Pope Francis’s environmental message brings thousands on to streets in Rome
Vatican officials to discuss climate change and environment with scientists and activists including Naomi Klein.
Activists display banners calling for action on climate change and against world poverty in St Peter’s Square in Rome on Sunday. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
Rosie Scammell in Rome
Thousands of campaigners and religious leaders have marched through Rome, backing Pope Francis’s uncompromising environmental message ahead of a Vatican conference on climate change, and urging world leaders to take action.
Holy See officials will this week discuss the environment with activists and scientists at a meeting at which Naomi Klein, a prominent social activist, will take centre stage alongside Cardinal Peter Turkson, one of the pontiff’s most senior aides.
Soon after the release of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, regarded as a landmark intervention in the global climate change debate, campaigners on Sunday travelled to Rome from across the globe to thank the Argentinian pontiff for his papal letter.
In the encyclical, Francis directed sharp criticism at global leaders for their failure to combat climate change. It was greeted with a hugely positive response from environmentalists, who have seized on the pope’s message ahead of a United Nations climate change conference to be held in Paris in December.
The UN summit is aimed at reaching a global deal on climate change, but as the pontiff noted, previous meetings have ended in disappointment, with decision-making paralysed by disagreements.
Alongside Klein and Turkson, the conservation group WWF has been invited to this week’s Vatican conference and had a strong presence at the rally on Sunday, described as a “historic event” by Samantha Smith, leader of the organisation’s global climate and energy initiative.
“We have seen that climate change is such a big and important issue that you can’t solve it in a corner with environmental groups,” Smith said. “That’s why the mobilisation of people of faith, including the Catholic church, is so important.”
Activists at the One Earth, One Family event broke through the silence enveloping early-morning Rome with singing and chanting, waving paper birds high over the central Piazza Farnese before marching to the Vatican.
“The reason we are here is to thank Pope Francis, but above all it is to bring a message to the people and politicians on the Paris climate change conference – to make strong, ambitious and binding commitments,” said Andrea Stocchiero, from the voluntary group Focsiv, co-organiser of the event.
While a few hundred people began the multifaith march, holding banners and sheltering from the sun under giant paper leaves, organisers said about 5,000 were present at the end of the march in St Peter’s Square. There, Francis exhorted a multifaith effort to help protect the environment. “I encourage the collaboration between persons and associations of different religions on behalf of an integral ecology,” he said.
Among them was Yeb Saño, the Philippines’ former chief climate change negotiator at the UN, who is now a spiritual ambassador for the march co-organisers, OurVoices, a multifaith environmental group.
Saño praised the pontiff for his “courage and leadership” and said the march represented “a particularly amazing day to celebrate”.
“We know that the adverse impacts of climate change are hitting the Philippines and it’s unfair, because we have very little contribution to the causes of climate change and we are at the receiving end of it,” he said. Pope Francis visited the predominantly Catholic country in January, little over a year after a devastating typhoon killed thousands of people in the Philippines. The November 2013 storm was the strongest recorded to hit land and was seen as an example of the archipelago’s vulnerability to the elements.
The pope’s encyclical was released five months after his Asia trip. While Pope Francis has ensured Catholic voices reach the centre of the climate change debate, organisers of the Rome march were keen to fulfil his wish of going beyond the Christian faith.
Kiran Bali, who travelled from Yorkshire in the UK on behalf of the Hindu community, said it was imperative that religious leaders such as herself get involved. “It’s so clear that the world is at a crucial tipping point due to climate change and it’s so important that faith leaders take action on this important issue,” she said. “Now is the time to unite, to come together and to really make a difference to protect the earth from further destruction.”
Representing the global Anglican community, David Moxon said a global response was necessary as ultimately all would be affected by climate change. “The challenge facing Europe and all of the industrialised and industrialising world is very important – we’re going to choke or cook unless we do something about it,” he said.
Massimiliano Pasqui, from the Institute of Biometeorology at Italy’s National Research Council, said the bel paese has even greater reason than its neighbours to act on climate change.
“For us in Italy – in the middle of the Mediterranean – we’re in one of the most vulnerable places. It’s necessary for us to build strategies because in respect to other countries in northern Europe, what we are up against has a bigger impact on our society.”