In 2021, Pope Francis openly criticized COP26 as a perfunctory commitment by world leaders. This year, the pope again expressed his concerns about COP27 in an unprecedentedly critical statement about the economic and environmental costs of the summit. Although conceding that this year’s COP27 may be an opportunity to effectively implement the 2015 Paris Agreement, the pope criticized the summit’s sponsorship from Coca-Cola, one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters, and highlighted the failings of previous COPs.
The apprehension toward COP27 comes after countries failed to meet the $100 billion goal set at COP26 and insufficiently supported countries with lacking infrastructure, which was a prominent critique in the encyclical (papal letter) he published in 2016. Encyclicals are designed to highlight particular issues and help followers understand the teachings of the Church. Moreover, they are meant to be taken seriously and can become “infallible” statements when the pope chooses to go through the process of penning one.
As such, Pope Francis is using his privileged position and authority as the head of the Catholic Church to encourage Christians to take initiative to help the environment. His public statements about COP27 intend to demonstrate his commitment to the environment and encourage wealthy countries to follow through on their promises.
Furthermore, the pope has voiced concerns about greenwashing sustainable development and the misuse of the term “green” development. Green development is when a corporation focuses on sustainable development, and greenwashing occurs when corporations put more effort and money into marketing their green development than on their actual environmental impact. He feels that wealthy countries and corporations are making — and publicizing — insufficient changes as a way to greenwash their negative effects on the environment. This is also part of the reason he has been reluctant to show support for global summits, claiming countries have “too many special interests” with “superficial rhetoric.”
Moreover, he discusses the direct impact of corporations and wealthy countries on climate change, specifically by making minimal efforts to mitigate the crisis while being the biggest polluters in the last two centuries and failing to support economically poor countries. Wealthy nations can “conceal” the symptoms while the struggling nations cannot escape the effects of climate change, but migrants from these countries are not classified as refugees despite fleeing from the environmental destruction.
Pope Francis has also directly called out mining, oil, real estate and other industries as major polluters. Other Catholic theologians have joined him in voicing their concerns for the environmental cost of the summit and the sponsorship of one of the biggest plastic producers, after Francis became vocal in his critique of “throwaway culture.” Coca-Cola has been accused by other climate activists for greenwashing by spending more money on publicizing positive initiatives than on programs to clean up their waste.
The pope has also called out the environmental cost of the transportation to COP27 and past environmental summits. Nearly 200 countries will travel to Egypt to attend the conference, and Pope Francis expressed concern about the economic cost of the airfare. While acknowledging the necessity of air travel, he is also concerned about the detrimental environmental costs.
Furthermore, the papal letter also focused on the exploitation of the common good as both a cause and consequence of climate change, and how this has caused growing injustices and human rights issues in economically poor countries. Egypt, the host country for COP27, is known for its authoritarian government and numerous human rights violations. The pope traveled to Egypt in 2017 to give a speech on religious violence, specifically against the increase in terrorist attacks against Christians and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s role in the authoritarian government.
Egypt’s position as the host of COP27 has incentivized it to focus on addressing the human rights violations in the country, but the Catholic Church remains skeptical of the conditions fostered by its domestic inequalities, poverty and conflict.
Pope Francis’ and the Church’s focus on human rights violations emphasizes that skepticism towards COP27 is warranted because the negotiations may constitute another example of greenwashing.
Climate change has been a primary focus of the Catholic Church since Pope Saint John Paul II, but Pope Francis has made an exceptional effort as pope to combat climate change, noting that it is a human responsibility to take care of the planet. The encyclical he released focused on climate change in a way that no pope has done before and has been incorporated into official Catholic social teachings which encourages the message to be disseminated throughout the Church.
Catholic voices will be present at COP27, with the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the Catholic Sisters planning to send delegations. Catholic perspectives at the summit may encourage countries to make attainable goals and policies that positively influence all countries, not just the wealthy ones.
While Francis could not attend COP26 due to health concerns and it is remains unclear whether he will be attending this year, he has called for countries to “heed his concerns” and is urging world leaders to take COP27 seriously so as not have another instance of failed promises, “greenwashing” and insufficient policies of sustainable development.
The pope hopes that Catholic voices at COP27 will encourage countries to create “effective implementation” for the Paris Agreement and to move forward with sustainable development and policy. The countries attending COP27 have an opportunity to make positive change but must focus on making lasting change and true green development that will benefit all nations.