By Danilo Zak
“I would like to enter into a dialogue with all people about our common home”
When Pope Francis speaks, millions around the world listen. His recent tour through the States resulted in Beatles-esque crowds and a U.S. congressman stealing holy water to sprinkle on his grandkids. It was a scene, as it is almost anywhere the Pope travels. For the most part, he has become a sensation through his populist policies and his advocacy for civil rights and freedoms. But the Pope has also made waves by speaking adamantly about the ecological perils facing this Earth. His speech in D.C. was a call to action, as was the decisive June encyclical from this year, entitled “On Care for Our Common Home.” The Pope was clear: We are harming this planet, and it is our collective duty to stop.
Before continuing, we should take a moment to acknowledge that the Pope’s perspective is perhaps not in line with the Catholic majority. Particularly in United States, there is a segment of the Catholic right that is staunchly and politically against conceding the reality of man-made climate change. According to a Pew poll from around the same time as the Pope’s encyclical, less than half of American Catholics believe humans play a significant role in our changing climate. Less than half also designate the environment to be a serious issue.
But despite the still significant debate among the U.S. public over whether man-made climate change even exists, the science comprehensively sides with the Pope. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2013 scientific assessment added yet another voice to the many that declared the changing environment to be an imminent danger to the world, asserting that it will require “an aggressive mitigation scenario” to prevent a widespread negative impact.
In his discourse this year, the Pope has clearly joined scientists in issuing a mandate. So what exactly is the world doing to respond? Over the next few months, I hope to use this blog as a space to try and answer that question. Many of us have heard terms like the “Kyoto Protocol” or even are dimly aware of the coming Climate Change Convention this year in Paris. But lost in the debate over the mere existence of Global Warming – or, for that matter, the Pope waving his hand and saying, “It shall be” – is a discussion of the intricacies and difficulties of the international response to climate change. For now, a brief overview will do.
The international response to climate change officially started in 1988, with the formation of the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This lead to the near universal adoption of the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1994, an early agreement to work to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For about the next fifteen years, U.N. reaction to climate change was centered around the much talked about Kyoto Protocol. In brief, the Protocol was a 1997 U.N. agreement to reduce emissions of GHG by setting emission targets for each country to reach by a certain period. Notably, the targets for developing countries like India and China were nonbinding, while targets for developed countries, like the U.S., were written in as mandatory. Among other things, this led the Clinton Senate and later President Bush to refuse to ratify the protocol, making America one of the few states in the world to not participate.
The Kyoto Protocol only went into effect in 2005, and it is still difficult to make broad claims of its success or failure. Perhaps in a future piece I will delve more deeply into how and why it was or was not effective, but at this point it is definitely appropriate to say that there is more work to be done. Additionally, the protocol’s various requirements and targets end in 2020.
This brings us to the coming Climate Change Convention, beginning on November 30 in Paris and dubbed “COP21.” Representatives from over 190 countries will join in the French capital to work on a new agreement to reduce GHG emissions. To counteract some of the issues faced in the Kyoto Protocol, individualized commitments for each country have been in the works for the past few years. In preparation for the upcoming negotiations in Paris, state governments have submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). These reports define the willingness of each participating state to reduce GHG emissions. With these reports in place, the delegates at COP21 will be able to base their agreement on the realities of the situation on a country-by-country basis. Ideally, this will reduce some of the tension that surrounded the allegedly unfair Kyoto Protocol.
Temperatures are still rising across the globe, and scientists believe an increase of just 2 degrees Celsius could have a huge impact. Getting the whole world to agree on emissions restrictions has proven to be near impossible during the long and tortured Kyoto Protocol negotiations. Now, the future of this earth hangs in the balance as the U.N. meets in Paris. As the Pope says, we need to come together to care for our common home. This winter, we’ll see if we can make his vision a reality.
Danilo Zak ’18 is a sophomore in Silliman College. Danilo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.