My country is suffering because of climate change, but the world can help

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Papua New Guinea has borne the brunt of global warming. We pray world leaders will intervene

Recently, the heads of six continental Catholic bishops’ conferences issued a rare joint statement. Their subject was climate change.

The conferences, including the Federation of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of Oceania, to which Papua New Guinea belongs, decided that climate change warranted the unusual time and attention to develop a globally united statement. The reason is that climate change calls on the beliefs and values that are core to our faith.

Climate change challenges our commitment to protect “the least of these.” Climate change is driving an increase in the likelihood of extreme storms, growing deserts, and rising seas. In turn, these weather disasters affect the human family, increasing the risk of hunger, migration, and conflict.

These consequences are not equally borne. The very poor and the very young, who are the most vulnerable members of our human family, bear the brunt of these disasters. They are more likely to live in a house that can be washed away by a strong storm. They are more likely to lack the resources needed to escape the storm’s path. They are more likely to have no way to rebuild a home, replant a field, restart a school. In the Carteret Islands, for example, villagers are seeing their gardens and wells salinated by the rising seas, and they often have no recourse but to start over elsewhere. The same is true of other countries in the Central Pacific who face relocating people.

Finally, it deeply saddens me and my brother bishops that the most vulnerable among us do often pay the ultimate price of climate change. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 200 children now die each year in Papua New Guinea from effects related to climate change. The failure of food gardens due to drought or the increased salinity of ground impacts heavily on subsistence farmers.

This challenge to our conscience is why the bishops of the world said that “human dignity and rights, in particular of the most vulnerable, must always be at the centre of the climate agenda.”

We in Papua New Guinea do not face this challenge alone. We are joined by nearly 50 nations of the Earth in the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a platform for vulnerable countries to discuss their shared challenges and strive for shared solutions. The forum is intended to build consensus and advocate for sensible, timely solutions to the crisis we face.

The Climate Vulnerable Forum recently concluded its summit, and at the top of the agenda was limiting global warming to 1.5C over pre-industrial levels. The difference between 1.5C and 2C of warming is the difference between prosperity and poverty, life and death, protecting “the least of these” and ignoring their pleas for help.

The summit shared stories of people in countries like Papua New Guinea who are already affected by the climate crisis, and stories of people who are moving forward in hope and courage to achieve solutions. These stories of hope are crucial as we chart the unknown waters that lie before us.

The good news is that primary solution to the climate crisis is clear: we must stop using fossil fuels, and we must do it as quickly as we can. Around the world, farsighted men and women are already taking this solution in their grasp. The clean energy industry now employs nearly 10 million people and generates over $1 billion per year around the world.

These workers are doing good for all of us, and we pray for their success. However, they will get only so far without a robust policy framework to support them.

Achieving this policy framework will require commitment on the global scale, what the bishops call “ambitious and immediate action . . . to tackle and overcome the devastating effects of the climate crisis.” In particular, the bishops call for action at COP24, the upcoming UN talks on climate change.

The main issues at the talks will be ramping up ambitions to keep warming below the 1.5C threshold and ensuring that countries are bound to vigorous rules that put us on the path to clean energy.

These negotiations, which will be held in Poland, may “prove a milestone on the path” that was begun with the Paris climate accords, an opportunity for the world’s leaders to demonstrate the courage and moral clarity that we all yearn for. On the other hand, they may prove an excuse for half-hearted proclamations, wavering statements of support, and disappointment for the millions of people around the world who look to them with hope.

For the 200 children who may pay the price of our environmental sins this year in Papua New Guinea, we pray that these leaders will be courageous. For the people of the Carteret Islands, we pray that the leaders will be compassionate. For all the people of the world, we pray that change will come soon.

John Cardinal Ribat is the Archbishop of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea and past president of the Federation of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of Oceania, and a professed member of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.