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Pope's fighting words for a world in crisis

Bruce Duncan |  07 January 2010

Blueprint for a safer planet, by Nicholas SternPope Benedict is no sceptic about climate change. In numerous speeches and writings, he has been warning of the need to protect the earth from environmental damage so that it will offer a lasting home for all the generations to come. He particularly urged vigorous action during the Copenhagen conference to avert the threats from disastrous changes in weather patterns.

But Benedict's message is barely audible in Australia at least, where the coal industry is immensely important for the Australian economy, and very powerful politically and in sections of the media.

It has taken Benedict some time since becoming Pope to focus more sharply on the great new social issues of our day, the battle against global hunger and poverty being coordinated in part through the Millennium Development Goals, and the problems arising from global warming.

I would suggest that the Pope has two major problems in communicating his message. First, he lacks journalistic expertise to make his documents more readable. Even priests and development specialists are having difficulty understanding his social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, which deals with these burning issues.

And secondly, he needs in my view to make clear the message that the world can manage these crises. Yes, the problems are unprecedented, but we have enormous resources and wealth to bring to the task. Fear and panic can paralyse people from taking effective action. There is no need for despair.

The Pope needs not just to urge greater food production, but to highlight specialist opinions about the great capacity we still have to increase food security at higher levels of nutrition for the expected increase in world population.

He could also draw from experts like the former president of the World Bank, Nicholas Stern, in his recent study, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet, that we can generate vast financial resources not only to help poorer countries address climate change, but also to reinvigorate the global campaign to eliminate hunger and the worst forms of poverty in line with the Millennium Development Goals. We can do both.

Stern writes that to help poorer countries address the consequences of climate change, richer countries will need to provide about $130 billion a year over the next decade. This represents only about 1 per cent of the government expenditure of richer countries, and about a tenth of what they spend on the military.

In other words, it can be done relatively easily, especially if the world can reduce military spending and channel the money into development.

In addition of course, the richer countries still need to provide the promised funding of 0.7 per cent of their GDP for development assistance, which would amount to $300 billion a year, three times the current level of aid. If this seems too much, compare it with the tens of trillions of dollars richer nations have poured into their economies to bolster them against the global financial crisis.

The urgent message we need to spread is: 'Yes, we can do this.' And the world can do it relatively quickly, with effort and determination, if we have the political will and leadership.

In his World Day of Peace statement for 2010, the Pope has again highlighted the urgency of responding to climate change, declaring it one of the greatest moral challenges facing humanity.

Not only does drastic climate change imperil global food production, but the resulting problems threaten to cascade through the energy crisis, increasing competition for resources, especially water, and rising sea levels that will immerse island states and the great food-producing river-deltas of the world. Benedict writes:

'Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions?

'Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of 'environmental refugees', people who are forced by the degradation of their natural habitat to forsake it — and often their possessions as well — in order to face the dangers and uncertainties of forced displacement?

'Can we remain impassive in the face of actual and potential conflicts involving access to natural resources? All these are issues with a profound impact on the exercise of human rights, such as the right to life, food, health and development.'

Pope Benedict calls for a new model of economic development, insisting that 'Our present crises — be they economic, food-related, environmental or social — are ultimately also moral crises'. He urges richer people to adopt a more modest and frugal lifestyle, becoming more conscious not just of the environmental legacy for coming generations, but also of the struggle to eliminate hunger and poverty in poorer countries.

Reiterating themes from Caritas in Veritate, he insists that protecting the environment against the 'chilling prospects' of degradation must go hand in hand with promoting human development everywhere. 'We cannot remain indifferent to what is happening around us, for the deterioration of any one part of the planet affects us all.' He urges 'progressive disarmament and a world free of nuclear weapons'.

Against powerful sectional interests intent on denying climate change, including politicians and media who would argue that the Church has no business involving itself in such matters, the Pope insists:

'The Church has a responsibility towards creation, and she considers it her duty to exercise that responsibility in public life, in order to protect earth, water and air as gifts of God the Creator meant for everyone, and above all to save the human race from the danger of self-destruction.'

These are fighting words about issues we must confront in deadly earnest.

Bruce DunanFr Bruce Duncan is one of the founders of the advocacy organisation Social Policy Connections and director of the Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy.



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Submitted comments

"He (Pope) lacks journalistic expertise to make his documents more readable. Even priests and development specialists are having difficulty..." [Fr Bruce Duncan]

The real fault is in the way the Pope's documents are 'massaged' by us to suit our own agendas.

Too readily, we pick and choose the sections which seem to be quick, 'sound-grab', evidentiary texts.
Pope Benedict's message for New Year's Day - Catholic World Day of Prayer for Peace, is an example.

