Fresh off his ground-breaking Encyclical on humanity and the environment two months ago, Pope Francis brought sixty of the world's mayors to the Vatican yesterday to discuss "Modern Slavery and Climate Change: the Commitment of the Cities." The title of the meeting itself is revealing, as the Pope signals his intent to focus on the interconnected forces of human trafficking and climate change, and the crucial role cities play in combating both. The climate action movement has struggled to gain widespread acceptance in part because the challenge is so complex and diffuse, which makes the Pope's approach a clever way to portray climate change as both a human and local issue. The Pope was express in this interpretation, rejecting the public and media's interpretation of his encyclical Laudato si' as a strictly environmental mandate:
Referring to his recently published encyclical “Laudato Si’”, Pope Francis made it quite clear that the document is not an encyclical on the environment. It’s a social encyclical – he explained - because the state of the environment is directly and intimately linked to the life and wellbeing of humankind.
Engaging the world's mayors is vital, as cities emit 75% of global GHG emissions, while mayors often enjoy the legal and political powers over transportation, urban planning, and economic development that can make meaningful climate mitigation impacts. The meeting included US mayors from New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, New Orleans, Boulder, Birmingham, and San Jose. Many of them are already taking steps to green their cities, but no doubt the Pope's leadership provides political capital to them and others looking to muster support for climate action.
The conference was interesting as well because it hints at where the Pope will focus the Vatican's efforts amid the many objectives outlined in Laudato si'. Human trafficking, forced migration, and slavery have not previously played a prominent role in the climate change debate (or vice versa), but Pope Francis is doing his utmost to frame climate change as a social issue with particular impact on the poor and marginalized. The mayoral declaration coming out of the meeting stated in part:
As mayors we commit ourselves to building, in our cities and urban settlements, the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations and reducing their exposure to climate-related extreme events and other economic, social and environmental shocks and disasters, which foster human trafficking and dangerous forced migration.
Addressing wealth disparities will likely be a huge challenge for negotiators at the Paris Climate Treaty meetings in December, as countries haven't agreed on how much responsibility industrialized countries should take in potential climate deals. But in focusing on the world's cities and human trafficking, Pope Francis is driving the discussions downward in the governance framework, making sure social and economic inequality is addressed not only on the national and global level, but on the individual and local level as well.