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Talks Underway For Possible Visit By Pope Francis To Climate Conference In Scotland

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Talks Underway For Possible Visit By Pope Francis To Climate Conference In Scotland

Protecting the environment and urgently encouraging world leaders to take action to tackle climate change have been hallmarks of the Francis papacy.

Pope Francis timed the publication of his landmark ecological encyclical, Laudato si’to influence the 2015 Paris climate summit, COP21, which led to a historic deal to reduce global carbon emissions.

From 1-12 November 2021, the UK, in partnership with Italy, will be hosting the COP26 UN climate change conference in Glasgow. It will be the most important gathering of world leaders to address global warming since Paris, and the organisers are planning for it to be an in-person event.

Given that papal travel is starting again next week, might the Pope make a visit to Glasgow? Church sources have told The Tablet the idea is under consideration.

It is noteworthy that on January 15, 2021, the UK’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Sally Axworthy, was received in a private audience by Francis. It is assumed that COP26 made up part of the conversation, although it is unknown if a visit was discussed.

Of course, the schedule for the COP has yet to be confirmed, and planning any trip during a pandemic is fraught with uncertainty. Right now, the relevant Vatican offices are focussed on the Pope’s forthcoming visit to Iraq. Nevertheless, Francis does not need an invitation to go to the COP.

All countries signed up to the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change are entitled to attend the Glasgow event, including the Holy See, a UN observer. However, it is up to each state to decide what level of representation they send. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s most senior diplomat, has led the Holy See’s delegations at previous summits.

A papal trip to Glasgow would also be in keeping with the more active role the Holy See has played within the UN during the Francis pontificate and supporting “multilateralism”.

The Pope has never wanted the Church to sit on the sidelines for the climate change debate. Speaking to diplomats in the Vatican earlier this month, he said it was his “hope that the next United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), to take place in Glasgow next November, will lead to effective agreement in addressing the consequences of climate change. Now is the time to act, for we are already feeling the effects of prolonged inaction.” Days before the Paris COP, Francis gave a speech at the UN office in Nairobi warning that failure to hammer out an agreement on protecting the planet would be a catastrophe. Later, after the summit had taken place, it was rumoured he helped break the deadlock by making a phone call to the President of Nicaragua encouraging him to sign the deal.

The shift to a more pro-active Vatican diplomacy was also recently referred to recently by Cardinal Parolin, who described the role of the Holy See’s role on the world stage as one of “positive neutrality” that does not limit itself to looking outside the window, but building dialogue between countries.

From the UK government’s perspective, a visit from the Pope would have obvious advantages. Francis’ presence would make the summit a historic occasion and help build consensus on efforts to protect the planet.

For Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the Pope’s presence might distract attention from the other star guest expected in Glasgow, President Joe Biden. Johnson’s relationship with the US president has not been a smooth one, with Biden, a Brexit-sceptic who reportedly described Johnson as “a physical and emotional clone” of former President Donald Trump. A Pope in Glasgow would take the focus away from Johnson’s difficulties with Biden.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, may not be so keen on this scenario. However, her objections would be tempered by the Catholic support the SNP has received.

If the Pope does travel to Scotland, it is likely to be short, with the three-and-a-half hour flight time between Rome and Glasgow making a day trip feasible. The Pope has made these kinds of visits before when he flew to Strasbourg to address the European Parliament and Switzerland to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches. Both of them were one-day trips.

Should the Pope come to Britain to encourage the climate change talks, he would be supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who works closely with Francis. Yesterday, he announced the Bishop of Norwich, Graham Usher, would take charge of the Church of England’s environmental push.

When it comes to protecting the planet, Francis has shown himself willing to use every lever available to effect change. For this reason, a papal trip to Glasgow, the second by a Pope in a decade, should not be ruled out.


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