Its message, action against squandering nature's resources is urgent for the health, welfare and peace between humans and other sections of creation, for the present and the future, is very clear and framed within a vision spelt out most clearly, but, because the framework is in the last three paragraphs- fourteen paras in total, the framework either goes unread or is purposely glossed over for any catastrophism that can be 'massaged' out of the first five paragraphs, allowing opinionists the opportunity to claim that no less than the Pope backs up their arguements.
Give the Pope a fair read, read the whole of a document, respecting the framework - the Christian story of Salvation notably, in which they are written. Don't dumb him down.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW 07 January 2010

Unfortunately, neither the Pope (apparently) nor Fr Bruce Duncan have been keeping up with the science on global warming. While is it proper for the church to promote good care of resources and aid for those in need, it is quite another thing to promote large cash donation to unregulated bodies in the name of averting a disaster that is not real and if it was not controllable.

Help for adaptation etc is what Australia can do for neighbours quite independently of the UN.

As for growing more food, the easiest, cheapest and most effective way would be to pump as much harmless plant fertiliser (CO2) into the atmosphere for increasing (dramatically) crop yields the world over.

Warm is good. Cold is bad.

What does the church think about the modern use of the Millennium Development Goals to advance a culture of contraception and abortion?

Have fun!

Luke McCormack 07 January 2010

There are no climate change deniers. Everybody knows that the earth's climate has always changed and always will change. The real questions are: to what extent, if any, is human activity the cause of current patterns of climate change?; and, is the planet heating or cooling? The scientific community seems to be divided on these questions which leaves voters like me very much in the dark as to what is really going on.

Sylvester 07 January 2010

In the 1970s, in a community group called Action for World Development, we lobbied the pollies to up overseas aid to 0.7% of GDP. We might as well have pollied the lollies. I wish you well with your attempt to get them up to 0.7%

michael 07 January 2010

Pope Benedict may lack "journalistic expertise", but that's hardly in his job description. If it's sound-bites that are needed, I'm sure there are Vatican folk to help massage the message as required.

Luke McCormack's contribution is welcome. There is substantial evidence to the effect that plants grown under elevated carbon dioxide have low nutrient content; as such, they are junk food.

There is also good evidence that under elevated carbon dioxide, much agricultural land will be inundated under rising seas, and hence unavailable for food growing.

Mr McCormack would do well to keep up with the science.

For those interested, as "david_fta", I'm explaining some science to an apparent sceptic, one "philip_jr", at

Also have a look for "david_fta" http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/review-of-the-year-2009-climate-change-1847988.html

David Arthur 07 January 2010

I don't know how to comment as you sound like as if Pope is unqualified for communicating with people! How can the topmost religious leader of a topmost religion be like that? And you wrote as though Pope was appealing the world leaders to fight losing battles. Can we? Can we? Well, can he? Can he give some outline ideas and policies how to battle these things by not reducing controversies - such as family planing, using protective gears against HIV viruses? I guess I hurt nobody!

AZURE 07 January 2010

Sylvester asks "to what extent, if any, is human activity the cause of current patterns of climate change?; and, is the planet heating or cooling?", adding that the scientific community seems divided.

1. Unequivocally, human activity is the cause of current change. See William Ruddiman's "Plows, Plagues and Petroleum - How Humans Took Control of Climate" for an account of our increasing impacts since the neolithic period. Humans have already burnt enough fossil fuel to raise atmospheric carbon dioxide by much more than what is observed.

2. The planet is unequivocally heating, as reported by the Bureau of Meteorology's Annual Australian Climate Statement 2009

3. The science community is not a political machine. As part of its internal checking mechanism, it always has its "devil's advocates". That said, there is a very large professional lobbying effort, funded by large greenhouse-gas emitting corporations. This is exposed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists http://www.publicintegrity.org/investigations/global_climate_change_lobby/ .

There's a dialogue between myself and one of these paid lobbyists at http://opinion.independentminds.livejournal.com/1523685.html?thread=16349925#t16349925
Essentially, I refute every one of the corporate lobbyists' claims, and either support or provide references for all my points.

David Arthur 08 January 2010

This is an excellent piece from Father Duncan and in it he stresses the the need for developed nations to generously support poor nations. This should always have been the first priority for wealthier nations,because the patent failure to do so has left the world's poor with little interest in environmentalism. People trying to live on a dollar a day have little interest in appropriate garbage disposal. Citizens of wealthy countries now mourn the future ravages of the effects of global warming on "our children and grandchildren". It seems that only when the children of the rich are threatened, that they then can then empathise with the children of the poor.

Claude Rigney 14 January 2010

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