This week, as Pope Francis visits the United States, all eyes will be on his speech before Congress on Thursday, and how it could affect domestic politics — especially on the subject of climate change.
But Francis’s speech the next day, before the U.N. General Assembly, may more completely underscore the full meaning of his influential encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si (Praised Be),” and have the most lasting impact.
The pope will address the United Nations just as the body moves to approve a set of ambitious 2030 sustainable development goals that range from putting an end to hunger and poverty to ensuring the availability of clean water and energy. Only one of the 17 major goals — each supported by multiple sub-goals — is to address climate change through the U.N. process that will seek a major global agreement in Paris this December.
But in a sense, they’re all interconnected in an economic and social vision that turns on using the globe’s wealth and its natural resources — water, energy, forests, and more — so as to ensure equitable benefits and avoid the negative impacts, particularly to the poor and disadvantaged, that result from over-exploitation.
“We can say fairly safely that you cannot deliver the sustainable development goals without a climate agreement, but it’s also true the other way, that if we don’t deliver the sustainable development goals we will not be able to reach the overall objectives that are set out in the climate agreement,” said Janos Pasztor, the U.N. assistant secretary general on climate change.
That’s a reality that’s consonant with Francis’s own message, as articulated in his encyclical. There, the pope called on the world not only to tackle climate change but also to address a broader culture that is wasteful and unsustainable, taking up subjects ranging from city planning and water availability to consumerism and tropical deforestation.
“Efforts to promote a sustainable use of natural resources are not a waste of money, but rather an investment capable of providing other economic benefits in the medium term,” the pope wrote.
“He’s calling on us to come back to the idea that the economy is to serve human well-being, not human well-being serving the economy,” said economist Jeffrey Sachs, a U.N. adviser and director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “This resonates, I know, with a lot of leaders in a lot of places around the world, and he’ll therefore give a powerful start to the new sustainable development goals.”
The U.N. sustainable development goals, which are expected to be adopted relatively unchanged by the world body’s member states shortly after Francis’s speech, were drafted following the 2012 Rio+20 meeting in an intensive process that reflected thorough input by countries themselves. They seek to extend the 2000 Millennium Development Goals, which are widely seen as being more limited in scope and more exclusively aimed at addressing poverty.
Those goals did not explicitly mention climate change as a target to be addressed — though they did cover “environmental sustainability” — and were not as sweeping in seeking to connect global resource practices with their economic consequences and their impacts on the poor and disadvantaged.
The sustainable development goals go deeper — and further. It’s a “more holistic vision of society, where your headline is not just reporting the GDP change this quarter, but how are you doing on income inequality, how are you doing on environmental sustainability, how are you doing on social trust and inclusion,” Sachs said.
Take just one example — global energy subsidies. According to a recent white paper released by the International Monetary Fund, such policies — which in effect make energy cheaper than it would be if all of its costs, including contributions to negative impacts like climate change, were taken into account — were projected to be worth $5.3 trillion this year. That’s a number that translates into 6.5 percent of the globe’s annual GDP.
Energy subsidies, in turn, help promote and bulwark the use of fossil fuel resources that not only warm the climate but contribute to a recently estimated 3 million deaths annually from air pollution. The U.N. sustainable development goals would call for phasing out many fossil fuel subsidies.
The goals are considered sure to be adopted, but the real trick involves their implementation. That’s where Francis, as moral messenger, can have his greatest influence, suggested Andrew Steer, president and chief executive of the World Resources Institute.
“Here’s why the pope is important, is that the concern is that heads of state will come, and they’ll say, yes, ‘we approve these, it’s great, let’s get on with it,’ ” Steer said. “But actually, they’ll leave and they won’t have quite the same motivating force as they need to have.”
Francis not only serves as the moral messenger here — he’s also demonstrated how climate change connects to a broader set of practices that are wasteful and unsustainable.
“We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth,” the pope wrote in his encyclical. “The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world.”
According to Steer, there are many ways in which achieving the sustainable development goals would help lessen the climate problem — beyond simply cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. For instance, slowing or halting tropical deforestation would help lessen the load of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as more trees would pull in more carbon dioxide through the process of photosynthesis.
“We could restore the land, and the restoration of the land is not only an economic and social thing, it’s also a spiritual thing,” Steer said. “And if we did restore the land, we would bring that carbon down to Earth in the form of soil and crops and trees and bushes, where it actually brings life and vitality and resilience, in a really wonderful way.”
Pope Francis has put a central moral emphasis on how the consequences of a warming world will fall disproportionately on citizens of poorer countries who did not create the problem — thus transforming an issue sometimes seen as purely environmental into one that turns on economics and equity.
One of the 17 sustainable development goals exhorts countries to fix climate change by agreeing to and then implementing a U.N. agreement to be achieved this December in Paris. In advance of the meeting, many countries have outlined plans to cut emissions and submitted those to the U.N. But according to numerous observers, the total reductions would not be large enough to ensure that the warming of the planet stays under two degrees Celsius above pre-
industrial levels — a widely accepted international target (although some scientists have begun to suggest that two degrees Celsius would still be quite dangerous, particularly when it comes to raising the planet’s sea levels).
U.N. negotiators and representatives have insisted that the Paris agreement will be just a beginning of a long journey to keep the planet safe from warming. “Let’s not fall into the mistake of judging Paris by the two-degree [target],” said the U.N.’s Pasztor. What’s most important, he suggested, will be follow-through and ensuring that the agreement requires a tightening of targets and further progress after 2015. It’s “how frequently will they come together to say, okay, now we will raise the ambition levels,” Pasztor said.
The pope has a moral role not only in exhorting climate action in general but in pushing for a vital aspect of a 2015 climate agreement, one that is also explicitly addressed in the sustainable development goals. Namely, since countries must already adapt to increasingly costly climate impacts — and since poorer countries must often bear the brunt of these, even as they have less infrastructure and resilience — developed countries are expected to deliver $100 billion each year by 2020 to aid climate change adaptation in developing countries.
It’s hard to think of any part of the expected global climate agreement that’s more directly resonant with Pope Francis’s encyclical.
In the end, the pope and the sustainable development goals are “really calling on us to have a broader perspective on what is the human purpose, how are we managing our affluence,” Sachs said. “Because the affluence is very great in this world, but the results that come out of it are not necessarily what they should be.”