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Climate change and other environmental disasters could put 3.1 billion people into extreme poverty by 2050, if no significant steps are taken. (UN State of Global Development Report, 2013).

Climate change poses an increasing threat to global peace and security, acts as a threat multiplier… societies’ responses to climate impacts may exceed the global or regional capacity to manage these responses peacefully… to share resources and provide for human security. (Global Military Council on Climate Change, 2014.)

Neither these or many such warnings, nor the dire ´business as usual´ projections of the 2014 Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel (of several hundred scientists) on Climate Change (IPCC) endorsed by governments, sufficed to inspire the 196 nations represented at the 2014 UN climate change conference to lay a sufficient basis for adequate, timely future international action. The timescale needed (urgently needed, scientists insist), is way beyond what has been decided or implemented in the last 20 years.

The 20th Conference of the Contracting Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (which came into force in 1994) ended in Lima, Peru on 14 December, 2014 (two days late as many of its predecessors) with weakly worded last minute late night compromises shunting the most difficult issues on to future meetings.

However, COP 21 in Paris in December 2015 – to be preceded by at most five weeks’ negotiations at intersessional meetings and a one-day summit at UN headquarters in June – has been tasked (according to decisions taken at the 2011 COP in Durban) with adopting a legally binding outcome (exact legal nature still to be decided) to come into force from 2020. This should cover all key aspects of a comprehensive global response to ongoing climate change: comprehensive enough to save the planet from the looming and terrifying threat of runaway climate change, a self-sustaining, accelerating process that can no longer be stopped or slowed by human intervention.

Decisions taken at the 2010 COP in Mexico reflecting IPCC recommendations committed nations to limiting the average rise in the global temperature above the pre-industrial level to +2oC by 2100, with the current level already at +0.8oC, another +1.5oC thought to be already ‘built into’ the climate system. Experts warn that business as usual (continuing current policies) condemns the planet to a 4-6oC increase by 2100 and will result in mass societal breakdown.

Even achieving +2oC could doom dozens of small island nations due to the accompanying sea level rise – also inducing large-scale coastal erosion in many other nations, undermining shore based cities while salinizing adjacent agricultural land, freshwater aquifers and river estuaries. (Already) melting glaciers would pose a huge threat to water supplies of hundreds of millions. Over 100 developing nations are urging a tighter goal – 1.5oC – to be negotiated during this year.

Either goal can only be achieved by massive cuts in emissions of the six greenhouse gases (GHG) – carbon dioxide, (about 70% of total GHG emissions) followed by nitrous oxide, methane and three chloroflouro-carbons. This cutback implies a revolution in current technologies for energy production and transport (overwhelmingly fossil fuel based) as for numerous industrial processes, rice production, livestock raising, the current reliance on chemical fertilisers and large-scale ´industrial´ monocultures in agriculture and finally a switch from current large-scale deforestation to recreating massive, mixed forests rather than monoculture plantations.

Reporting on impacts already occurring everywhere, IPCC warns that the harshest effects of unchecked climate change would hit those regions with the highest concentrations of poor people   – above all Asia and Africa – involving possibly major declines in staple crop production, loss of biodiversity including forests and thus ecosystems, with droughts and desertification alternating with violent storms and floods.

Currently, 47% of the world population remains rural, and 70% of the world´s poor are in rural areas, mainly in the developing world.

But urban populations are forecast to increase by another 2.5 billion by 2050 (to reach 9 billion) and would not be spared either – especially in the burgeoning megacities in developing countries – threatened with growing, large-scale problems of water, food and energy supplies, sewage disposal, flood control, heat-related and vector-borne diseases and fatalities. Nor would Latin America, US, Canada, Russia or Europe escape, in particular their poor, according to IPCC.

So what prospects for Paris and thus for the world´s poor (currently some 2 billion with $2 a day, another 1 billion with just $1.25) as global population climbs from its current 7 billion to level off at around 10 billion in 2075? A gloomy assessment is shared by the hundreds of civil society organisations lobbying governments at COP 20.

A joint statement from 44 NGOs slammed the failure to adopt tight reporting and review rules on the post-2020 Intended Nationally Determined Contributions to be tabled by this March, to agree on a clear roadmap on ramping up financial flows from developed to developing nations up to and beyond 2020, to take substantial decisions on adaptation, loss and damage, technology transfer, long-term goals or improvements on the far too modest pre-2020 emission reductions tabled by nearly 100 nations in 2010. The statement accused ‘politicians… determined to further deregulate the international climate regime, fundamentally undermining the UN climate convention’.

The Pope´s assessment during his 14 January airborne press conference overflying Asia was that ‘The meeting in Peru was nothing great. I was disappointed by the lack of courage.’

In two reports issued in Lima, the UN Environment Programme stated that substantial reductions of global emissions by 2020 (as urged by IPCC) were technologically and financially feasible while the cost of adaptation in developing countries was likely to reach at least two to five times current estimates of $70 to $100 billion a year by 2050.

The high-level Commission on the Economy and Climate’s report issued last September found that large-scale emissions reductions accompanied by adaptation measures presented huge economic opportunities for cleaner growth and financial resources would be available. In contrast to COP squabbling about how $100 billion a year by 2020 could be mobilised to assist developing nations’ with emissions reduction and adaptation policies, current global GDP stands at $75 trillion and global financial assets top $156 trillion.

While individual Franciscans may be active on climate change issues and the US-based Franciscan Action Network is sporadically engaged, neither SSF, the 400,000-strong Catholic Secular Franciscan Order nor the three Catholic religious orders report any extensive related advocacy/educational activity. Franciscans International, (of which our provincial Minister Averil Swanton is vice-president) sends a delegate to UN meetings about human rights aspects, but was last represented at the 2010 COP and does not issue any UNFCCC-related material.

Perhaps Pope Francis’ teachings on climate change in his Encyclical on Human Ecology due out in June, its expected energetic follow up by both him (visiting the United Nations General Assembly high level segment next September) and Holy See diplomats, as well as activities they may also promote or inspire by other faith communities (Christians and non-Christian) may help our global Franciscan family decide to review its options on this overriding Creation issue. Surely that is something our Blessed Founder Brother Francis, patron saint of ecology and protector of the poor, would wish us to do. f

Vanya Walker-Leigh TSSF is a British economist, journalist and environmental campaigner based in Malta. She has attended 13 COPs since 1997, is active in international climate change NGO networks and recently completed two consultancies on climate change for the (Catholic) Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences.