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Keywords: United Nations, Environment, climate change, geoengineering

Last month the fourth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly was held. The UN Environment Programme welcomed to its home in Nairobi, heads of state, ministers of environment, diplomats and their entourages, and members of civil society – some 5,000 people all told. The theme of the assembly was: “Innovative solutions for environmental challenges and sustainable consumption and production.” This is quite a mouthful, and can easily lend ammunition to cynics who regard the UN as nothing more than an over-bureaucratic talkshop in need of a radical clearance sale. 

An alternative view is that it is the only organisation in the world where every state has an equal voice, even though they may not be able to send multi-member delegations whose sole purpose is to stymie meaningful debate on our destructive, consumptive lifestyle, in the many meetings, high-level conferences, and side events. Once all the Member States have made their interventions, the floor is opened to the observer states and the major groups to express their views on the topic under consideration. Naturally the statement of the Holy See draws heavily on relevant sections of Laudato Si’.

The Holy See has permanent observer status at several United Nations Programmes (like WHO, UNHCR, FAO, UNICEF, etc.), and with Pope Francis’ particular concern for our common home, and “all things Laudato Si’,” it is not surprising that the Ecology and Creation Desk of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development sent a representative in the person of Fr Joshtrom Kureethadam SDB. The Apostolic Nuncio to Kenya and South Sudan also heads the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the UN Environment Programme, and UN Habitat, both headquartered in Nairobi. For the third time I have been privileged to be a credentialled “local expert” of the delegation of the Holy See to the UNEA, and have been permitted to observe and participate in many of the events.

Much more interesting for me than the high-level diplomatic negotiations towards a final ministerial outcome document, are the many side events featuring the latest environmental concerns, promising innovations, and spirited debate. As always, I was struck by the synergy and level of concern for the common good, whether it be for the small-island nations suffering already from rising sea levels, or the aerosol pollution of the world’s cities, or the need for the transfer of clean technology for developing nations to ‘catch up,’ or the millions of tons of plastic, microplastics and nanomaterials produced every year that end up in the oceans, and invariably in the digestive tracts of ocean dwellers. The shared dismay at the destructive lifestyle of the few, and the imbalance in patterns of production and consumption across the world, drives many ‘eco-warriors’ to even firmer resolve. This year was particularly poignant with the death of at least 19 people heading for the assembly in the flight ET302, which crashed shortly after take off in Addis Ababa. Tribute was paid to them, and their commitment to their respective environmental causes – pollution of polar ice, desertification or microfabrics, etc. This year was also marked by a tent dedicated to the faith communities, which ran a week-long programme demonstrating a remarkable convergence of efforts to preserve our common home. I was pleased to meet Catholic religious sisters, and members of every imaginable faith, including a small delegation of African Jesuit priests, a Franciscan, a Salesian, a Dominican, a Carmelite and a diocesan, all engaged in various ecologically-related ministries.

A major day-long side event was the launch of the latest Global Environmental Outlook (GEO6), with presentations from many of the scientists of every hue and specialisation, who had worked on the 750-odd page publication, downloadable from the website. It was striking how frequently I heard that the time to act is NOW, if we want to avert a complete global environmental catastrophe. It was edifying how many of them remain optimistic in the face of such overwhelming challenges. The virtue of hope is not limited to Christians alone.

One final consideration of a more theoretical ethical nature (since this is the CTEWC Forum) is the growing science of ‘geoengineering.’ This is a branch of technology frequently trying to mitigate the effects of global climate change, such as harvesting rain in ‘environmentally friendly’ ways, making clouds more reflective to bounce off solar heat, fertilising oceans to stimulate phytoplankton to remove atmospheric carbon dioxide, capturing carbon in myriad ways, thinning cirrus clouds, etc. The first, and major problem with most of these innovative ideas is that they attempt use the same technological paradigms and logic to solve a problem as those that created in the first place: namely mastery over nature. They deflect attention from the root causes of global climate change (for example), which include the continued and escalating release of global greenhouse gases, mostly by burning of fossil fuels, but more recently by the release of methane trapped in ice and lakes. As long as these distractions continue to offer promise of life-as-usual, the major industrial nations are going to seriously commit to reducing their greenhouse gases emissions. The second problem with many of these admittedly innovative, geoengineered supposed solutions, is that they would require military-industrial-scale delivery mechanisms, and so effectively exclude most poor nations. Once again, decisions regarding the welfare of the ‘have-nots’ would be taken by those who have. Weather could become weaponised, as rain might be induced to fall over Israel, but not Palestine, for example.