Caring for our common home: the challenge of Laudato Sí
A day of reflection in Glasgow demonstrated that we all have a role to play in tackling the climate change crisis.
The timing of the day of reflection, organised by Justice and Peace Scotland, could not have been more apt. It was held on 21st September – the day after thousands of young Scots joined the global climate strike, and two days before climate activist Greta Thunberg berated world leaders at the UN climate summit for their failure to act. Just a few days later, a new report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) warned of a bleak future for the oceans and frozen regions of the earth.
The day began with a presentation on the science of climate change from research student James King. How are we to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement target of keeping a global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and limit the increase further to 1.5 degrees?
Jonathan Richards focussed on the role of industry. He argued that ethical investment is a key tool for influencing companies and financial markets. He highlighted the power of investors and the growing importance of sustainable investment funds directed to companies with positive business practices.
The story of how the Irish bishops rose to the challenge of disinvesting from fossil fuels was one of the most interesting of the day. It took three years and two attempts by the Irish aid agency Trócaire to persuade the bishops to agree to disinvest from fossil duels as part of their commitment to addressing climate change. Last year the chair of Trócaire, Bishop William Crean, on behalf of the Irish bishops’ conference, made a public commitment to disinvest from fossil fuels, together with the Church of Ireland and more than ten religious orders.
Dr Lorna Gold of Trócaire explained the journey they took, and the way in which climate justice and disinvestment were brought into the heart of the Irish Church. Her presentation began with a graph showing that Ireland’s carbon emissions per capita are over eighty times those of Ethiopia or Malawi. She pointed out that climate justice demands new economic models and radical, systemic change. Urgent action is needed at every level of society to overcome apathy and ignorance about the scale of the challenge we face. Divestment from fossil fuels, she said, is an ‘impactful way to change the system and the story’. As Pope Francis pointed out, our industrial system at the end of its cycle of production and consumption has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products (LS 22). We should not be investing in products which we now know cause untold ecological damage.
Trócaire became the first Irish institution to commit to fossil fuel divestment in 2015, and launched a national campaign in the Spring of 2016. Its efforts to engage the church were challenged by centuries of ‘anti-earth theology’. The eco-theologian Fr Sean McDonagh said that ‘Irish priests have been formed to despise the things of earth and love the things of heaven… In Laudato Sí, Pope Francis has brought us from kindergarten to PhD level in ecological theology in one swoop’.
Fr McDonagh became a member of the Laudato Sí working party. Its proposals include an annual ‘season of creation’ to be celebrated between 1st September and 4th October, school and adult faith development programmes, and the fossil fuels disinvestment campaign. A working group was set up for the bishops to help develop their confidence and understanding of the issue. They were given in-service training from scientists and theologians and an opportunity to reflect together. All the bishops went on a one day retreat on Laudato Sí. Trócaire built relationships with the financial advisors of the bishops’ conference and worked through their finance committee. The bishops then took a plenary decision and the announcement to disinvest was made on the eve of Pope Francis’ historic visit to Ireland last year.
While Lorna highlighted the leadership role of bishops, Stephen Curran, the manager of EcoCongregation Scotland, focused on the many ways in which local churches can make a difference. People understand the damage that climate change is doing to the environment, he said, and that global overheating is the biggest problem we face. The key question posed by Laudato Sí is what kind of world we want for our children, and for those who come after us.
EcoCongregation Scotland was founded in 2001 and became a registered charity in 2010. Its aim is to help Scottish congregations address environmental issues through their life and mission. Over 450 congregations have made a commitment to its three pronged programme of spirituality, practical living and global living. The programme makes links between environmental issues and faith; helps people with practical ways of reducing their environmental impact at home and in church; and aims to influence attitudes and take action locally and globally. Scotland is a small country, Stephen said, but we have the capacity to do more and influence change. He pointed out that Glasgow has been chosen as the location for next year’s COP26 UN global climate change summit.
EcoCongregation Scotland focuses on where people are and on the issues which engage them. It offers support for a wide range of action, from energy efficiency to public transport and campaigns for change. It publishes online resources, provide help and advice on going carbon neutral, and runs an award scheme to recognise congregational achievement. It helps develop local networks of eco-congregations and trains volunteers. It also represents Eco-Congregation Scotland to national church bodies and environmental organisations.
The final presentation of the day from Maggie Ngwira of Trócaire Malawi focussed on climate justice – the disproportionate impact of global warming on countries which have done least to cause it. Malawi’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is negligible, but because of underlying causes and pre-existing vulnerabilities, the country is badly hit by the effects of climate change. With only ten per cent of the population connected to the national electricity grid, and rapid population growth, forests are depleted annually. Malawi is increasingly urbanised and there are high levels of inequality.
Climate change threatens economic growth, long term prosperity and the livelihoods of an already vulnerable population. Extremes of climate have brought declining crop yields and food insecurity. Ninety percent of the population depend on rain fed agriculture and the poorest households can spend 75 per cent of their income buying food at inflated prices in times of drought. Food insecurity has many implications – it can lead to malnutrition, early marriages, female headed families, child labour, gender based violence and children dropping out of school.
A climate challenge programme funded by the Scottish Government and implemented in collaboration with SCIAF helps local communities in Malawi to develop food production, energy sources, income generation and access to water. It also raises awareness of climate change among student groups and advocates for the voices of local communities to be heard in the development of national policy.
Maggie ended by reminding participants that while climate change is still a political debate on the international scene, it is already affecting the lives of people in Malawi.
Sister Mary Kilpatrick SND is offering a series of reflections for groups and parishes inspired by Laudato Sí. Participants are invited to take time with others to reflect on the story of creation and the care of our common home, with the help of Scripture, art, music and poetry. Sessions focus on three questions.
Who do we think we are? Recognising and valuing our development as created beings.
Where on earth do we come from? Reflecting on and appreciating our shared history, beauty and uniqueness of the world.
Where do you think we are going… heaven or a new earth? The sacredness of earth, our common home: implications for faith and spirituality.
To organise reflections for your group or parish, contact Sister Mary at firstname.lastname@example.org or tel 0141 564 9931.
Lorna Gold’s book, Climate Generation: awakening to our children’s future, was published by Veritas in 2018.
Lorna shares her personal journey of understanding what climate change means for her as a mother seeking to protect her children and the world of which we are all part. She holds a PhD in Economic Geography from Glasgow University and lectures in Applied Social Studies in Maynooth University. She is a regular contributor to public debate on climate justice in Ireland and helped co-found ‘Stop Climate Chaos’ Ireland in 2006. She is vice-chair of the Global Catholic Climate Movement and a member of the Irish Government’s Advisory Group on the National Climate Dialogue.
www.justiceandpeace.org.uk: information about Justice and Peace Scotland.
www.trillionthtonne.org: carbon dioxide emissions
www.ecocongregationscotland.com: support for local congregations