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Pope Francis: Present or Absent at COP28?

8 December 2023

Father Chiti from Zambia

Father Leonard Chiti, who attended COP28, discusses the impact of Pope Francis' absence at the event.

Ahead of the commencement of COP28, the UN climate change summit in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, UAE, it was announced that Pope Francis will not be attending due to illness. Many of us were disappointed that he could not attend. There was a lot of hope that with the Pope in attendance, there would be a major impetus in resolving programmes and activities leading to keeping the warming of the earth within sustainable limits (1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels) and providing help to communities that are not only experiencing the adverse effects of climate change but are also hurting.

Having attended two previous COPs, I agree with many who say the issue today is not a discussion on the cause and effects of climate change nor who has contributed the most to global emissions and therefore morally responsible for making ‘reparations or compensations’ to those who have contributed the least but suffer the most. There is consensus on all these. The issue, to use the words of the UN Secretary General, is a lack of political will to do that which everyone agrees should be done.

Archbishop Nolan, Fr Chiti, Alistair DuttonPhoto:  Archbishop Nolan, Father Chiti, and Alistair Dutton at the Global Day of Action march in Glasgow during COP26.

However, from day one, the figure of Pope Francis loomed large over COP28. The Holy See (the Vatican) had a delegation to the negotiations now that the Vatican is a state party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC. The delegation has some of the top experts on climate change and activists from around the world. In this way, Pope Francis was represented very well (present).

Secondly, there was a large contingent of Catholic actors from around the world including representatives of SCIAF, Caritas Internationalis (whose head is the former Chief Executive of SCIAF, Alistair Dutton), CIDSE, a group of catholic donor agencies, and many others.

Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State together with the local papal nuncio were in attendance. In all the deliberations, formal or informal, the name of the Pope was invoked repeatedly. His teaching on climate change from a major ground breaking encyclical Laudato Si and lately, Laudate Deum was cited repeatedly by many distinguished speakers.

What is Pope Francis’ major message on climate change? I would characterise it this way:

Science is unequivocal on the causes of the current climate and environmental crisis; the world has sought to address the crisis mainly through ‘technocratic means; poor communities the world over are bearing the brunt of the crisis and the environment too: It is time to bring God’s compassion into the equation by remembering God’s original intention as found in scripture and the teaching of major religions of the world (integral ecology) and by acting to arrest the progress of global warming (called for the elimination of fossil fuels); helping the poor and changing our lifestyles.

If this is a good summation of his message, I would argue that every Catholic and person of goodwill present at COP echoed most if not all the salient features of the Pope’s message. Obviously, one piece of good news at the beginning of COP was the signing of the text on the operationalization of a Loss and Damage Fund which if properly and transparently managed can ‘compensate’ those who are already suffering. COP28 is also expected to make progress on the theme of Food systems and Agriculture, a sector that affects billions of poor people around the world.

And finally, the Pope ‘spoke’ at COP28 during the inauguration of a faith pavilion, albeit via a video.

So, as we reach the end of COP28 I would say the Pope’s voice was loud and clear, even though he was not physically present. I pray that in the coming days, the COP28 delegation will rise to the occasion and deliver on all critical climate change issues. Behind all the negotiations and public demonstrations will be Pope Francis quietly urging and encouraging all to do what they can to save our common home and at the same time serve those most afflicted.