Australia out of step with Pope's climate action mission



Super Typhoon Haiyan

It is no coincidence that Pope Francis chose to visit the Philippines before he releases his encyclical on the environment, and that he made a point of visiting Tacloban in particular.

The people of the Philippines are 'at the doorstep of all major threat of climate change', as they describe it. Tacloban City in particular is, of course, ground zero for super typhoon Haiyan (pictured), an iconic victim of the worst that global warming can do to vulnerable populations. 

The visit became the occasion on which the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and civil society organisations in the Philippines handed the Pope a letter about the urgent need for climate action. 

There’s a palpable authenticity about their cries for justice. When Bishops and civil society in the Philippines call for 'the transformation of energy systems away from fossil fuels', it is all the more powerful because they know personally the 'catastrophic misery' caused by Haiyan. 

No doubt Pope Francis is predisposed to listening to their perspective. We know he is committed to listening to Catholic Bishops’ Conferences, and he is particularly interested in voices from the Global South.

It is most interesting that the Filipino Bishops call for, among other things, 'an end to investments in fossil fuel and ecologically-destructive projects’. This is the first time a national Catholic Bishops’ Conference has come out fully behind the message that 'if it’s wrong to wreck the planet, then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage', as US environmentalist Bill McKibben famously put it. 

In a move that may further unsettle mining companies beset by rapidly-falling coal prices, the Bishops and civil society quote from a recent study published in the journal Nature. The study showed that '82 per cent of coal should be classified as un-burnable reserves', even if carbon capture and storage is widely deployed. 

That large proportions of the world’s coal, oil and gas are 'un-burnable' was first identified by the Carbon Tracker Initiative. CTI calculated the 'carbon budget' humanity now has left before going over the internationally agreed guardrail of 2°C warming. The amount is so limited, that the vast majority of it has to stay in the ground. 

The Catholic Bishops and civil society in the Philippines go so far as to say, 'Investing in fossil fuel companies and in eco-destructive projects is synonymous with supporting the destruction of our future.' Their message resonates strongly with that of the global 'Divest the Vatican' campaign.

Considering the other measures they advocate as a kind of yardstick for how countries should be responding to climate change, Australia is doing poorly. In fact, we are near the bottom of the global Climate Change Performance Index. There is nothing 'fair and equitable' about Australia’s weak emissions reduction target, and as a nation we are moving away from policies which would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. 

At the UN climate talks in Lima, Australian negotiators so regularly blocked consensus that they won us the 'colossal fossil' award for 2014 from environmental observers. Only under enormous pressure, did Australia agree to contribute a mere $200 million to the UN Green Climate Fund for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries - a reallocation of Overseas Aid. 

But I’m speaking here of the current Australian Government. We, the Australian people, are another matter. In spite of fewer incentives from governments, Australians spent $2.3 billion last year on rooftop solar systems.

We have a vibrant divestment movement, which has inspired thousands of individuals and dozens of organisations to move their investments out of carbon-intensive industries, starting with extractive industries. These include the Anglican Dioceses of Perth, Canberra-Goulburn and Melbourne and the Uniting Church in Western Australia. Earlier this month, the Quakers in Australia decided to move their investments out of the 'big four' banks for the same reasons. 

So far, there have been limited steps taken in this direction within the Catholic Church, most of which are not made public. In the USA, just the one Catholic university – Dayton – has openly moved its investments. Now that the Bishops of the Philippines have stated that it’s wrong to hold investments in fossil fuels, perhaps Catholic Bishops’ Conferences elsewhere will be moved to act.

My sense is that the chances of this theme being present in the coming encyclical have dramatically improved. The fossil fuel industry should beware if 1.2 billion Catholics are prompted to respond to this particular call! 

Thea OrmerodThea Ormerod is President of Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARCC), which has the Pope's Philippines letter posted on its website.

Typhoon Haiyan image from Wikimedia Commons.


