Global leaders for climate justice

This day sees the start in Paris of the global, UN-sponsored Climate Change Conference, or COP 21. 21 stands for the 21st time that global leaders meet in order to agree on a legally binding accord to cap greenhouse gas emissions responsible for the changing of Earth's climate. This very number is exemplary of the complexity of the task ahead.

The run-up to this event, especially during 2015, has seen two figures towering the scene and raising expectations: US President Barack Obama and Catholic Pope Francis.

The United States is, historically, one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases and the champion of fossil fuel based economic development. Simultaneously its civic society has been a motor for innovation in many environmental matters. The conservationist movement has its roots in cultural figures like Henry David Thoreau and revered Presidents like Abraham Lincoln who signed the grant for Yosemite National Park and Theodore Roosevelt who instituted the federal Forest Service. Modern environmentalism owes much to the American counterculture movement of the 1960s; the famous Blue Marble, the first whole-earth photograph taken by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972, had immediately become the symbol of Earth's frailty and unicity.

Blue Marble

Today, Barack Obama is trying to strike a delicate balance between this two opposite, almost bi-polar peculiarities of the nation he leads. Last August his administration unveiled the Clean Power Plan, which sets the first-ever carbon pollution standards for power plants: the goal is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. The federal plan aims also at expanding the clean energy economy, building clean energy infrastructure, cutting energy waste in homes, businesses and factories and reducing other greenhouse gas emissions. It is exceptional in its sheer scope. Some critics however say that it is too little, too late and that it leaves too much room to state governments in its implementation, all of which may be true. But what these critics ignore is the importance of the perception that the tide has changed and that this is the new norm, in short: the power of symbols.

All of this contradicts directly what happened just weeks after announcing the Clean Power Plan: the federal government had allowed the notorious drilling for crude oil in the Chukchi Sea in the Alaskan Arctic, citing energy security reasons. Understandably, the White House had been accused of undermining its own message. Or perhaps, in an act of political shrewdness and pragmatism, the President just didn't want to pick up an open fight with the oil industry when he felt that the events would be running in his favour anyways, and save political capital for later. Far from the spotlight, federal regulators were imposing greater and greater restrictions that were causing drilling costs to levitate. And in fact, shortly thereafter Shell announced that they were giving up their Arctic oil drilling undertaking, citing rising costs and the unpredictable federal regulatory environment. Increasingly hostile public opinion has evidently also played a role in their decision.

Obama's last act before what we hope will be Paris' grand finale has been played on the stage of the hugely controversial Keystone XL pipeline. This project was supposed to bring oil extracted from dirty Canadian tar sands to US refineries on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico crossing US "heartland", and it has ignited and polarised American public opinion for quite some time. Estimating that both economic benefits and environmental detriments were less momentous than the media had long hyped, the administration decided, earlier this November, to nix the project, at risk of angering a Congress that was largely in favour. The President stated, visibly proudly: "America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change and, frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership."

Obama rightly said that "those who are already feeling the effects of climate change don't have time to deny it—they're busy dealing with it." Indeed, many US citizens start to feel the bite: California (population: 38 million, agricultural production: half of US-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables) is in a historic drought for the 4th year now, monster hurricanes have become a norm on the East Coast and forest fires are increasingly threatening America's great woods. These are very powerful images that confront constantly even the unscathed average American community, and public opinion on climate is shifting.

While the steps taken by Obama address economic and security concerns, as it is rightly expected of a head of state, another global leader has acted in an area hitherto left largely untouched: the moral case against climate change.

Pope Francis' encyclical letter "Laudato si' — On care for our common home" records for the first time the official view of the Roman Church on the environment. Anticipated by much controversy and the usual leaks it sets a score for the Pope against arch-conservative forces in the Vatican. "Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods," the encyclical says.

I would like to underline here two points that are particularly dear to me.

The first is: "The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world [...] In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future." Developed world is the cause of climate change, and it is about time to look at ourselves in the mirror and face that. What we are collectively responsible for it's something like digging for gold under the neighbours' house, letting it collapse, leaving them homeless and then even call the cops to have the homeless in our street arrested!

And the second: "An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness," and then takes the care of reminding us of basic suggestions that everyone should have already been following for a while by now, like recycling, car pooling, planting trees. Francis' point here is that everyone of us can and must act: me, you, our communities. No one can save us if not ourselves.

The Pontiff's analysis goes deeper: he describes need and greed as two opposite worldviews. The former are universal, limited, non-substitutable and with clear ethical grounding. The latter limitless, non-satiable, substitutable and amoral. Modern economic structures are very efficient at satisfying ever-increasing greed, thanks to scientific and technological advances, but seem incapable of satisfying basic needs. He finds the culprit in capitalism's lack of distinction between need and greed: they are both just desires to be quantified and to be met, where naturally the wealthy's greed has more chances than the poor's need. The Pope has launched a moral critique of capitalism itself.

He seems skeptical of technical or market-based solutions (which have brought us this far, by the way), because he frames climate change as a moral problem, that needs a moral solution.

Sure, Francis' words may be taken by cynics literally as "just words", but let's not underestimate the strength and the serenity that is given in a negotiation by the conviction of being on the moral side of an argument. Other world faith leaders have since approved the encyclical's core message, and more people seem to welcome their public stance as they feel that their political representatives have a lax attitude towards climate change.

How ironic, and appropriate at the same time, it is that in the limelight of this global challenge stand the leaders of two of the most conservative powers in history: the Government of the United States and the Roman Catholic Church.