COP27 would do well to heed the concerns of Pope Francis for God’s creation as Vatican formally joins the process, says Joseph Kelly

From 6th to 18th November, Heads of State, ministers and negotiators, climate activists, civil society representatives and CEOs will be meeting in the Egyptian coastal city of Sharm el-Sheikh for the world’s largest annual gathering on climate action.

COP27 is the 27th meeting of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (The Paris Agreement). Faced with an unprecedented global energy crisis brought on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and increasingly worrying extreme weather events, this latest gathering will be yet another attempt to put some meaning on the landmark 2016 Paris Agreement.

In Paris on 12th December 2016, 196 global parties were signatories to the first legally binding international treaty on climate change. Coming into force the following year, The Paris Agreement gave us the much-discussed commitment to limiting global warming below two degrees Celsius, and preferably to 1.5 degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels. Critical to this goal is the immediate turning around of greenhouse gas emissions to achieve a climate-neutral world by mid-century. To achieve the 1.5 degree target, global emissions will need to be cut by around 50% by 2030 – most agree this is highly unlikely, and may even be a receding target.

The first such treaty was the Kyoto Protocol, signed way in 1997 but not effective until 2005. This itself was the outcome of concerns that had been flagged up by environmentalists as early as the late 1960s that something was profoundly amiss with the planet’s ecosystem. Organisations like Friends of the Earth (formed 1969) and Greenpeace (1971) galvanised and brought international focus to a rapidly-growing eco-movement.

Here in the UK many of us already campaigning on such issues were drawn to innovative initiatives like the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), founded by businessman-turned-environmentalist Gerard Morgan-Grenville. Gerard set up his ground-breaking project to explore environmental sustainability in 1973 in the disused Llwygwern slate quarry near Machynlleth in mid-Wales. Dismissed in the early days as a community of ‘dropout hippies’, CAT was actually an urgently necessary response to what was probably the most turbulent year of the 20th century and is now a globally recognised leader in the field of sustainability research.

By November of ’73 the Edward Heath government was in deep crisis. The Yom Kippur War had just ended and the price of oil had skyrocketed, leading to an OPEC embargo. Here in the UK, months of negotiations with the National Union of Mineworkers had collapsed without a resolution and an overtime ban was declared, which threatened the vital supply of coal to power stations on the national grid. A shortage of both coal and oil left the Heath government no choice but to declare a National State of Emergency. People endured a tough winter of candles, food shortages and power cuts and by February the following year a General Election had ousted the Heath government, let in Harold Wilson for a brief period, and the ground was laid for the rise of Thatcherism.

Throughout this period, environmentalism remained a fringe activity, being largely dismissed as a logical adjunct to the rising anti-nuclear movement. There was certainly no intention amongst global powers to in any way reduce the pace of industrialisation, and in particular the stripping of resources from developing countries. Today, we’re all paying the price, and little really seems to have changed. The very fact that the COP initiative is on meeting number 27 and we’re really no closer to reversing the total destruction of our planet shows how prefunctory the commitment of world leaders is to this absolutely critical issue. Just putting on the COP26 summit cost more than £200m and the post-summit statement contained little that was in any way meaningful. This year’s summit will certainly cost even more, and it’s a bitter irony that the sponsor is Coca Cola, the world’s largest plastic polluter.

Frankly, it was always a long shot that high-cost, luxury location meetings involving lucrative sponsorship and participation deals attended by global leaders was ever going to change our planet’s future. You only have to look at the language and documentation to see that environmentalism and concerns about global warming have become an annoyingly persistent political issue that most world leaders are having to engage with very reluctantly.

It was particularly depressing to hear this week that our own new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, had succeeded in persuading our new King to drop out of delivering an impassioned speech to the COP27 Summit. As a lifelong champion of environmental issues and highly respected figure on the global stage, the presence of King Charles at Sharm el-Sheikh might just have served to embarrass world leaders into some kind of meaningful action. But that was obviously the problem; it’s just a great shame that a monarch who I had dearly hoped would be an interventionist king seems to have fallen at the feet of the Prime Minister at the first encounter. COP27 may be a decision Charles lives to regret deeply.

For those who are attending, the subscript seems yet again to be that we can somehow ameliorate the damage that relentless industrialisation is doing, rather than asking more fundamentally important questions about the kind of society we really want to be living in.

In contrast, the Catholic Church has been a distinct and increasingly focussed voice on the environment for more than a century now, perhaps even back to St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecologists and animals. As it happens this Tuesday was the saint’s feast day, and a good opportunity for our Church to reiterate its profound concerns for the environment and our planet’s ecosystems.

The Social Justice Department of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales announced a new edition of its teaching document on the environment – The Call of Creation. First published in 2002, the new edition has been released at the conclusion of the Church’s month-long Season of Creation. The document calls for a “profound interior conversion” and for Catholics to “repair our relationship with God’s creation” to address the current ecological crisis.

Writing in the foreword, Bishop John Arnold, our Lead Bishop for the Environment, and Bishop Richard Moth, Chair of the Social Justice department, say: “The finishing touches were being made to this new edition of The Call of Creation as temperatures reached 40°C in our country for the first time. This not only broke all previous temperature records; it did so by some distance. This and other indicators demonstrate the urgency of needing to care properly for our common home … a truly Catholic understanding of the environmental crisis does not see it as simply a series of individual problems that need to be solved but rather the result of a broken relationship with God’s creation. This crisis exists because we do not have the right relationship with God’s creation.”

This very much echoes the sentiment expressed in Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, that the core problem is the broken nature of our relationship with God’s creation. The Victorian Christian industrialists of Britain, who were at the forefront of transforming global society from a pastoral, agricultural landscape to an aggressively industrial one drew their justifications from a distinct reading of the Bible, and in particular Gen. 1:28. For them the call to “fill the earth and to subdue it” was a very convenient mantra for capitalist intentions. But ‘subdue’ is a misinterpretation of the Hebrew word Kabash, which actually means ‘to serve’, and by force if necessary. So to subdue is not to abuse.

In more recent years this misconstrued theology has continued with a not uncommon view that – because the planet is only our temporary, highly flawed home – stewardship for creation ought to be of little concern or consequence to us as Christians who believe that this life is just an imperfect preparation for the divine afterlife.

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope in March 2013 he became the first pope in history to carry the name Francis. He later admitted that he chose the name because to do so was to take on one of the greatest challenges imaginable – to try and follow in the footsteps of St Francis of Assisi. In his encyclical, Laudato Si, Francis very deliberately seeks to overturn the perception that our planet is to be subdued. It’s in his opening words:

“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.

2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.Pope Francis, Laudato Si

Also marking the feast day of St Francis of Assisi this week, Pope Francis has launched a quite remarkable and moving full length (1h 20m) documentary film called The letter – A Message for our Earth.

Directed and brilliantly shot by Emmy-winning director Nicolas Brown, The letter is the story of personal letters that Pope Francis wrote to climate activists from the Brazilian Amazon, India, Senegal and the US. Each character was invited to Rome for a private audience with the Pope during which they shared their personal story and that of their country, revealing new eye-opening perspectives on the state of our planet and the need to do to rebalance our relations with the earth.

Evocatively shot and available on YouTube Originals, the film’s premiere symbolically took place on the same day as the Holy See’s official entry into the landmark Paris agreement, and is a remarkable statement of both the Holy Father’s deep concern for our planet, and for the strength of engagement that the COP process can expect from both Francis and the Vatican.

Pope Francis will know only too well that rampant industrial capitalism and the accumulation of personal wealth and power lies at the heart of our global climate problems. Replacing destructive selfishness with a deep compassion and consideration for others, as well as the vision to commit to a long-term future for those coming after us will not be easy, but nothing less will save our planet. King Charles may have bowed to the politicians, but I very much doubt Pope Francis will be so easily persuaded. He certainly carries the profoundest hopes and prayer of all of us.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian, and is founder of

The letter – A Message for our Earth – watch the full movie

Read The Call of Creation: from The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales


One thought on “COP27 would do well to heed the concerns of Pope Francis for God’s creation as Vatican formally joins the process, says Joseph Kelly

  • October 6, 2022 at 2:33 pm

    Another eye-opening article on what is the most pressing concern at the moment – how do we
    combat climate change’? Or, to put it rather crudely,
    “How do we humans, repair the damage we have caused to God’s wonderful creation by
    excesses in our lifestyles -with no concern for our neighbours?”.
    The real problem is that we in the West are rather selfish.
    As long as the problem is not on our doorstep, we needn’t worry just yet.
    How wrong can we be?
    We need to wake up, and soon, and bring pressure on our government to act urgently in
    tackling the problem of climate change if we are not going to leave our younger generation with a bleak future.
    Pope Francis, a Pontiff with concern from the planet, set the ball in motion years ago.
    It isn now up to our leaders to ACT NOW.

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