In the wake of the historic Paris climate agreement, many commentators have focused on the extraordinary work of the negotiators, the terms that have been agreed upon and the global outlook going forward. While these important topics merit extended analysis, I believe that we should also reflect on the key role that morality and ethics played in brokering a successful deal in Paris.
Pope Francis provided invaluable moral leadership before and during the COP21 conference. I believe his leadership was a key factor and helped provide the momentum necessary to complete the successful agreement in Paris. Inspired by him, people of many faiths, as well as those of no particular faith, engaged energetically. In Laudato Sí, the Pope articulated a moral framework, specifically addressing every person living on the planet. Many responded and came together to protect our common home and its most vulnerable people from the threats posed by climate change.
As with previous negotiations, COP21 was marked by technical discussions in the areas of climate science, economics, technology and diplomacy. At the same time, however, the understanding of climate change as a pressing moral issue permeated the dialogue of commentators and negotiators before, during, and after COP21 to a higher degree than in previous U.N. climate talks. For example, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon explicitly cited climate change as a “moral issue” in reference to COP21. Diplomats, academics, activists and ordinary citizens who support an international climate agreement made moral appeals in reference to COP21 than was the case previously.
We should not be surprised that increased attention to climate change as a moral issue helped pave the way for the historic agreement reached in Paris. Moral and ethical concerns have the power to transcend political ideologies, neutralize special interests, and unite persons of goodwill in cooperating for the common good.
The dialogue and negotiations associated with COP21 were rich with moral insights and appeals: the poor and vulnerable are disproportionately and unjustly harmed by the adverse effects of climate change; ecological degradation compromises the right to life, the dignity of the human person and the protection of vulnerable communities; the human family has a responsibility to protect the global common good for future generations.
This is not to say that ethical considerations were entirely absent from previous international negotiations. The U.N. and many countries in the Global South consistently raised moral concerns about the disproportionate effects of climate change and the need for common, but differentiated, responsibilities. But I would argue that moral discourse played a much larger role this time around thanks to Pope Francis and other faith leaders.
Since his election, Pope Francis has used his unique office and humble personality to place the ethics of ecology at the center of public debate. The release in June of Laudato Si’, the first papal encyclical on ecology, was timed, as Pope Francis himself acknowledged, to encourage a positive outcome at COP21. The ethics of ecology were part of his September addresses to the U.S. Congress and the U.N. General Assembly. He awakened our consciences to one of the defining moral issues of our time. As Dr. Alison Doig, senior advisor on Climate Change and Sustainable Development at Christian Aid, told Vatican Radio, “The whole mode that the Holy Father has brought to these talks [in Paris] has really transformed [COP21].”
The success of COP21 was undoubtedly due to the incredible hard work and persistence of many people, organizations and communities. At the same time, however, it is appropriate to recognize Pope Francis’s moral leadership. The ethical concerns he raised about ecology and climate change – which echoed those of Saint John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – helped chart the path to a successful international agreement to address climate change. As it turns out, morality matters when the goal is to protect our common home.
Reverend Oscar Cantú is the Bishop of Las Cruces, New Mexico and Chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.