Activists Hoping the Pope's Climate Change Message Will Spur Action at UN Paris Summit

Posted Sept. 30, 2015

MP3 Interview with May Boeve, executive director of the climate action group, conducted by Scott Harris


Pope Francis began his recent visit to the United States with an address at the White House in which he directly called for action on climate change. The pontiff said, "It seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history." The pope's focus on the need for government action on global warming was a recurring theme during his trip, along with the issues of combating poverty and inequality.

In a speech to world leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York City, the leader of the Catholic Church linked the issues of environment destruction and poverty when he said, "A selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and the disadvantaged."

Just days after the Pope departed the U.S. for Rome, a sobering new study was published by the U.S.-based climate research group, Climate Interactive. They conclude that the emissions reductions announced by the U.S., the European Union, China, Brazil and other governments in advance of the U.N.'s December climate summit meeting in Paris, still leave the world on a trajectory toward 6.3 degrees F of warming by the end of the century. Scientific research predicts this level of global warming can lead to crop failures, critical food shortages and widespread plant and animal life extinctions. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with May Boeve, executive director of the climate action group, who assesses the importance of Pope Francis' message on climate change and what's at stake in the upcoming UN Climate Summit in Paris.

MAY BOEVE: I think Pope Francis' message has been critically important. I think it served as a real wakeup call for people around the world to see not only the growing threat of climate change, but how it's connected to so many other important issues that matter to people. Issues like income inequality and social justice. I think Pope Francis has issued this clarion call to action that's about "We stand at a really crucial moment on this planet and we can either act and take the shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy and in a way that actually builds healthier community. Or we can stay stuck in the pattern that we're in with very known consequences.

We've already seen one degree Celsius of warming in global average temperature. And just in one degree, we've seen Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the drought in California and on and on. So when we start thinking about temperature rise exceeding that and by a great degree, that's putting millions of people's lives at risk. And so, Pope Francis is I think, first and foremost, a messenger about our obligation to our fellow human beings and to future generations, and that's why his message on climate change is so important.

BETWEEN THE LINES: May, there were some announcements by important nations around the world on their efforts to reduce their greenhouse gases and confront climate change. China talked about a cap and trade program that they were going to implement. Brazil also announced some hard and fast reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions and a commitment to stop the deforestation in Brazil. But at the same time, there were these very projections by Climate Interactive, even if all these commitments come to pass, which is dubious. But even if they did come to pass, that the planet would be in a lot of trouble in terms of increase of the temperature of the earth toward the end of this century. Can you just expand on the what important message of Climate Interactive here is, in their analysis?

MAY BOEVE: I think, most of all, it points out just how serious the problem is and how much action is required to confront it. And you know, those of us who are concerned about climate change can be rightfully accused of being downers. And this is, I think, a good example, on a week where there's tons and tons of good news, here we are saying, once again, "It's not good enough." But unfortunately, that's true. And as my colleague, Bill McKibben likes to say, "Physics and chemistry don't negotiate." We know that with the amount of carbon emissions in the atmosphere, we have no choice but to take dramatic action to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

And it's going to take a lot. It's going to take even more. But there's finally momentum on our side. And for as long as this issue has been understood and scientists and activists have tried to force action, we're finally starting to see the pace of change that we actually need. And so, I take great inspiration from some of the announcements made this week, because it shows that world leaders are starting to understand that they have to grapple with this problem at significant levels.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Tell us what's at stake at this United Nations climate summit where hundreds of nations will be represented and people will be in the streets all around Paris and around the world making their voices heard on the urgent issue of climate change.

MAY BOEVE: So what's at stake is the opportunity, once again, for global leaders to commit to crucial targets on climate change. What's different about these talks is that countries are supposed to come to Paris already having made a national commitment. And so individual countries are supposed to come to the table saying, "We will commit to reducing our emissions by x percent. We will commit to reducing deforestation by x percent." These sorts of things. And it's up to the countries in many respects to implement what they've committed to.

But in terms itself, there are critical issues to be looked at. One is the question of finance and to what degree are countries willing to commit real resources to helping countries adapt to the worse effects of climate change. Another issue we're looking at is what's called the "ratchet mechanism." How will these individuals countries' commitments be updated over time. And then, lastly, really looking at what is the over-arching global goal? If you add up all of these efforts, what does it really represent? A push to phase fossil fuels out of our economy at a certain point? To move to an economy powered by 100-percent renewable energy at a certain point?

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