Topic tags: Thea Ormerod, Pope Francis, climate change, coal, fossil fuels, Catholic Bishops, Philippines


submit a comment

Existing comments

Much to be welcomed ! Things are beginning to move in the right direction at last. Except in Queensland ... But I pray for a Labor victory supported by Green and PUP preferences. Then we could start to wind back the coal mining in Queensland.
Tony Kevin | 23 January 2015

Dear oh dear, Tony, fancy thinking that a Labor victory in Queensland will leave one lump of coal in the ground! Why, just this morning that well-known Labor elder, Peter Beattie, proclaimed: "Let me declare that I am both a supporter of coal exports and coal seam gas ...". (Weekend Australian, Inquirer) True, Beattie is a Labor has been but I'll bet you London to a (coal) brick that there is a sufficient number of like-minded Labor members in Queensland to ensure that a future Labor government will not wind back coal mining. I will also bet that even Thea's excellent essay would not change their attitudes.
Paul | 24 January 2015

An enlightening article, Thea. I think that any religious centred action on climate change, including divestment, needs to become more mainstream and taken to the main political parties to be successful. An option which does need to be considered is nuclear energy. This is something, sadly, the Greens, who seem to be moving away from their original brief to more marginal concerns, would not consider. There is also a place for a major solar power initiative or initiatives as is happening in California. Both major parties have backers with a vested interest in the fossil fuel industry. This is also something which needs continued light shone upon. We need to be aware of the whole picture and our long term future and not automatically swallow that old political canard "Trust me." We also need political leaders with some vision who will not sell out for short term gain.
Edward Fido | 26 January 2015

The article needs to recognise that there are widespread bodies of eminent scientists who dissent from Global Warming dogmatics. The SCIENTIFIC dissenters,for example jettison flat earth horizontal models of climate that dont factor in multilevel, complexity of climate influences.
I await Francis1 'Humanae Vitae' part 2 [Ex Cathedra]
Father John George | 26 January 2015

Doubtful that the fossil fuel industry will bat an eyelid at an environmental encyclical when they know that some 80% of the nominal 1.2 billion Catholics in the world pay little if any heed to the other Church teachings that define the immorality of so many practices in the living of self-centred, indulgent human life.
john frawley | 27 January 2015

"... an iconic victim of the worst that global warming can do to vulnerable populations." Well it might be, except that the science is unable to find a link between Haiyan's destructiveness and global warming. The latest IPCC report (AR5, 2013) said there was "low confidence" that worldwide, intense tropical cyclone activity had increased due to the .8°c global warming since the 19th century. It also expressed "low confidence" in increased activity in the first half of this century. (SPM p.5). Which means the Pope's scientific team chose to manipulate a suffering community at the expense of the truth. Not a good look, but sadly all too typical of the warmists' tactics.
HH | 27 January 2015

In the 1950 Encyclical Humani Generis, Pope Pious XII confirmed that there is no intrinsic conflict between Christianity and the theory of evolution. I am sure that Pope Francis will continue to express his view on Climate Change, but not in the next encyclical. He is an individual and has every right to express His view. Pope Francis is a smart bloke. I respect His view and I am totally loyal to Our Holy Father, but I do not believe that man control climate change. The controversy of climate change is political and the vast majority of the people in the world including Catholics do not believe that man control climate change. They know that over millions of years climate continues to change.Blaming mankind for climate change is a dogma of extreme left-wing political parties that do not want to extract coal from the earth and are against nuclear power. It is sad to hear Christians supporting political parties that promote Abortion, Same-sex marriages, Euthanasia. Yes, we are waiting Humanae Vite II.
Ron Cini | 27 January 2015

Thank you Thea. Now, if our bishops would issue a strongly worded statement about climate change in Australia. These few who deny anything serious is happening don't talk to ordinary people who know all about it from daily experiences.
Janet | 27 January 2015

With regard to increase in extreme events AR5 said "Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks. {2}". Comment by HH indicates ignorance of that conclusion.
Vincent Sicari | 27 January 2015

As anyone can read from the IPCC reports, they say that: "Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era ....and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century". The Vatican would have noted that the IPCC also says that: "Sustainable development and equity provide a basis for assessing climate policies. Limiting the effects of climate change is necessary to achieve sustainable development and equity, including poverty eradication.... Substantial cuts in greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades can substantially reduce risks of climate change by limiting warming in the second half of the 21st century and beyond." There are no other organisations that have credibility to match the IPCC on this subject.
Russell | 27 January 2015

If and when Pope Francis issues an Encyclical Letter on the climate change and global warming challenges faced by our planet it will be welcomed by people who accept the best science and are persuaded by the best theological reflection on that science. It is those who selectively cherry pick the scientific evidence/reports and construct their own boutique 'theology' around it are the very same people who do exactly the same kind of thing with the Social Justice teaching of the Catholic Church. It is all pre-packaged into a portable kit which contains a predictable collection of neo-conservative economics, politics, theology, and a anti-'warmist' bating lexicon.
David Timbs | 27 January 2015

