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The sublime connection: Pope, poverty and the planet

A trifecta of events in coming weeks may mark a profound shift for people and the planet. Pope Francis’s first visit to the United States marks a spiritual moment that brings an intense focus to the world’s neediest people. His arrival comes just as the new Sustainable Development Goals are about to be formalized. Then, in just three months, the world likely will unite around the first global climate agreement in Paris.

When we look back at this time, perhaps we’ll see this as the moment when previously unacknowledged connections became crystal clear: our moral responsibility to take care of the poor dovetails precisely with the need to care for our planet. Both, in turn, are part of our spiritual journey here on Earth.

These goals are naively optimistic. They will require a shift in the allocation of resources.

That’s the main theme of the pope’s message to the U.S. Congress, the United Nations and millions of others  to Roman Catholics and far beyond.

The pope’s encyclical letter on the environmentLaudato Si, makes the case for “the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet” and speaks of the pope’s conviction that “everything in the world is connected.”

“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation,” Francis said in the encyclical.

At his White House speech Sept. 23, he built on this theme, speaking of our need to invest in our “common home.” Failure to protect God’s good creation for future generations is a sign of moral and social failure. In an earlier post, I describe these issues in more detail.

The pope is addressing the U.N. just two days before the final approval of the SDGs and just 10 weeks before the Paris climate summit. Both the new SDGs and the growing momentum on climate change center on the idea that economic growth and environmental protection are inextricably linked; they are in essence two sides of a coin.

The SDGs include 17 goals and 169 stretch targets for 2015-2030. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals they replace, they cover all countries, not just the developing world, and recognize that the old model of one-way assistance — following from developed governments to developing ones — has outlived its usefulness. All countries have responsibilities in this globalized world, and the private sector and civil society are recognized as a central part of progress.

If the SDGs were implemented fully, climate change largely would be solved, even though climate would not be the primary motivator.

The SDGs seek to integrate economic, social and environmental issues. Thus, for example, they call for universal access to electricity for all by 2030, which will be enabled by a doubling of the rate of improvement in energy efficiency and a massive increase in renewable energy.

They call for a new urban paradigm, in which people rather than automobiles will be the focus of investment, creating more compact, connected and resilient cities, which will in turn help address climate change and promote economic competitiveness.

They call for a halving of food waste, which will improve food security for the poor, take pressure off forests and help close the carbon gap.

They call for landscape restoration, which will bring carbon back down to Earth, in turn bringing improved agricultural yields, higher incomes for poor farmers, and greater resilience.

These goals are naively optimistic. They will require a shift in the allocation of resources, rather than a massive injection of new financial resources. Many of these measures  such as a new approach to urbanization  will save trillions of dollars in investment over the next 15 years. Many others  such as energy, landscape restoration  will require increased up-front resources, but will pay for themselves quickly.

If the SDGs were implemented fully, climate change largely would be solved, even though climate would not be the primary motivator. The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate (of which the World Resources Institute is managing partner), has shown that there is a path forward that will enable us to move from today’s high carbon/low efficiency world economy to tomorrow’s low carbon/high efficiency economy in a manner that promotes both societal and economic benefits.

These ideas are slowly taking root, and the next few weeks are critical. We are on the verge of a great opportunity. And leaders of governments, corporations, cities, communities and religions have a historic opportunity to shift behavior and forge a better future.

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