As mayors from more than 60 of the world’s major cities convened on Tuesday, their reason for gathering — addressing “modern slavery and climate change” — was already somewhat unusual. Environmental and human trafficking activists have hosted high-level talks in the past, but this conference managed to pull together leaders from some of the world’s largest population centers to discuss human rights and how to implement effective green policies at the local level — an impressive political feat.
But there was something else peculiar about the meeting: Attendees weren’t cloistered inside the well-worn atriums of the United Nations or pacing the glossy halls of the EU Parliament. Instead, they were huddled behind the ancient walls of Vatican City, where they gathered as part of a climate change-themed conference sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.
“We want sustainable development, without excluding the extremely poor,” said Monica Fein, the mayor of Rosario, a city in Pope Francis’ home country of Argentina. “We fundamentally want to leave our children and future generations with a planet that isn’t contaminated.”
To be fair, the location of the conference, while atypical, isn’t totally unexpected. The gathering comes a little over a month after the release of Laudato Si’, a nearly 200-page papal encyclical from Pope Francis focused primarily on climate change issues. Aimed at fellow believers, the document debunked conservative theological claims against protecting the environment and outlined a moral argument for why the world’s Catholics have an obligation to help protect the planet. It was also well-received among climate scientists, who lauded its surprisingly robust engagement with peer-reviewed research.
But outside of its purported theological impact, the document’s real power came from its often unapologetically political language, which hinted at a broader agenda: Namely, a call for real-world policies that can address our changing environment.
“Many signs indicate that [the effects of climate change] could worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption,” the document read, according to an initial translation conducted by ThinkProgress. “Therefore it is urgent to develop policy so that in the coming years, we drastically reduce carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gas emissions, by, for example, replacing fossil fuels and developing renewable energy sources.”
Tuesday’s convening is one of the first tangible expressions of this sentiment, with the Vatican actively positioning itself as a central organizing force in the fight for climate justice. By gathering climate-conscience mayors from Europe, South America, the United States, and even Iran, the Holy See is slowly crafting a global coalition of partner cities united in their support for helping stem the effects of climate change.
In fact, the 60-plus mayors attending the conference — many of whom are not themselves Catholic — appeared ready to give the pope’s message political teeth. According to the Associated Press, attendees are set to sign a declaration that “human-induced climate change is a scientific reality and its effective control is a moral imperative for humanity.”
“The [pope’s] encyclical is not a call to arms. It is a call to sanity.
“The [pope’s] encyclical is not a call to arms,” New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said in an address to the conference. “It is a call to sanity.”
California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who also attended the conference and who once enrolled in a Jesuit seminary, agreed.
“This intervention by the pope is appropriate and absolutely essential to wake people up to the dangers of climate change and to the value of seeing human beings as part of nature and dependent on nature as opposed to be adversaries of each other,” Brown said, according to the National Catholic Reporter.
But the gathering — and, by extension, the Pope’s greater agenda — isn’t limited to technical discussions of carbon emissions. The framing of the conference, which is titled “Modern Slavery and Climate Change: The Commitment of the Cities,” makes the case that climate change causes, or is inextricably connected to, a litany of other global issues such as human trafficking.
“Today we are facing two tragic emergencies that are related in different ways: the climate change crisis and the new forms of slavery,” the conference website reads. “As a matter of fact, global warming is one of the causes of poverty and forced migration, which are breeding grounds for human trafficking, forced labour, prostitution and organ trafficking.”
Indeed, human trafficking is a common risk for immigrants traveling to places like the United States. Female migrants are routinely captured and sold into sex slavery by gangs while journeying northward through remote sections of Mexico and elsewhere. Most currently make the dangerous trek to escape violence in their home countries, but studies conducted by NASA and others show that impending droughts in Central America — where denizens already endure some of the harshest effects of climate change — could create a “new dustbowl,” forcing thousand to flee and likely expanding the scope of the sex-trafficking industry.
At the conference, Toni Chammany, the mayor of Kochi, India, warned that a similar situation is primed to impact his home country. He pointed to India’s ongoing drought, which is forcing farmers to relocate to cities and “pushing them into the dark dungeons of slavery.”
By discussing these two issues at the same conference, the Vatican seems to be signaling that climate change will be the moral fiber that connects its larger global agenda for years to come, which includes addressing issues of economics, immigration, and prisoner’s rights. This will likely prove important come September, when Francis is scheduled to address both the United Nations and a joint session of Congress.
“Laudato Si’ is about much more than caring for nature; we cannot separate care for human beings from everything else,” Francis reportedly said in an address to the conference Tuesday afternoon.
The pontiff also told the assembly that he has “a lot of hope” major climate talks later this year in Paris, France will result in a bold deal to reduce global warming.
Press link for more: Jack Jenkins | thinkprogress.org