But speaking to the United Nations General Assembly Friday, Francis transformed into an international policy, law, and development wonk – and above all, the spirited author of “Laudato Si” (“Praised Be”), his stirring encyclical on the environment.
“The ecological crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species,” Francis said. “The baneful consequences of an irresponsible mismanagement of the global economy, guided only by ambition for wealth and power, must serve as a summons to a forthright reflection on man.”
He also deliberately spoke in the U.N.’s language of rights, but pushed to broaden the very concept. “First, it must be stated that a true ‘right of the environment’; does exist, for two reasons. First, because we human beings are part of the environment,” the pope said. “Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.”
The speech also ranged across topics ranging from human trafficking to war, nuclear weapons and the international drug trade.
But the strong environmental statements in particular were quickly welcomed. “Pope Francis’s emphasis on the fact that the climate crisis and the crisis of biodiversity ‘can threaten the very existence of the human species’ ought to serve as a wake-up call to those around the world who are standing in the way of action,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, in a statement.
Francis spoke before the United Nations as the body moves to endorse a highly aspirational set of new post-2015 sustainable development goals – 17 separate, highly detailed items calling not only for addressing climate change but ending poverty and hunger, improving cities, spreading renewable energy, improving access to education, and much more.
Underneath the 17 goals are no less than 169 specific targets, relating to subjects ranging from energy subsidies to the development of genebanks to support for the archiving of crop diversity. The goals are all meant to be achieved by 2030 – the document becomes operative at the end of this year.
The goals are a successor to the post-2000 Millennium Development Goals, which were most centrally focused on addressing poverty in developing countries – and which did see substantial success, thanks in part to a period of considerable economic growth around the world. At the time, there were only eight goals and 21 targets, demonstrating just how much further ranging are the U.N.’s new ambitions.
In particular, the Millennium Development Goals did not include any plank or target for addressing climate change.
The affinity between the U.N.’s new sustainable development goals on the one hand, and Pope Francis’s message as articulated in his Laudato Si is extremely close.
What’s fundamental to both documents is the idea that you can’t separate environmental progress from social progress – that all the issues are tightly linked together. That environmental problems harm the poor most of all – and that failing to live sustainably in what we eat, how we travel, how we get electricity, the structures we use to build homes, has vast societal consequences that are tied up with the unequal distribution of resources and thus poverty and injustice.
Still, there is a concern that, as Andrew Steer of the World Resources Institute has put it, delegates might ratify the new sustainable development goals but then, once they return to their home countries, “they won’t have quite the same motivating force as they need to have.” That’s especially worrying in that there are so many goals, so many targets, it is easy to see how progress on some of them could slide.
Thus, in one notable part of Francis’s address, he not only expressed his confidence that the Sustainable Development Goals will be agreed upon, but also that there will be a climate agreement in Paris later this year to boot. He further exhorted leaders to stay the course and basically, work extremely hard to ensure their realization – rather than relaxing.
“Our world demands of all government leaders a will which is effective, practical and constant, concrete steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment and thus putting an end as quickly as possible to the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion, with its baneful consequences,” the pope said.
Indeed, Francis appeared to suggest before the United Nations that the goals cannot be fully attained without a deep moral sense – technocratic measurements of progress won’t be enough.
“Political and economic activity is only effective when it is understood as a prudential activity, guided by a perennial concept of justice and constantly conscious of the fact that, above and beyond our plans and programmes, we are dealing with real men and women who live, struggle and suffer, and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights,” said Francis.
With words like this, Francis in effect served in precisely the role that many have foreseen for him in both the sustainable developments goals process and also the Paris climate negotiations – as both an inspiration but also an unrelenting motivator.
“This was an incredibly moving and inspiring speech,” said Kitty van der Heijden, director of the World Resources Institute’s Europe office and formerly head of the Netherlands’ Department for Climate, Energy, Environment and Water. “The pope brought a beautiful message that we are all interconnected and we cannot leave anyone behind. This is at the core of the new Sustainable Development Goals: we can help the most vulnerable and protect our planet at the same time.”
Still, attaining the new sustainable development goals – each of which actually has a quantified target, will be difficult. That’s in part because for their realization the world will have to do much more than simply firing its economic engines and counting on growth, said Michael Green, the executive director of the Social Progress Imperative, which seeks to analyze countries’ progress not only based on GDP but also on other more social measures – “basic human needs,” “foundations of wellbeing,” and “opportunity.”
“If we think about a country’s or world’s development strategy, if it’s based on economic growth alone, it’s only half a strategy,” said Green. “You’ve got to think about how you’re turning that economic growth into progress.”
One thing that the goals will certainly require is a vast amount of public and private investment.
A central space where that investment must happen is what you might call international climate finance, centered on the investment in clean energy and climate adaptation around the world. A great deal more funding must flow into this space if the goals of sustainable development, climate mitigation, and climate readiness are to be achieved – indeed, an implicit goal is that by 2020, $100 billion annually will be given to developing countries for climate adaptation.
Voices in the climate finance space are certainly taking a positive outlook lately. “The momentum is building on climate action,” said Mafalda Duarte, program manager of the Climate Investment Funds, in a statement Thursday. The funds invest in clean energy and climate resilience programs around the world.
“There is an increasing recognition, an acceptance, that not only do we have a challenge here, but we’ve kind of stopped messing around on this, we’re thinking of constructive and concrete ways of addressing that challenge,” added Jonathan Taylor, a vice chairman of the European Investment Bank who leads its environmental, energy, and climate programs. The bank, which is run by the member states of the European Union, gives out about $25 billion annually in climate change related investments, Taylor said.
Also experiencing a boom as the sustainable development goals emerge is, well, the science of sustainability itself. Just before the endorsement of the U.N.’s goals, academic publisher Elsevier released a study showing that while there were 56,390 scientific papers published in the sustainability field in 2009, there were 75,602 published in 2013. The group computed the growth rate annually at 7.6 percent.
All of these trains are moving, simultaneously – the amount of activity being generated around sustainable development and climate change progress is stunning. And maybe that’s precisely why Francis’s voice, rising above it all, matters so much.
We won’t always remember all of the details – but we can remember the pope saying, before the U.N. General Assembly, that “Any harm done to the environment…is harm done to humanity.”
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