This year the Holy See will convene its first international summit to look at the threat of climate change. Mark Dowd reports from Rome on the 'greening' of the Church and asks if the Pope is about to take a stand to save the planet
/have just finished typing in the words "Peccatum Carbonic_ Papal Encyclical. Read. Act. Save the Planet" into my computer. The website I accessed is called churchsigngeneratorcom and it allows you to make your own fridge magnets and car stickers with your chosen text inserted into a ready-made template of a church sign.
Now, lest you all think I have been taking mindaltering drugs, let me explain what these are for.
I have been badgering Channel 4 for well over a year about making a television programme entitled God Is Green in which one would examine what, if anything, the world's major faiths are saying and doing about what amounts to the biggest collective planetary emergency the world has ever seen.
I am talking about climate change/global warming: terms which are woefully timid and spectacularly understate the emerging scientific consensus about how carbon dioxide emissions are allowing mankind to take the biggest gamble ever made with the fragile state of the planet's biosphere. I assume for the sake of this article that many of you may have seen former American Vice President Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth and are well up on the facts. If not, a brief resume of the story so far.
The levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have remained fairly constant at around 240 parts per million for the last 600,000 years or so that is until the indus
trial age. The mass burning of fossil fuels, the expansion of the automobile and aviation sectors and exponentially rising levels of energy consumption to drive air-conditoning units and numerous other appliances have sent this figure soaring.
It is now at 380 parts per million (ppm) and it is a safe assertion that many scientists, if not all 100 per cent of them. concur with the view that if this figure gets into the 450-500 ppm bracket, we will usher in a potentially cataclysmic period in which temperature extremes will hit many parts of the planet.
Although the average temperature rise may well be in the three to five per cent bracket, this masks the fact that huge areas will be hit by drought and flooding. Environmental refugee numbers may exceed 200 million. More than 60 per cent of the world's population lives
within 30 miles of the coast. I don't have to go on.
Although the evidence has been firming up on all this during the past 10 years since the signing of the 1997 Kyoto treaty, there has been very little said about all this from Catholic leaders. It is true that the late Pope John Paul II said some very fine things about the need for us all to undergo an "ecological conversion" and Australian and American bishops have also written strong words about the subject. But if we look to Rome, we find next to nothing about global warming specifically, save for half a paragraph in the 2004 Catholic Compendium of Social Teaching.
That's hardly surprising for a body that is by nature conservative, preferring to wait and see what evidence emerges and check if trends and evidence amount to anything or are just a passing zeitgeist.
If we look back at the emergence of Fascism, Communism and many other developments in recent history, the Magisterium was often slow to make its pronouncements known.
However, time is not on our side. Many who belong to the august panel of the IPCC, the scores of scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, state that we have a 10-15 year period to turn round the tanker, or this whole process will develop a momentum of its own which will leave much of humanity battling to stave off extinction. The latest report from the IPCC's scientific panel, the fruit of six years' work, is due out in Paris on February 1 and its findings are not expected to send the champagne corks flying.
Many in the Church, including Fr Sean McDonagh, a Columban priest, want more from Rome.
"What we want is leadership," he says. "The Church isn't like Tony Blair, worried about losing votes because of some backlash over introducing carbon taxes. It must have a prophetic voice and take risks."
Fr McDonagh is no slouch on this issue. He has just completed an impressive tome, Climate Change: A Challenge to Us All.
When pressed to evaluate the performance of the Roman Catholic Church so far on a scale of one to 10, he said he could truthfully muster only a score of one and a half to two.
Where the Church needs to lead from the front is in stating that the very people on the planet who emit the least in CO2fmissions the poor and destitute of Africa and lowlying Asian countries like Bangladesh will be the first in the firing line if and when the climate turns on us.
This is why environment is the responsibility of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace inside the Holy See. Its head is Cardinal Renato Martino and it was with great expectation that I went to meet him recently in his offices just next to the beautiful piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere. He had kindly set aside half an hour: on the day in question he was busy overseeing a conference on poverty and migration.
I began by asking him why, if this really was a huge threat, had his Pontifical Council devoted so little space to it in its Compendium?
"This is only a first
edition," he said. "We can add to it." Then he informed me that the Vatican was planning a conference on global warming to be jointly hosted by his own Council and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (a story revealed exclusively in this paper last week).
So far so, good. But as I sat there opposite this smiling, diminutive cardinal, I wondered how far this subject had impacted on his life in practical terms? I fished out of my pocket a small white object and placed it across the desk in front of my interviewee.
"Does your Eminence know what this is?" I asked, pointing to a low-energy light bulb. His eyes bulged. A huge smile erupted on his face. "Oh yes," he said, "I have a number of these in my home and indeed there are a number in the offices of the Vatican." This was much more than I had counted on. When I teasingly berated him by pointing to his television on standby in the corner of the room, he looked sheepishly at me.
