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The Pope Wants Climate to Be a Human Rights Issue

Pope Francis made history on Friday by being the first Pope to open the United Nations General Assembly. Climate and the environment were key parts of a wide-ranging speech that laid out the Pope’s vision for the future of the planet.

The Pope pulled no punches in framing the gravity of climate change and environmental degradation to humanity. “Ecological destruction could place the human species in danger of extinction,” he said.

Pope Francis walking into the U.N. General Assembly.
Credit: Eskinder Debebe/U.N.

But rather than getting bogged down in technological fixes or percentages of greenhouse gas reductions and carbon credits, the Pope spoke of the climate as a fundamental moral and human rights issue.

“In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good,” Pope Francis said. “Any harm done to the environment is a harm to humanity.”

Speaking of people who suffer from lack of rights, including environmental ones, the Pope said, “government leaders must do everything possible to ensure all have the minimal spiritual and material means to live in dignity and to create and support a family.”

That frame has been central to the Pope’s climate message beginning with his encyclical in June and continuing through his speeches at the White House and Congress earlier this week and to the United Nations. In many ways, it cuts through the sometimes stymying language used to talk about climate change.

“Understanding that climate change is going to fundamentally interfere with individuals’ and communities’ ability to access water, enjoy food security, to have a life, to have a nation, that makes it a lot more direct and immediate with people,” Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said.

Pope Francis addressing the U.N. General Assembly.
Credit: Rick Bajornas/U.N.

The timing of the Pope’s speech fit well with his message. On Friday, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, a series of 17 goals that address poverty, education and more. Climate is one of the goals (No. 13 to be exact), but it also informs a number of the others.

The General Assembly marks the last major U.N. gathering until the climate conference in Paris in December. There, world leaders will be tasked with coming up with a plan to address greenhouse gas emissions.

“I'm confident the Paris conference on climatic change will secure fundamental and effective agreements,” the Pope said. “Solemn commitments are not enough, though they are a necessary step toward solutions.”

The run up to Paris has been a climate action yo-yo with some encouraging signs of progress, but other signs that any deal will not be as strong as expected. Outstanding issues like loss and damage, a financing mechanism for rich countries to help pay for climate- and weather-related damage in poor countries, have been chief among the bugaboos that have dogged negotiators.

But Burger said there are signs of a potential breakthrough, not because the Pope is calling for a human rights approach (though he might have an indirect impact), but because negotiators are seeing the light for themselves.

“What the human rights lens does is add a moral weight and moral imperative to climate action that cannot be denied,” Burger said.

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