiamoci le maniche is something my Italian father always says when there is much work to be done. Literally, it means to roll up one’s sleeves, but the idea behind it is to prepare ourselves for the hard work ahead. This could well be what we are being asked to do as Christians at the close of the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen.

Depending on whom you ask, the accord that came out of the climate summit could be considered “realistic,” as maintained by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, an “essential beginning,” as stated by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, or “a weak and morally reprehensible deal,” according to the Catholic Church through its international development agencies CIDSE and Caritas Internationalis .

Why such a discrepancy? It’s a matter of perspective. Christians evaluate social and economic activity from the viewpoint of the poor. The World Council of Churches, for instance, expressed its dismay that “the poorest people will be those most affected by this unfair deal.”

CIDSE and Caritas claim “the Accord will spell disaster for millions of the world’s poorest people.” They argue the needs of the poor ought to take priority over the desires of the rich.

“People in developing countries are already struggling with the effects of climate change,” says Niamh Garvey of the Irish Catholic development agency Trócaire/Caritas Ireland . “The deal put forward in Copenhagen fails to provide the commitments that the science says are required.”

The science to which she refers indicates disaster will befall African nations, low-lying islands and coastal plains unless global warming is kept well below two degrees. To achieve this we have to stabilize levels of CO2 (carbon dioxide) at concentrations of 350 parts per million in the atmosphere. The accord does not enforce any such upper limit.

From the Christian standpoint, 350 becomes a moral target as it represents the maximum concentration of CO2 the atmosphere can support without causing destructive changes in weather patterns. This is why church bells rang out 350 times across Denmark, Canada and several other countries on Dec. 12. The act was staged by faith leaders to encourage negotiators in Copenhagen to reach a climate-change deal based on what scientists claim is necessary, not on what is politically realistic.

We have instead “an unambitious non-binding agreement that sees countries set their own individual targets based on what is considered economically and politically viable rather than what is required by science and justice,” argue CIDSE and Caritas.

Why should 350 ppm matter to us?

Anika Schroeder of German CIDSE member Misereor put it this way: “One degree may not sound like very much to someone on the street, but the difference between two degrees and three degrees for developing countries is counted in hundreds of thousands of lost lives. In fact, the most vulnerable countries are calling for 1.5 degrees to be the limit.”

Put another way, asking poor countries to sign on to this accord is asking them “to sign a suicide pact, an incineration pact in order to maintain the economic dominance of a few countries,” declares Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese chair of the G77 group representing 130 poor countries.

Although Christians in their mission to build the reign of God never settle with what is realistic, perhaps, as Ban Ki-moon suggests, the accord can be considered an “essential beginning” — one, we may add, laden with personal and collective conversion, yet also full of hope.

This is where we roll up our sleeves.

“To convert,” our bishops tell us, is “to regain a sense of limit.” In their 2008 pastoral letter  “Our Relationship with the Environment: The Need for Conversion ”, Canadians bishops say conversion implies “we free ourselves collectively from our obsession to possess and consume.” This includes our obsession with fossil fuels. 

And hope? Caritas Bangladesh President Theotonius Gomes puts it well: “We have to take hope out of this summit. We saw a huge mobilization of people around the world clamouring for justice. Those calls will only grow. The momentum for change will become unstoppable.”

We’ve certainly got our work cut out for us but time is running out. Our work could begin by making our sacred spaces more energy efficient. It could involve organizing educational workshops to discern our relationship with all of creation. Ultimately, it means we should make our standpoint of love for neighbour, especially those who are poor, heard at the highest levels of political decision-making.

(Appolloni is studying for a PhD. in religion and ecology at the Centre for the Study of Religion and the Centre for the Environment , University of Toronto.)

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