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The strange alliance between Pope Francis and no logo author on environment and climate change

In the middle of the rising tension in Europe about Greece, the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean and terroristic attacks, another event attracted attention and surprised many observers: Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, addressing climate change. Yesterday’s press conference for the opening of the meeting People and Planet First: the Imperative to Change Course organised by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and CIDSE (1) with (amongst others) the participation of Prof Ottmar Edenhofer (2) and, quite surprisingly, the writer and journalist Naomi Klein touched upon this issue. This seemingly strange alliance between the Vatican and the activist Klein may appear less strange if we compare her last book This changes everything, with the content of the encyclical, where the Pope strongly points out the urgent necessity to protect ‘our common home’ and to ‘seek a sustainable and integral development’.

In the text, there are many aspects of modernity and openness which should be underlined, starting from the recognition of the essential role played by ‘the worldwide ecological movement that led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness to these challenges.’ (14). The Pope then lists the main environmental problems:

•    ‘pollutions, waste’ produced both as a result of ‘the industrial system which has not developed the capacity to reuse waste and by products and ‘a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish’;
•    climate change and global warning, ‘due to great concentration of greenhouse gases released mainly as a result of human activity’ (23), and the need of considering  ‘differentiated responsibilities’ given that the richest countries’ ‘huge consumption has repercussions on the poorer area of the world, especially in Africa on farming’(51);
•    the issue of water and biodiversity, the lack of an adequate analysis of ‘the replacement of virgin forest with plantations of trees, usually monocultures’ (39) and the emergence of people constricted to emigrate. However, the analysis does not stop here, but addresses the economic system. It focuses on global inequalities and distribution of resources, stating that ‘the exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty’ and that ‘we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.’ (48)

This is certainly not the first time that within the catholic social doctrine, social themes are tackled. In Rerum Novarum (1891), Leo XIII extensively discusses the labour question and identifies the dual nature of human labour as personal and necessary. In 1931, Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno remarks that capital cannot do without labour, nor labour without capital and that the human dignity of workers must be recognised.  Still, the ecological topic has never been considered so deeply as in this case. According to the economist Pasinetti (3), the encyclical of Leo XIII was the reaction to three important factors: the industrial revolution, the role of Marxist thought and the failure of the marginalist economic theory in describing reality. It would be compelling to understand which are the main factors driving Laudato si’. Among them, we can probably recognise the failure of neoliberalism and the financial economic crisis. Not surprisingly, what lacks in the almost 180 pages encyclical is any reference to ‘capitalism’ (even if we find many passages on the detrimental role of a deified market) which is instead continuously cited in Naomi Klein’s book.

According to her, one of the main reasons of failure of the green movement has been to not link the environmental question directly to a critique of our reigning economic paradigm (deregulated capitalism combined with public austerity), influenced also by a strong narrative able to deny and underestimate climate change effects.

The environmental question does not involve only carbon emissions, global warming, ice melting, air pollution, desertification, quality of food products and health risks for citizens, it also regards the theft of land and water which is happening today in developing countries. Land grabbing, which according to TNI definition, consists ‘in  the capturing of power to control land and other associated resources like water, minerals or forests, in order to control the benefits of its use’ is widely increasing if we consider that according to Oxfam (2011) land deals have risen by 227 million of hectares between 2000 and 2011. It is very difficult to estimate clearly the entity of land grabbing because some lands are not even recorded, because the attention is usually on the ownership and not on the people that really take the control of the land and because small land grabbings are more often ignored than the large scale ones. Also in this case, there is a wide range of ideological myths aimed to justify it, from the excess of land available (World Bank thesis) to the necessity of large scale and mostly foreign investments to sustain agriculture. However, the impact of land grabbing has often been tremendous for people living on the land. For instance, in 2006 in Cambodia, many villages have been evicted and people have lost both residential land and farmland they possessed legally after the acquisition by two corporations of 20,000 hectares; or in Mozambique, a subsidiary of a Swedish fund bought a lease of 140,000 hectares ensuring to employ 3,000 workers, but then in 2012 actually only employed 900 people (under harsh working conditions) over a property of 51,000 hectares.

Behind the dynamics of land grabbing’s lies a paradoxical aspect which is interesting to consider: one of the driving factors of recent wave of land grabbing has been, together with the expanding consumption of large emerging economies, also the diffusion of biofuels and in general of flex crops, which are crops with different possible uses (food, fuel, feed, industrial material), such as soya, sugarcane, oil palm and corn (4). Thus, even if starting from ecological concerns (like in the case of bio fuel), the final result may turn into a profit oriented and exploiting mechanism. In other words, if we do not change the economic structure as a whole, an environmental disaster becomes immediately an economic chance to benefit from: in this view, even the melting of the Arctic ice can be seen as an opportunity to exploit previously inaccessible supplies of deep sea oil and gas, as explained here.

What role could international institutions play? From the Club of Rome and the first World Climate Conference in 1971 to the next Conference in Paris in December 2015, the list of historical agreements and conventions is long and increases every year. Yet, many critical points, from the differentiated responsibility of poor and rich countries, to the active involvement in respecting the goals and to the concrete implementation of the required policies, have not been solved, rendering these agreements ineffective and highly rhetorical. For what concerns Europe, the EJOLT group has recently published A critical review of environmental policies challenges in the EU where most problematic issues related to the European environmental law are identified.

The essential problem regards the effectiveness of transposition, implementation and compliance of national law with European laws. A country can be subject to an infringement procedure in case of noncompliance. Interestingly, the vast majority of infringement procedures (761 in total) in 2013 have been received by Italy, Spain and France essentially in the field of environment, transport and health. However, the problem is that these procedures can be very long and in the meanwhile potential irreversible damages are produced. Moreover, the environmental crime directive 2008/99, whose aim is to harmonise environmental criminal law, is difficult to implement given the strong disparities between the criminal justice systems of Member States, whereas the Environmental liability directive 2004/35/EC weakly depends on a vast discretion of Member States which have preferred not to enlarge the already narrow scope of the directive, excluding many species and habitats potentially to be protected.

Furthermore, the EU policy is rather contradictory on environmental issues: on the one hand the EU promotes ─ as pillars of the Aarhus Convention ─ information, participation and access to justice in environmental matters, on the other hand it secretly negotiates a trade agreement (TTIP) with the USA, which will have strong impact on the environment and on the health and rights of citizens.

This ‘schizophrenic’ behaviour does not only reflect a lack of consistency, but probably the existence of conflicting interests and ideas about what Europe should be and which model of society it should promote. It is essentially the same schizophrenia which characterises the current debate on Greece: a country which has implemented all reforms asked for by the EU, which has seen its GDP fall by almost 25% from 2009 and from which the EU asks even more sacrifices instead of promoting a completely different kind of political economy.

In his landmark project called Genesis, the photographer Salgado collected images from all around the world, from indigenous communities in Amazonia to small communities in Siberia. When he was asked to describe the content, he answered simply:  ‘What we show in this book is what we must preserve.’
We should apply this question to ourselves and ask: ‘Which Europe (and which world) do we want to preserve? And what are we really able to do?’

There are positive examples from abroad, like Costa Rica’s record of 100% renewable energy and Uruguay showing the highest percentage of wind energy, but it is not enough. Everything changes even if we do not take action, yet, as Naomi Klein writes, for a very brief time, the nature of that change is still up to us (5).

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(1) International Alliance of Catholic Development Organisations
(2) Co-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
(3) Pasinetti, Luigi, Dottrina sociale della Chiesa e teoria economica, 2012
(4) p.17-19 The Global Land Grab
(5) p.28, This changes everything (2014) Allen Lane Edition

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