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What needs to be done to address environmental issues plaguing Earth

By Fr Cedric Prakash sj*
On May 28th 2017 German Chancellor Angela Merkel in an election rally very strongly stated that Germany and Europe could no longer rely on the US under the leadership of President Donald Trump. The next day, her spokesperson reiterated that Chancellor Merkel was right in confronting President Trump during his visit to Europe last week, over the need to tackle climate change.
In their meetings with him, the G7 leaders urged Tump not to pull US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change which emphasises the need and importance of cutting down carbon dioxide emissions. The US (under President Obama) together with 194 countries is a signatory to this path-breaking agreement. Scientists and other experts are convinced that the implementation of this agreement is critical if the planet is to have any chance of tackling catastrophic climate change, which is having disastrous effects in so many parts of the globe.
Trump has consistently pooh-poohed this ‘agreement’ referring to the climate change science as a hoax and he is convinced that its “bad for business” As a response to Merkel’s statements Trump has gone on record to say that “Germany is bad for business!”
The Paris Agreement on Climate Change was signed on December 12th 2015, as a historic result of COP21 which for the first time after 20 years of UN negotiations provided the world with a legally binding and universal agreement on climate which intends to keep global warming below 2 degrees , with leaders committing their country to lowering planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change. Whether Trump will actually pull out of this agreement is anybody’s guess. He is expected to make his announcement sometime this week. The US pulling out is bound to have serious repercussions all over the world.
In June 2015, a few months before the Paris Agreement, Pope Francis gifted the world his manga carta on the environment with his Encyclical ‘Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home’. In the opening statements, he makes his intention clear “to address (through this Encyclical) every person living on this planet” (#3). “This sister (mother earth) 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” (#2).
In the first chapter, Pope Francis says, “we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation” (#48); he deals here with several “aspects of the present ecological crisis”: pollution, waste and the throw-away culture; climate as a common good; displacement and migration caused by environmental degradation; access to safe drinking water as a basic and universal human right; loss of bio-diversity; decline in the quality of human life and break down of society; global inequality. He has also denounces pesticides and genetically engineered (GE) crops.
He goes on to say, “the earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production” (#32). In making such statements, in taking a stand for the ‘care of our common home’, Pope Francis has indeed created several enemies among the rich and powerful, the vested interests and those who are bent on profiteering by plundering very precious and scarce natural resources.
Throughout the Encyclical, he insists that we have been called to be stewards of the creation God has entrusted to us. He ensures that ‘Laudato Si’ focuses on human rights violations and injustices. He does not mince words when he says “in the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, committing oneself to the common good means to make choices in solidarity based on a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (#158).
It was indeed very symbolic with a very powerful message that when Pope Francis and US President Donald Trump met for the first time in the Vatican on May 24th 2017, the Pope gave Trump two significant gifts: a copy of‘Laudato Si’ and a medallion of ‘peace’ (together with his message for the World Day of Peace 2017). In doing so, Pope Francis emphasised the interconnectedness between ‘environment’ and ‘peace’.
In a lead article entitled ‘The Pope’s Gifts to Trump Send Some Clear Messages’, the ‘New York Times’(May 24th 2017) stated, ‘Francis left no doubt about his message in the gifts he gave to his guest, notably the essay on the importance of the environment, which stands as a rebuke to the climate change scepticism espoused by Mr. Trump. Francis also presented him with a medallion engraved with the image of an olive tree — “a symbol of peace,” he explained. “We can use peace,” Mr. Trump said. Francis replied, “It is with all hope that you may become an olive tree to make peace.” As he bade the Pope farewell, Mr. Trump told him, “I won’t forget what you said.”’
Whether Trump will actually practise what the Pope passionately believes in, is another matter. In just about one hundred days in office, Trump has reversed course on nearly two dozen environmental rules, regulations and other Obama-era. Citing federal overreach and burdensome regulations, Mr. Trump has prioritized domestic fossil fuel interests and undone measures aimed at protecting the environment and limiting global warming.
Closer home, India has been faring very poorly on environmental issues. The ‘Environmental Performance Index’ (EPI) developed by the Yale and Columbia Universities in collaboration with the World Economic Forum and the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission in its Report of 2016 ranked India a poor 141 out of 180 countries. This is not surprising. Ever since, it came into power three years ago, the NDA Government under Narendra Modi has demonstrated that the environment can be destroyed at the whims and fancies of the powerful and vested interests.
Gautam Adani is regarded by many as Modi’s right hand man. When Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Adani built a coal port and power plant in Mundra which resulted in an unimaginable destruction of the environment that had sustained local fishing and farming businesses for generations. So when the Modi government goes all out of the way to support Adani’s venture in the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, which poses a huge risk to the reefs already vulnerable eco-system, it comes as no surprise to many.
In spite of protests from celebrities in Australia (including two former cricket captains) Adani seems to be having his way with the Carmichael coalmine in the Queensland State. Fishermen of Gujarat, who have suffered greatly because of the Mundra port recently sent a powerful message to Australia saying that the Adani project is harming them and killing off sea life.
On June 5th , the world will once again observe Environment Day on the theme ‘Connecting People to Nature’, imploring us to get outdoors and into nature, to appreciate its beauty and its importance, and to take forward the call to protect the Earth that we share. There will certainly be plenty of cosmetic activities like tree-planting and the ‘politically correct speeches’ given! Everybody knows that these certainly do not scratch the surface of what needs to be done to address the serious environmental issues, which plague us.
Too many of the powerful are actually playing games with and destroying our environment. Parrikar the CM of Goa wants to fine anybody using plastics (that’s okay) but he will allow his cronies to continue with their nefarious mining activities. A good percentage of the world are too afraid to take on these ‘destroyers of the environment’, content with playing a goody-goody role: grow trees and do not risk disturbing the ‘status quo’ as ‘Greenpeace’ has been doing!
It is not without reason that Pope Francis presented Trump with the important symbols of ‘environment’ and ‘peace’. In doing so, he has thrown down the gauntlet to the rapacious vested interests of this world. ‘Laudato Si’ is path-breaking, radical in nature; it makes one uncomfortable and touches every single dimension of our human existence.
The Pope invites all to an ecological conversion, to change directions so that we can truly care for our common home; he challenges all “what kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (#160). Not to pay heed to Pope Francis’ prophetic words; to rubbish this timely and important message or to relegate it to mere tree-planting would certainly be a great disservice to our common home! At this moment we need to hope that Trump never forgets what the Pope told him and does act upon it!

*Indian human rights activist, currently based in Lebanon, with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in the Middle East, on advocacy and communications

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