Climate Agreement requires priests and prophets by Dr Tjirk van der Ziel

The very moment Julianne Hickey starts talking about children, the room falls silent. Previously, she had spoken about people who barely contribute to climate change but were to pay a high price. Julianne is director of the Catholic relief organization Caritas and travels around this vast archipelago. She sees how the sea rises and the population must give in, step by step. But it is the youngest ones who break her heart. Tears appear, her voice stutters, then: “These children have the right to get a better future.” She starts a melody, from the Maori, the native inhabitants of New Zealand, but gets stuck. A colleague jumps in. Together they sing the song.

We are left with a lump in the throat. Can it still go wrong? The summit began so well. A few small islands threatened by flooding want to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Thanks to media attention, scientific reports and the unexpected support of several developed countries, they managed to include that limit in the negotiations. More good news: the draft also includes the protection of human rights. Organizations fighting for a fairer distribution of wealth were thrilled. Finally climate justice seemed to be one of the pillars of the new agreement.

But in the last phase of the negotiations disappointment grows. Climate justice and human rights were now only mentioned in the preamble of the agreement, without a legally binding obligation. This is a weakening. Further, it remains completely unclear how global warming should be kept between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level. Suppose we are unable: weather extremes will hit much more vulnerable countries. Then a new draft appears – we all print, read, frown, compare, sigh. In conference halls and coffee corners the mood gradually falls. In the media centre journalists write faster, photographers run back and forth.

Suddenly the world press march to a hastily arranged press conference. Behind the table five scientists wait, their faces look tight, promising a thunderstorm. They speak of a “deadly document” for the poor. One bends over to the microphone: Europe, the US and Australia must take responsibility by being entirely CO2-free in 2030. Developing countries could then have twenty more years to make the same switch. The academics show impatience. Could the press not help to communicate this urgent message?

Afterwards I unexpectedly met Rowan Williams, who is well known for his emphasis on creation care. He is in a hurry, but likes to share his thoughts. “I’ve studied Eastern Orthodoxy. In these churches, the earth is lifted up in prayer and sacrament. This is an extremely important priestly task. The earth reflects the divine beauty, which reminds us that the whole creation participates in our change, our conversion, our salvation.” A last word: “We must act like priests, because climate change has everything to do with our humanity.”

At the summit fine words are spoken about faith communities. In particular the encyclical of Pope Francis gets a lot of attention. In “Laudate Si” he advocates for an integrated ecology: all life on Earth is interconnected. This fact cannot be ignored without serious consequences. But when Cardinal Peter Turkson speaks on behalf of the Pope, a question resounds from the audience. Climate change is man-made, so what has God got to do with it? His reply:” God has made us to love. If we do not know what He means by love, we will not know how to love other human beings and the rest of creation.”

The next day, an agreement has been reached. After the failure of Copenhagen, this summit ended on a far more optimistic note. There was joy, laughter, cheering, even tears. But I left the conference centre, slightly confused. I think of the children of Oceania. Is their future safe, bright, guaranteed? Climate change touches the core of our existence, the basic needs of every human being: we all need security, food, shelter, a place to live in a community. Should global solidarity not start with the notion of loving our neighbours? That is any one of the current seven billion people. And what about all life on Earth, which is not ours but of God?

Such solidarity does not just happen. Yes, we need priests, but if Paris wants to write history, prophets are also required. Prophets keep us alert. They put the finger on our tendency to look away. They point to our shortcomings. They call unfair practices and structures by their names. And they show a vision, a perspective on another reality in which humans dwell in harmony with each other and with their natural environment. Without them, the leaders of this world will not be able to seek the best for this and future generations.

So let’s be priests and prophets.

Tjirk van der Ziel

Dr Tjirk van der Ziel is a JRI Associate. He is also so far the only person from outside the UK to have completed the CRES course.