By Heather Walker
ROME — Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si',” and the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference COP26 were central to a recent conversation with British Ambassador to the Holy See Sally Axworthy.
The encyclical addresses much more than climate change; the key message is that “everything is interconnected,” she said.
“At the moment, with COVID-19, there is a move… to see things as much more interconnected: healthcare, environment, climate change, poverty and exclusion,” she said.
The encyclical seems to have been “written for this crisis,” she continued, and “bears re-reading because the messages are so relevant now.” She emphasized that “Laudato Si'” shares a message of hope, not despair, and it communicates to readers that the situation is not helpless and that there is “something we can do.”
“It’s designed as a kind of call to action,” she added.
The ambassador acknowledged the “unique role” Pope Francis plays worldwide and his level of impact as the religious leader with the most followers. His release of “Laudato Si'” before COP21 contributed to setting the tone for the meeting, Axworthy said. The Lambeth Declaration, which the Archbishop of Canterbury coordinated, as well as other faith leaders also made contributions, she said.
Noting that climate change is “a moral issue” that disproportionally affects the poorest and most marginalized, she urged all faith leaders to get involved in environmental issues and to set an example on how to care for creation.
Axworthy spoke of the trend of investing in companies that are committed to Net Zero, that is to achieving net zero carbon dioxide emissions, and of Transition Pathway Initiative, which assesses companies’ preparedness for a transition to a low-carbon economy. She described Transition Pathway Initiative as “an interesting guide for all investors.” She also spoke of the merits of LiveSimply, an initiative inspired by “Laudato Si'” and organized by the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development in the United Kingdom, which seeks to help people care for creation.
Schools and universities are important to furthering the environmental cause and to providing some of the answers to the environmental issues of the day, said Axworthy. However, she also underlined the need to “translate all that goodwill from the younger generation into practicalities.”
“Sometimes you feel that the younger generation is frustrated at the lack of progress and it has to be turned into, ‘Well, what can we all do about this?’ The time has come to turn our common concern on climate change into, ‘Let’s take some steps,’” she said, offering as examples a move away from coal as an energy supply and flying less.
“The pandemic has shown us that the things we habitually did, we can live without,” she said. “We can live in a simpler way. We can enjoy some of the things that come with that, like being with family, catching up — some of those things that are pleasures but that we forget about in rushing around. In a way, we have already made a change and the challenge now is to keep some of those changes we’ve made and also to think about how we want to come out of this.”
Italy and the United Kingdom will co-host the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in November 2021, postponed from this autumn. The meeting will be held five years after the signing of the Paris Agreement. Axworthy said the 2021 COP should involve “everybody, (at) all areas of society,” including faith leaders.
“We want to put ourselves collectively on the path to temperature rises of less than 2 degrees Celsius and preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius. So, the British government is talking about a ‘whole of society’ approach,” she said.
The British Embassy to the Holy See has already placed climate change among its top priorities and modified its daily operations in several ways, from becoming a plastic-free office to purchasing an electric car. The embassy is currently in the process of researching alternatives to chemical cleaning products in the office, as well as ways to reduce packaging of food and drinks, Axworthy explained.
While motivated by the scientific data, Axworthy said she has been getting “quite a lot of pressure” to stay the course from her four children, including two daughters who make their own clothes.
“It’s good to have children who are like that,” she said. “They are partly your conscience. They have taken up this narrative, that the older generation is being a bit irresponsible. It’s our children telling us to be more responsible.”
Photo courtesy British Embassy to the Holy See