The article asserted that the Tacloban citizens were victims of global warming via Haiyan. To refute this with a scientific authority, I quote IPCC AR5 SPM, which says there's probably no link ("low probability") between global warming and intense cyclone activity over the last hundred years and indeed unlikely to be one till the 2nd half of the 21st C. Neither of Vincent's or Russell's quotations from AR5 contradict this. True or not as propositions, they are simply irrelevant to my thesis, which therefore stands uncontested.
HH | 27 January 2015

Thankyou Thea, I was so heartened to read your article.
Kerrie | 27 January 2015

If we accept the position of Fr John and Ron Cini, that is changes to the climate of the planet are not as a result of, or effected by, human activity, then what I would ask them is this, what are you going to do about it? Just because you don't consider humans to be "responsible", that is, not part of the problem, they must be part of the solution. Surely there must come a time when the debate moves to solutions rather than the causes. Or are you saying that because you don't believe in the science detailing the cause, nothing needs to be done? Now if you were to apply that logic to proving the existence of God then presumably you would be atheists, not part of a Christian community. We should have faith in the science just as we have faith in the existence of the Almighty.
Tom | 27 January 2015

Russell's IPCC Climate scientists created computer models to determine whether anthropogenic greenhouse gases and other manmade factors could have caused the slight global warming of the past 150 years. In their virtual worlds, the answer is yes — anthropogenic greenhouse gases were the primary cause of the warming in those digital worlds. But, because the modeled worlds differ greatly from Earth, and because the models cannot simulate the natural ocean-atmosphere processes that cause or stop global warming, climate models cannot be used to attribute global warming to human-induced factors. Climate models cannot simulate past surface temperatures, precipitation or sea ice area. Those are basic components of Earth’s climate. If the climate models cannot simulate those basic components, is it likely they can simulate others? # Even IPCC admits amazingly: "In climate research and modelling, we should recognise that we are dealing with a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore that the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible." [That quote is from the 3 rd Assessment Report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) published in 2001]
Father John George | 27 January 2015

I am not surprise that a majority of comments support Al Gore, Tim Flannery, Christine Milne, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, and treat people who do not accept their views as deniers or these few who deny anything serious is happening...Well, Tim Flannery in 2005 predicted Sydney's dams could dry in as little as two years, "check Sydney's dam". In 2007 Flannery predicted cities such as Brisbane would never again have dam-filling rains, "check the Murray-Darling system today". In 2008 Flannery said water may run out in Adelaide by early 2009 "check Adelaide's water storage". There are two sides of politick. Christians do not have to accept one side or the other side. To be good loyal Christians obey the ten commandments and love your neighbours and pray for the poor souls who have been brain-washed by left-wing propaganda.
Ron Cini | 27 January 2015

The missing "elephant" from the reaction of Church leaders to Global Warming is human population. Carbon dioxide pollution is driven by the density of the population on our planet. Poverty is widespread, no more so than in the Philippines where a little girl asked the Pope why God allows people to suffer so, We would all wish for the pain of poverty to be relieved, for her sake and that of millions of others. But behind the relentless emission of warming pollution is the relentless increase in the population of the primary polluter - Homo sapiens. The Chiurch must address the issue of control of human fertility in a realistic approach by embracing a dual policy of fertility control and replacement of fossil fuel with renewable energy sources. When that happens a huge cohort of people who were raised Catholic and cannot fathom the attitude of the church to reproduction will experience renewed interest in a faith that has so much to offer by channeling so well the example Jesus left us to follow.
Mike Foale | 27 January 2015

The IPCC 2014 Summary for Policy Makers which I quoted from includes: "Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, CYCLONES (my emphasis), and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence)." It is obvious that the IPCC is saying that anthropogenic climate change is leading to climate-related extremes such as cyclones. The Catholic Church climate change deniers, such as Geoge Pell, have simply turned young people away from the Church - why would anyone listen to them, when they won't listen to anyone else, like the acknowledged experts at the IPCC?
Russell | 28 January 2015

Russell, thanks, but I submit you’re misreading your cited statement; in particular the term “recent climate-related extremes”. It’s not implying by this term that there have recently been extreme (eg) cyclones. It’s REFERRING TO cyclones, wildfires, doughts, etc, AS “climate-related extremes”. Which they certainly are – cyclones are extreme events (compared to the average low pressure cell) the typical product of climates such as the tropics, just tornados are extreme events characteristic of the U.S. midwest climate, etc. Thus e.g. any cyclone – even one in the early 1800s, just before the .8° current warming from the Little Ice Age began, is a “climate-related extreme”. The Summary is then saying that examination of impacts from recent occurrences of these events reveals that some ecosystems and human systems are significantly vulnerable to them - the climate being “variable” (ie it’s hard to predict when these extremes will impact ... just as it ever was.)*** All undoubtedly true. But, again, nothing in this statement contradicts its assertion I focused on in Table SPM.1, that no increase in intense cyclone activity has probably occurred over the past century or is likely to occur until after the mid 21st century. *** (NB the AR5 WGI SPM doesn’t even raise the question as to whether climate variability is greater or less now/recently than it was over the past century or so. The term doesn’t even occur in the WG1 SPM, even though it occurs in the WG2 SPM, from which your quotation comes.)
HH | 28 January 2015

