Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Response to His Excellency Anote Tong, Former President of Kiribati
Webinar on Climate Emergency in the Pacific
19 August 2020
I thank His Excellency Anote Tong not only for his passionate appeal to us tonight for climate action but especially for his global leadership on an issue that has been described as the great moral challenge of our time.
He has been at the forefront of raising global awareness about catastrophic risks caused by climate change. With his atoll nation of Kiribati being about 2 meters above sea level, he has warned the world that failure on climate action could pose an existential threat to his people and other low-lying Pacific islands. Entire communities and their ancient heritage could be destroyed in a matter of a decade or so.
But it’s not just the low-lying atoll nations in the Pacific but the whole planet on the verge of climate catastrophe. The evidence given by the world’s scientists, with data collected over long periods of time should give us ground for concern, for attitudinal change and most of all, for decisive affirmative action. We cannot go on living the way we have. We cannot continue to destroy rain forests, pollute the environment, and burn fossil fuels without dire consequences.
Anote’s message has found a great ally in Pope Francis who is the voice of truth and conscience for the world. He has been sent to us in order to wake us to the reality of the deep alienation and estrangement, which threatens our very existence. Estrangement – from God, from nature, from one another and even from truth itself – today reverberates through our relationship with the Earth that is our common home.
In the biblical tradition, prophets rise up from the landscape and announce the future different to that of the dominant narrative. They provide an alternative vision to that of the empire. They speak of God’s intention with a burning passion, a sense of urgency and discomfort.
In many ways, Anote is also a contemporary prophetic voice that speaks truth to power. He is from one of the smallest nations at the periphery of the world. Yet like the ancient prophets, it is the voice from elsewhere that subverts the status quo. His is an energising message that envisions a new reality. He challenges us and but also energises us to bring about the transformation as the Creator intends.
Mr Tong has played a leading role in the Paris climate accord and the global moratorium on fossil fuels. Scientists predicted long ago that extreme weather events would happen if carbon emissions were not reduced. These predictions had come to pass with devastating effects such as the bushfires that ravaged eastern Australia last summer.
During this coronavirus pandemic, political leaders everywhere, by and large, have followed the advice of scientists in enacting public health policies that prevent the spread of the virus and protect life. Unfortunately, there has not been strong and decisive leadership when it comes to fighting climate change. Instead of uniting behind the science and enacting favourable public policies, many leading industrial nations, including Australia, have regressed or even reneged on the Paris climate accord which limits global warming to 1.5 °C above the long-term average to reduce the worst impacts of climate change.
The policy directions in relation to cutting carbon emissions that our government has chosen in recent times go against the signs of the times, international agreements, the advice of scientists and even emergency services chiefs. These have been very clear that the bushfires have been made much worse by human-induced climate change. Yet, the government has not even acknowledged this. Australia’s current climate policies are viewed globally as among the worst in the world.
As a nation, we cannot claim to be a responsible global citizen in addressing the moral challenge of our age while we lag behind other nations on climate action and continue to subsidise old polluting industries. It is true that we are only responsible for a comparatively small amount of carbon emissions. But it is no reason not to act and to show leadership. Australia has always prided itself on punching above its own weight. As Sir David Attenborough remarked that we are the keepers of an extraordinary section of the surface of this planet, including the Great Barrier Reef, and what we say, what we do, really matters.
Enele Sopoaga, the former Prime Minister of Tuvalu wrote in The Canberra Times the other day, reminding our Prime Minister Scott Morrison of the promise he made shortly after the latter came into power. He promised that Australia would “work more closely than ever with the Pacific Islands on those issues of greatest concern to them – including climate solutions and disaster resilience” and would keep its international commitments made in these areas.
Sadly, we are yet to see this promise fulfilled. Instead, Mr Sopoaga, like Mr Tong, laments that we have seen a move to ramp up Australia’s fossil fuel industry. As Australia and most countries prepare their post-COVID-19 economic recovery, it is crucial that we don’t dig ourselves out of one crisis only to exacerbate another. Scientists are quietly confident that they will be able to develop a vaccine for coronavirus. Unfortunately, the climate crisis that threatens to wipe out small Pacific nations cannot be addressed with a vaccine.
The coronavirus crisis reveals a world that is fractured. It tells us that the dominant mode of human conquest and dominion is no longer sustainable. The human-centered planet is out of sync with nature and heading to ruins. We may be on top of the food chain, but our survival depends on our partnership with every form of life. We need a radical new way of relating and living that brings harmony and sustainability to all of life. We, humans, are part of the interconnected cosmic web of creation and we need to live a new paradigm of communion with all that is.
We need a radical new way of living that brings harmony and sustainability to all of life. Even if and when we get back to “normal”, we need to think and act differently; we need to rewire ourselves to be in communion with one another as a human family and as part of nature. We need to abandon the old paradigm of competition, of survival of the fittest that undergirds much of our consumerist, capitalist economic system of buying life at any cost. We will perish under these conditions unless we return to the roots of nature and rewire ourselves to be part of nature. We need to have a conversion of mind and heart that leads to a conversion of lifestyle.
Each of us can begin to live life simply and poorly. Australia is the largest exporter of coal. But individually, we are responsible for producing huge amount of greenhouse gases. We have one of the highest per capita emissions of carbon dioxide in the world. We simply cannot leave the greenhouse problem to the big players like governments, energy companies, industry leaders, and the like. There are practical measures that we all can do reduce our carbon footprint. Invest in renewable energy; divest from fossil fuels; consume less and waste less must be the way for us Christians to give new expressions to the first beatitude: to live the spirit of poverty and simplicity.
In our struggle to influence policy and decision-makers in respect of climate action, it is easy for us to give in to defeat and apathy. Significant social changes, we reason, rely on the participation and conversion of large numbers of people. But there is an alternative image to critical mass that is aptly and biblically named critical yeast. Instead of asking a question about quantity, how many people, the question becomes who, which people, in this situation, “would have a capacity, if they were mixed and held together, to make things grow, exponentially, beyond their numbers?”
Each of us can become critical yeast for critical time by virtue of our commitment, dedication and shared leadership. In this way, we can create a movement from below that challenges the inaction or worse the collusion with the fossil fuel industry from above.
Pope Francis often speaks of the culture of globalised indifference. Australians and Catholic Australians in particular need to build a broad coalition gathering around the issue in order to give a counter witness to the culture of globalised indifference. We need to amplify the prophetic voice of prophets like Anote Tong and Pope Francis. It will reverberate through our parishes, schools, communities and to the broader society. It will inspire what I call a new ‘Laudato Si generation’ and together we can bring the urgent message of reconciliation and healing for our broken earth.
Four years ago, Pope Francis issued an encyclical on the environment and called for an “ecological conversion”, meaning a deep communion with all things that surround us. In that prophetic document, we have a blueprint for a sustainable future that is based on respect and love for this beautiful planet. The encyclical calls us to live in a way that involves personal, familial, communal and cosmic harmony, and finds expression in a communitarian approach to existence, the ability to find joy and fulfillment in an austere and simple life, and a responsible care of nature that preserves resources for the future generations.
Today, we are also challenged to move beyond old patterns of living and behaviour, both individually and collectively. In light of the ecological crisis that demands a conversion of heart and a change of lifestyle, we must have the courage to align ourselves with God’s plan for the world. Only by acting in the best interests of the environment, of the poor and of future generations can we save this planet from devastation.
Most Rev Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv
Bishop of Parramatta
Chair of the Bishops Commission for Social Justice: Service and Mission