Social Action Office

Climate Change Negotiations
A Perspective of Faith

by Coralie Kingston
Former Coordinator, Social Action Office

(Article written for The Catholic Leader, Brisbane Archdiocese, 10 June 2001)

In his Apostolic Letter at the close of the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II asked this question:

And how can we remain indifferent to the prospect of an ecological crisis which is making vast areas of our planet uninhabitable and hostile to humanity?

This question came ten years after his World Day of Peace Message in 1990 in which he made an important statement about the present ecological crisis:

The ecological crisis is a moral issue ... respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation.

And, as recently as January 2001, at a General Audience at the Vatican, the Pope reflected that:

If we scan the regions of our planet, we immediately see that humanity has disappointed God's expectations. Man, especially in our time, has without hesitation devastated wooded plains and valleys, polluted waters, disfigured the earth's habitat, made the air unbreathable, disturbed the hydrogeological and atmospheric systems, turned luxuriant areas into deserts and undertaken forms of unrestrained industrialization, degrading the "flowerbed" - to use an image from Dante Alighieri (Paradiso, XXII, 151) - which is the earth, our dwelling place.

We must therefore encourage and support the "ecological conversion" which in recent years has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe to which it has been heading. Man is no longer the Creator's "steward", but an autonomous despot, who is finally beginning to understand that he must stop at the edge of the abyss.

It may come as a surprise to many that the Pope would speak about encouraging and supporting an "ecological conversion". As recently as this year, he has called us to reflect upon how we, as human beings, are fulfilling God's expectations that we be good stewards of the planet Earth, extending the respect for human life to all creation. The Pope's most recent words have a quality of urgency about them that challenges us to be active in turning back from the abyss of ecological disaster.

One significant issue facing the Earth community at this time is that of the threat posed by the rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases are a natural and vital part of keeping the Earth warm. They form a natural blanket of gases around the Earth's troposphere which keeps the Earth's temperatures at the levels needed to sustain the complex web of life on the planet. In recent times, industrialisation and increased living standards in developed countries have contributed to what are called "antropogenic" (human-made) greenhouse gases. These are in addition to what is needed naturally to keep the Earth warm. This human intervention is creating an imbalance because these greenhouse gases are being created faster than they can be absorbed and removed by natural processes, notably photosynthesis and ocean surfaces. This is predicted to lead to accelerated global warming and, with that, interference with the global climate system.

The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), representing 2,500 scientists from around the world, has predicted potentially disastrous impacts - increased droughts and floods, risks to human health, threat to bio-diversity, inundation of small island states and other low lying countries, the melting of snow fields. While some may benefit, the predicted negative impacts are serious indeed.

In 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the governments of the world took the first joint step towards making a global response to stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level which would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference in the global climate system. 154 nations signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at Rio and agreed to meet again to set specific targets. In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol agreed to legally binding emission cuts for industrialised nations. The rules for reducing the emissions were not resolved and were left to another time and place. So far, two meetings have failed to agree on global rules to implement the Kyoto Protocol. In July this year in Bonn another attempt will be made to secure the Kyoto Protocol and make it strong and credible.

Of course the big setback to all this came in April with the withdrawal of the US from global climate change negotiations. The US is the biggest greenhouse polluter in the world and the significance of this withdrawal cannot be underestimated. However, others have decided to proceed with the Bonn meeting and move on without the US - at least in the short term. This is a highly charged political issue and it is outside the scope of this short article to delve into this. This website includes a Briefing Note on these issues and also provides links with other sites that take up issues surrounding greenhouse politics and greenhouse science - see

Where is Australia in all this? To date we have been allied with the US Umbrella Group and have not demonstrated a strong commitment to strategic action to make the economy less carbon reliant. In the lead-up to the Bonn meeting, we are urging the Federal Government to:

  • ratify the Protocol by 2002 and work to ensure that it is a strong and credible global treaty;
  • take an independent position apart from the US and work to reverse the current US position;
  • develop a long-term strategic approach to greenhouse gas emissions;
  • develop a sense of solidarity with the nations and peoples most likely to be impacted negatively by changes to the global climate system.

Pope John Paul II has spoken about and supported the need for an "ecological conversion". One central part of this conversion is to engage politically with some of the critical issues that are taking us and other species to "the edge of the abyss". This is not easy and there are no short-cuts to the solutions. The point is to assume this task as a dimension of faith and to pray and work with others to turn the crisis around. Let us not disappoint God's expectations of us.

Please contact Sister Pauline Coll sgs at the Social Action Office for more information - phone (07) 3891 5866 or email

31 May 2001

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