David Timbs, are you going to offer the slightest shred of evidence to back up your cherry picking charge here. Or is it just "sed tantum dic verbo" and we all assent uncritically to your pronouncement?
HH | 28 January 2015

HH, Russell has done a splendid job in that regard. And, by the way, who is 'we' as in 'we all assent....'? Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur.
David Timbs | 29 January 2015

There's a phrase ... not seeing the wood for the trees? The Pope went to scene of a terrible cyclone to talk about the need for us to reduce producing climate-changing pollution - because increasing that pollution will result in more extreme cyclones, like Haiyan. All true, and about time.
Russell | 30 January 2015

Congratulations on your beautiful work Thea Ormerod. I am truly inspired. I am a Catholic Environmental Scientist that works with children with disabilities in Brisbane. I am completing a Dip of Education to teach high school science as I am so sadened with the Environmental science field. All we can do is rubber stamp approvals for development. Things are a very sad state of affairs when you are refused to book vehicles to assess sites for licenses / permits for development and then expected to complete these from your desk: as with the Brisbane City Council.
John Talbot | 01 February 2015

The 'tree' being conceded (Haiyan not influenced by global warming: IPCC), let's talk about the wood. The undeniable message from Haiyan and all recent cyclone experience is that poor people are hit the most by natural disasters. Cyclone Yasi was a Category 5, like Haiyan. It hit a region (Cairns/Innisfail, Australia) where everyone could afford to cyclone-proof their buildings, in contrast to the areas hit by Cat 5 Haiyan. 6,300 people perished in Haiyan. Not a single person perished in Yasi. Current anti-global warming policies (even assuming catastrophic global warming for the sake of argument) keep the poor in poverty by denying them cheap energy, etc. That locks in their vulnerability to all natural disasters, global-warming enhanced or not. If the Pope comes out supporting the current policies against warming, he's actually aiding and abetting poverty and the continued destruction of lives and homes even if his intentions are honourable. Catholics are perfectly free to oppose the Pope on this ground.
HH | 02 February 2015

"Catholics are perfectly free to oppose the Pope on this ground." Yes, of course they are - they would just be wrong. I'm glad you agree that it was proper of the Pope go to the scene of a devastating cyclone to warn of the increased likelihood of such cyclones due to man-made global warming. The pollution reducing measures (such as our defunct carbon price scheme) that some countries have half-heartedly introduced have had no effect on poverty in poor countries such as the Philippines or Bangladesh. Bangladesh could of course go under the waves if warming continues. Poverty has increased due to bad policies (all that 'trickle down' rubbish which made the rich so much richer) so I look forward to the Pope moving on to tackling those.
Russell | 02 February 2015

HH: I can think of no one with anything like the moral authority you enjoy on this issue to make good on this. I think that Pope Francis would gladly accept your caution and counsel. "If the Pope comes out supporting the current policies against warming, he's actually aiding and abetting poverty and the continued destruction of lives and homes even if his intentions are honourable. Catholics are perfectly free to oppose the Pope on this ground."
David Timbs | 02 February 2015

Russell, systemic grinding poverty is actually DEcreasing globally at unprecedented rates, and that is occurring in countries upgrading to market economies from economic despotism – e.g. India and China. That’s right…the big “polluters”! Their dash from poverty is critically reliant on the energy demonised by the warmists – fossil fuels. It’s no secret that “green” energy – solar and wind – is more expensive by orders of magnitude than fossil fuels. If, heeding Pope Francis et al, developing economies were to switch over to “green” energy technologies to stem alleged carbon “pollution”, poverty and the vulnerability to natural disasters it generates, etc, would come roaring back. Fortunately, their current leaders have their heads screwed on - at least in this regard. They know that the welfare of billions today is more important than the hypothesised slight tweaking of cyclone intensity in some parts of the world (but not in others) decades down the track - since by then the vastly wealthier masses, just like the citizens of Cairns and Innisfail today, will then be able to easily afford steel bolts to fasten their roofing. The enriched and smart folk of Bangladesh (another market-based developing economy) will likewise solve their sea level problems as well by then (sea levels that have been rising over the last 160 years, note) perhaps inspired by the enterprising Dutch a few centuries back.
HH | 03 February 2015