"No, no, I normally switch it off. It is only on because I was checking something before you came in." The next thing, he would be telling me that the Popemobile had been fitted with a catalytic converter and had plans to run off vegetable oil.
So having lulled me into a sense of green complacency, it was all the more surprising when the cardinal continued: "By the way, the Holy See does not have any carbon emissions. You see, we buy it, we buy it next door from Italy."
"But you take plane flights, don't you?" I interjected, "1 mean how many miles have you flown in the last week or two?" He paused. "About 50,000," he said laughing, "but these planes, they are not dependent on the Vatican!" Which is tantamount to saying that if you buy a 4x4 and clock up 20,000 miles a year, it is Ford or Toyota which are to blame and not the driver.
I did point out that 50,000 miles amounted to about 23 tonnes of CO2 emissions, but he simply laughed. "Would the Holy See not consider the merit of more video-conferencing, to cut out the flying?" He paused. "Why not? Why not? As a matter of fact, I have already had some of these but this is a practice that will improve. Oh how I wish I could do this because those trips, they are very tiring."
I suspect breaking with the flying habit may prove harder to kick than these comments suggest, Many of the men in red are veritable globetrotters (well up there with television documentary makers) and have enough air miles to fly to Pluto. A lot of them love the fuss and attention shown to them on international visits: who wouldn't?
As I ended my encounter with the smiling cardinal, I knew he was flying to London the next day to meet Gordon Brown and launch an immunisation credit scheme: a bold plan to try to inoculate 500 million youngsters in the developing world by the year 2015. On his 48-hour trip to London, the cardinal would go on to be received by seven different Cabinet ministers: not the same as talking to them via a computer screen, it must be said.
On the rare occasions when you are granted an interview at the Vatican, it is customary to submit a series of written questions in advance so the various advisers can prepare a brief for their superiors. One of the questions I had tabled was: "Does the Vatican have investments in the coal and oil industries and if so, given the urgent nature of the global warming issue, would it be prudent to revise such investments?"
Due to shortage of time I didn't get round to asking this one on camera, but at the end of the interview, Cardinal Martino handed me three sheets of A4-sized paper: his team had already prepared succinct answers to my list of questions.
Musing on the papers over bruschetta in the piazza some 15 minutes later, I looked down at question number six on investments: a candid response leapt from the page: "I do not know whether the Holy See has investments in the coal and oil industries."
I did admire the directness of the reply, but I do hope he went away and checked all this out since I am sure this one is going to crop up in the future. Investment decisions are integral matters of justice and peace, are they not?
I left. Rome feeling relieved that, at last, the Vatican was taking an initiative on climate change in the form of a global warming summit, a move that the cardinal said he had discussed personally
with Pope Benedict. But I also reflected that it is . going to ;1 take a
great deal to haul this from the periphery to the centre of most Catholics' imaginations.
It may be that many of you reading this article carry the same intellectual and philosophical prejudices that I had only a year or so ago. "'Greens? Atheists, treehug gers , pantheist weirdos. used to think. The mutual suspicion of the religious and environmental constituencies is succinctly captured by Guardian columnist George Monbiot, a man who described himself to me as an "evangelical atheist".
"In the past, Christians have often accused environmentalists of effectively being pagans, of being earthwor shippers," Monbiot explains. "And environmentalists have often seen religions as being antipathetic to the environmental message because they put God and man made in the image of God at the centre of the universe and everything must revolve around him."
If he had continued his theme, he might have . mentioned the D-word: dominion. This is the key term used at the end of chapter one of the Book of Genesis when man is "put in charge" of creation. Some translations of this text actually talk of man being told to "subdue the earth".
The language appears harsh, yet the temptation behind it, to see the material world and all God's creatures merely as put there for man's benefit and enjoyment, is a coneamonly held view which goes back centuries. The early 17d-et-century, a period of scientific rationalism, saw the thialker Francis Bacon coming out with the following: -L am come in very truth, leading you to Nature with all her children, to bind her to your service and make her your slave ... the mechanical inventions of recent years do not merely exert a gentle guidance over Nature's courses, they have the power to conquer and subdue here, to shake her to her foundation s."
B ,con's contemporary, Descartes, went one step furtEner, speaking of man becoming "lord and possessor of nature".
To be fair, much of mriature in the early 1600s
probably looked wild and hostile to mankind. But it one thing to soften its rougher edges; it is another for man to become a Promethean figure, seeing himself as somehow separate from
the web of nature and -being able to "do things Ito it" without there being a_ny serious consequences. We have come too far. In Genesis, man is given "dominion" over the earth and the birds of the air and fish of the sea, but the Hebrew word from which the D-word comes has a deep