Vatican Journal – Final Thoughts

by Danny Richter

ROME, ITALY – What a conference! The feeling that is most at the forefront of my mind is: “wow”. I feel a little guilty about this feeling, because it is more a reflection of the fact that I never imagined myself having access to or being counted in the company of such intellectual giants or so many of them all at once. There is a very real possibility that I have “peaked” in terms of interacting with the ether of this world; or (when you count the Pope) the next!

I feel guilty about this privilege because it remains unclear to me what the resulting impact of the conference will be. I want the joy of my experience to be accompanied by an equally joyous and powerful message that I can bring back to CCL volunteers to say: “look, something was done that brings our goal closer”. The reality is that the outcome is unclear. It is little solace that none of the conference attendees or organizers know either. What became clear after the proceedings yesterday, even after the reading of the two versions of the statement, was that there is a lot of politics involved with this, neither draft is likely to be a very close representation of the final text, and both statements still focus on the problems, not the solutions.

To be sure, there are many, many positives that have come out of this session. This was the first joint meeting of the PAS and PASS. This has never happened before. This should not be underplayed, because the social sciences have much to teach the natural sciences, and vice-versa. Neither, working in parallel as they have been, has alone been able to overcome the barriers to action on climate. As I was describing earlier today in conversation, I think the result is that though more natural scientists are able to give a detailed and accurate rendition of what is happening to the climate, the social scientists who know climate well enough to talk about it talk about it in a way that is much more powerful than natural scientists. Natural scientists need to become better and more engaging storytellers on a more basic level, and they need to help more social scientists bring their communication skills to bear on this very difficult problem.

Another huge positive that came out of this meeting is that although the two conveners of this meeting got only 4 sentences to convey their message to Pope Francis about 4 days of meetings, we received word that those 4 sentences were heard, and heard positively by the Pope. One of the themes of the meeting was certainly that there needs to be a moral call on this issue. The faith leaders of the world have an important voice that has not been raised enough, or brought to bear in thinking through the implications of this world increasingly shaped, or co-created by you, by me, and by all humans. This shred of hope communicated to me, as through a game of telephone, allows the possibility that maybe, possibly, we may hear the faith leader for 1 billion Catholics around the world speaking out on the moral imperative of acting on climate within the next year.

So, there is ample reason to be hopeful about the results of this conference (I do tend to be on the more cautious side with such things). You may ask: “what would have made you feel excited about this, Negative Nancy?” Both the drafts for the statement that the Pope may sign read like problem statements. This is fine, but what we really need is a solution statement. A statement that lays out in brief the problem, the targets we need to fix the problem, and a discussion of different solutions that might get us to solve that problem. In the context of this event, my ideal solution statement would have included several possible solutions, as well as an evaluation of the technical and moral benefits and costs for each solution. THAT would be a document I could get excited about.

Though we are talking here about a 2-page statement coming out of this conference, the same line of critique could be leveled at the IPCC process. What are any of the IPCC reports, except statements of the problem? This is fine and, indeed, necessary. But a problem statement demands a solution statement, with equally detailed analysis of the kind I have suggested. We could even imagine time horizons in this solutions statement: If you want to fix the climate by 2100, you need to do X; by 2075, Y, and by 2050 you need to do Z. The cost of X, Y, and Z would be this many trillions of dollars, but the benefit would be this many lives saved, feet of sea level rise avoided, etc.

Perhaps this reflection on what we lack we can point to as another benefit of the conference. It has helped us crystallize what we lack. Now that we have identified it, we can set about obtaining it!