China's growth has been amazing - all those manufacturing jobs that were taken from working class America, Europe and Australia and moved to China have been good for them and not so good for the people who lost their jobs. (How much have average wages risen in the U.S. over the last 30 years? - not at all.) But you can hardly breathe in China's cities which is why China is really working on reducing pollution - you will note their recent agreement with Obama re reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But poverty in most poor countries is largely due to corruption and bad policies in those countries, plus a little meddling from the likes of the U.S. in world trade matters to protect their farmers and corporations. Another commenter referred to 'Russell's IPCC' which is a bizarre way to refer to the consensus view of the world's experts on climate change. It also seems to me bizarre to suggest that rather than stop damaging the ecosystem of our planet, we can build walls to keep the rising ocean out. We didn't do that with the ozone hole - governments took action (because of market failure) and steps were taken to reduce the amount of ozone damaging chemicals we were pumping into the atmosphere. Surely Christians who would claim to value God's creation would not go on destroying that very creation when alternatives are to hand.
Russell | 03 February 2015

1. I agree with you on some key points here, Russell - namely, that poverty is largely a result of poor policy and corruption and U.S. attacks on free trade to bolster homeland constituencies. Also, the shocking (non-carbon) pollution in China. (Government failure at its most stark - it's the government that has control of the the air and water, so it should set and enforce the rules.) 2. China's carbon agreement with the U.S. is purely cosmetic - it's non-binding, and China is building new coal power stations at a furious pace. 3. There's no objectively optimum sea-level, such that moving away from it in one direction or another is "damaging the ecosystem". (Port Phillip Bay was largely a flat dry basin a few thousand years back. Should we drain it again to reverse the "ecological damage" incurred with its flooding?) Equally there's no reason to think we're now moving beyond some ecologically ideal global temperature, or level of CO2. Temperatures and CO2 levels have been way higher in the past, (eg) when life was teeming in the Jurassic era (C02 over 2000 ppm, ave. Global temp 22 deg as opposed to today's 300 ppm/13 deg). A degree or two warmer from our current levels and southern Siberia becomes a verdant grassland. More CO2 and the deserts continue to green as they have since the 1940s. IE new ecosystems flourish.
HH | 04 February 2015

"there's no reason to think we're now moving beyond some ecologically ideal global temperature," - - it's simple, I can agree with the consensus view of the world's experts on climate, or with you. I'll take the advice of the experts.
Russell | 05 February 2015

Yes, but which consensus, Russell? 1. There are surveys of the world's scientists documenting a broad consensus that there has been global warming over the last century and a half. Shock as it may come to the ignorant: I and almost every other "denier" I'm aware of agrees with that. 2. Some studies document a much smaller group of scientists who think the warming since about 1950 is predominantly anthropogenic. "Smaller" meaning less than around 50%. So: no widespread "consensus" - rather a vigorous debate on the anthropogenic quotient. But even so, big deal. 3. For NONE of these polls, if you look at the precise questions they ask, proves the money proposition you need: that a consensus of the world's relevant scientists believes the current warming to be "catastrophic" (which would imply some idea of movement beyond an optimum temperature). Perhaps I've missed some peer-reviewed studies documenting a worldwide scientific consensus affirming CATASTROPHIC global warming? Help me out.
HH | 05 February 2015

The Chairman of the IPCC, talking about the IPCC's 5th Assessment report, said this (23 September 2014): "Three key messages have emerged from the report: One: Human influence on the climate system is clear – and clearly growing. Two: We must act quickly and decisively if we want to avoid increasingly destructive outcomes. Three: We have the means to limit climate change and build a better future". You are free to go on disagreeing with the IPCC, but I can't be bothered to continue that conversation.
Russell | 06 February 2015

1. Disagreeing with the IPCC? As I proved above, Russell, it's you, not me, that disagrees with the IPCC position on cyclones and global warming, stated in the relevant section; AR5, WGI. 2. The IPCC does not necessarily reflect the consensus view of the world's experts. It's a select group of scientists, plus a shoal of bureaucrats. So, quoting the head of the IPCC is not exactly peer-reviewed proof that the consensus of the world’s scientists affirm that global warming is catastrophic, is it?
HH | 06 February 2015