Answering the Pope’s Call for Climate Change Action: The General Assembly’s Sustainable Development Goals
Nov 4th, 2015 by Cynthia Pittson
Post written by Rebecca Arbolino, J.D. expected 2017.
When Pope Francis addressed the seventieth session of the United Nations General Assembly, he spoke primarily about sustainable development and economic exclusion. In the beginning of the substantive portion of his address, Francis argued for “a true ‘right of the environment.’” Throughout the address, Francis stressed the right to a habitable environment as a fundamental human right: he explained, for example, that “any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.”
Pope Francis is not the first to argue for the necessity to preserve the environment in order to ensure human rights. One of the organizations working to advance international climate initiatives, The Human Rights & Climate Change Working Group, purports that “climate change is a human rights issue.” According to The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “it is now well understood that climate change can and does adversely affect the enjoyment of a broad range of human rights.” In Resolution 18/22 entitled The Effects of Climate Change on the Full Enjoyment of Human Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Council explained that
climate change poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world and has adverse implications for the full enjoyment of human rights.
The General Assembly addressed many issues during the session, but the need to counter climate change was the star of the show. Although tempers flared under the guise of political niceties, leaders who were otherwise in conflict agreed upon the importance of sustainable development initiatives. During the general debate, for example, both Vladmir Putin and Barack Obama emphasized sustainable development.
More interesting than the coincidence of leaders with a history of diametrical opposition is their agreement upon the means necessary to achieve sustainable development. According to Obama, we must “harness the potential of clean energy” to address “the ravages of an ever-warming climate.” Putin also stressed the need for
fundamental and new technologies…which would not damage the environment, but would be in harmony with it.
In accordance with Pope Francis’s call for sustainable development and the end of economic exclusion, the General Assembly unanimously adopted “a sweeping 15-year global plan of action to end poverty, reduce inequalities, and protect the environment.” The Sustainable Development Goals of Resolution A/70/L.1 include creating
“a world where human habitats are safe, resilient and sustainable and where there is universal access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy” by 2030.
Pope Francis focused on the need to address climate change, but he reminded us that multilateral agreements are only half of the battle: “solemn commitments…are not enough, even though they are a necessary step toward solutions.” Despite the unanimity in pledging to combat climate change, a pledge is nothing without the subsequent, corresponding actions. As Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said before the Sustainable Development Goals passed, “the true test of commitment…will be implementation.”
It remains to be seen whether the Sustainable Development Goals are more than a unanimous but empty pledge. When the Goals come into effect in 2016, we will start to see whether our world leaders can answer Pope Francis’s call to take
concrete steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment.