Pope Francis’s announcement that he would not be travelling to the UN climate Cop28 talks in Dubai due to illness is, perhaps, no surprise. He is 87 on December 17th, has just one functioning lung and is suffering from lung inflammation. Due to his outspoken views on climate change, there has been widespread disappointment at his absence from Cop28, which he was to have attended for three days, concluding today. Maybe he has had a lucky escape.
Many negotiators were hoping for a Christmas miracle with his attendance. Sadly, not even he would have been able to salvage Cop28 now. By simply being there in such a high-profile role, moreover, he risked providing moral cover – “faithwashing”, as some have called it – for a round of talks which is looking increasingly discredited.
Pope Francis does not need to travel to Dubai for his views to be heard. The official Catholic position will be well represented by the Vatican, which is now a formal party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Moreover, his views on the climate crisis are no secret. He wrote his groundbreaking letter on the environment, Laudato Si’ (Praise Be), just before the landmark Paris Agreement in 2015, which he addressed to “all people on the planet” and called on everyone to embrace the need for change.
Despite significant internal opposition in some quarters, he has worked over the past eight years to advocate for “ecological conversion” and “integral ecology”. He has supported the emerging Laudato Si’ Movement (even naming it) and adopted new initiatives such as the annual Season of Creation and an online churchwide sustainability platform known as the Laudato Si’ Action Platform.
Since it launched in late 2022, this hugely popular platform has signed up over 8,000 Catholic institutions to create new sustainability plans. He has even spearheaded initiatives to decarbonise the Vatican state itself, starting with St Peter’s Basilica. But much remains to be done to mobilise his 1.2 billion global flock, yet the foundations have now been laid.
The pope’s deep concern about the lack of political will in the run-up to Cop28, and the fractious global context in which climate is being discussed, has led him to double down on his climate message. On October 4th he published a new apostolic letter, Laudate Deum (Praise God) which caused a stir in political and church circles. In it he raised huge concerns in advance of Cop28. He called out specifically the influence of corporate interests in multilateral processes at all these Cop meetings.
Perhaps surprisingly, top of his list of concerns is the increasingly complex challenge of AI and disinformation and their potential to hinder widespread action based on climate science. In the face of this, he has been at pains to explain the scientific consensus – using his unique platform as pontiff to bypass the channels of misinformation.
He has concluded that the evidence is overwhelming and deeply alarming for anyone who is concerned about the future of this world. He underlines the gravity of the situation and the need for all, starting with Catholics, to act decisively on the science.
Next on Francis’s list is the urgent need to phase out fossil fuels. He has spoken out forcefully on the need to “keep fossil fuels in the ground” – much to the ire of the big oil producers. Many parts of the Catholic Church, and faith groups at large, have divested from fossil fuels and signed on to calls for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. His schedule for Dubai had included a meeting with heads of state from small island nations who have signed a strong statement calling for such a treaty, an act of solidarity which would have been striking.
Third on his list is the continuing failure of rich nations to finance climate action in poorer countries. Eight years after Paris the list of broken promises is long and growing. High on that list of promises was the loss and damage fund, agreed last year at Cop27 in Egypt’s Sharm El-Sheikh. This was designed to finance reparations for losses due to climate change – yet one year later this fund still remains only an idea. Countries including Ireland are being asked now to accelerate capitalisation of this fund at Cop28.
Other faith leaders will hopefully be there in force – especially as, for the first time ever, there will be a dedicated Faith Pavilion. One can only hope and pray that, despite his absence, the courage and fighting spirit of Francis will inspire those at Cop28 in Dubai to acknowledge what is at stake and act before it is too late.
Dr Lorna Gold is chief executive of FaithInvest and a member of the Laudato Si’ working group of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference