The New York Times
by Gaia Pianigiani
July 21, 2015
VATICAN CITY — About 60 mayors from around the world gathered here on Tuesday and pledged to combat global warming and help the poor deal with its effects, at a conference swiftly organized by the Vatican barely a month after Pope Francis’ sweeping encyclical on the environment.
The two-day conference, which also focused on fighting forms of modern slavery, was not the first time that the Vatican had organized a meeting on the issue. But it was the first time that it specifically invited local officials, hoping to mobilize grass-roots action and maintain pressure on world leaders for action ahead of a global summit meeting on climate change scheduled for December in Paris.
In Tuesday’s declaration, the mayors pledged to urge world leaders to pass a “bold climate agreement that confines global warming to a limit safe for humanity, while protecting the poor and the vulnerable from ongoing climate change that gravely endangers their lives.”
Welcomed with great excitement, and some silence, Francis took the stage on Tuesday to thank the mayors for coming as protagonists from the “peripheries,” in his usual emphasis on the world’s forgotten areas and their people.
“We can’t say that the person is here, and the care for the environment is there,” he explained in Spanish during his brief appearance to salute the conference attendees. “This is what I was trying to express in the encyclical “Laudato Si’, ” We can’t separate man from all else. There is a mutual impact.”
“It’s not a green encyclical; it’s a social encyclical,” Francis said, commenting on his own much-debated work and explaining that creation and humanity are deeply intertwined.
Francis told the audience he was worried about the uncontrolled growth of poverty belts around expanding cities with no care for the environment, and the ensuing suffering for those who inhabit the areas.
He also expressed his concern about the “rebound effect” for human beings of the deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil, and for how the trafficking of people, forced labor and prostitution thrive in poor areas. And he urged the mayors sitting in front of him to pay increasing attention to the problem of environmental destruction.
The mayors had, in fact, taken their task very seriously.
“His Holiness did not convene us here to ratify the status quo, but in fact to upend it,” Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York, said in his 10-minute speech. “It’s increasingly clear that we, the local leaders of the world, have many tools, more than we may have in fact realized, and we must use them boldly even as our national governments hesitate.”
In most countries, mayors can impose regulations to make buildings more energy efficient, encourage public transit and promote a green culture among residents, all crucial components of the larger challenge to combat climate change.
“Political and business leaders are not taking climate change seriously enough,” Gov. Jerry Brown of California said in an interview before the conference. “The hope is that local government leaders can create pressure on the national leaders.”
On Tuesday, some leaders recounted their cities’ experiences with natural catastrophes worsened by environmental degradation. Others spoke of social emergencies, like the mayor of the smallest town invited, Lampedusa, the tiny Italian island close to Tunisia where migrants crossing the Mediterranean have arrived by the thousands in recent years.
The mayor of Stockholm, Karin Wanngard, took the opportunity to urge climate negotiators to eliminate the use of fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy sources.
Some of those invited announced new measures for their cities, like Mr. de Blasio, who pledged to reduce greenhouse emissions in New York by 40 percent by 2030.
Many local legislators voiced their frustration with opponents of action against climate change and people who reject established science on the issue.
Mr. Brown, governor of the state with the strictest greenhouse emission standards in North America, chastised the denialists, saying they were trying to “falsify the scientific record” to convince officials and ordinary people that global warming was not taking place.
The final declaration of Tuesday’s meeting defined human-induced climate change as a “scientific reality” and its control a “moral imperative for humanity.”
The scientific community here welcomed the conference as a positive contribution to the international debate, albeit not one crucial for research purposes.
“Of course the Vatican’s erudite contribution doesn’t add much to the scientific debate, but it has a great media power; no politician can completely ignore it,” said Enrico Brugnoli, director of the Department of Earth System Science and Environmental Technologies at Italy’s National Research Council.
For many, the conference was a sign of Francis’ continuing interest in reaching out to ordinary people, as well as his commitment to pushing the message for radical changes contained in his encyclical, “Laudato Si’, ” or “May Praise Be To You,” published last month.
“The Vatican wants to create proximity between what the pope says and people’s everyday life, and this is a first step,” said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert with the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica.
Alberto Melloni, a liberal scholar and Vatican historian, said the aim of the conference was “not to act as a third party with the U.N.”
Rather, he said, “it’s more a call for action for mayors, for those who are really close to ordinary people, and make them responsible as well.”
In his encyclical, Francis had already addressed “every person living on this planet,” calling on ordinary people to press for a grass-roots transformation of politics, economics and individual lifestyles to confront environmental degradation and climate change, in a critique of both consumerism and irresponsible development.
Francis, who took the name of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment, personally carried his message abroad during his recent trip to Latin America.
There, he handed over a copy of “Laudato Si’ ” to President Evo Morales of Bolivia. In Ecuador, he delivered his first wide-ranging environmental message, calling on the nation to protect the Amazon rain forest.
In most of his speeches, he stressed the importance of sustainable and equal development.
“We need a moral dimension to the climate change debate, and Pope Francis is providing that,” Mr. Brown said. “That would add weight and force to the cause of dealing with climate change effectively.”
Concluding his speech to the mayors, Francis took a moment to encourage international leaders.
“I have great hopes for the Paris summit in December,” he said. “I have great hopes that a fundamental agreement is reached and that the United Nations takes a strong stand on climate change.”