For the past few months, it seemed that meeting the Pope was all Portland Mayor Charlie Hales could talk about. In myriad speeches, talks and tweets, the politician seemed genuinely excited to be one of about 65 municipal leaders chosen by the Vatican to attend a summit this week focused primarily on combatting climate change.
The conference, in which mayors of some of the world's biggest cities declared that human-induced climate change is real and must be addressed, is aimed at influencing world leaders ahead of a major international climate change summit later this year.
But more than a stage for the simple signing of declarations, the Vatican summit represents a fundamental shift in how the issue of climate change is framed. Not only did the participants sign their names to a joint statement declaring that human-induced climate change must be countered, they also agreed that doing so is a "moral imperative."
The makeup of the attendees reflects not only some of the world's most populous urban centres, but also areas where support for the Pope's environmental message is likely to resonate. The west coast of North America is heavily represented, including the meeting's sole Canadian representative, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.
By focusing its energy on getting the mayors of the world's biggest cities on board, the Vatican is hoping to engage what is perhaps the most underrepresented demographic at the climate change table. Most of the human-created emissions come from heavily populated urban areas, yet most climate change pacts and policies are negotiated at national and international levels. As a result, city-level leadership rarely has a strong say in how climate change is addressed.
"It's increasingly clear that we, the local leaders of the world, have many tools, more than we may have in fact realized, and we must use them boldly even as our national governments hesitate," said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a speech during the summit.
Mr. de Blasio's speech, like many other mayors' statements during the conference, indicates just how emboldened some of the leaders have become thanks to the support of the Vatican – in addressing the urgent need for serious action on climate change, "his Holiness challenges us, he challenges us not to be captives, not to be slavish to consumerism," said Mr. de Blasio.
Recently, the Pope has emerged as perhaps the most important, unlikely ally to the environmental movement. Arguing that the fossil fuel-driven economy is exploiting and slowly ruining the planet, the world's most powerful religious leader has given the push for a shift to renewable resources unprecedented momentum. In an encyclical dedicated to environmental issues, the Pope has sought to tie the exploitation of the planet to the exploitation of the world's poor and powerless. The only other issue discussed at this week's summit besides climate change was human trafficking.
At a municipal level, the impact of the Pope's support is already being seen in very concrete ways. Mr. Hales recently cited overwhelming public opposition (driven in large part by environmental concerns) as reason to oppose a multimillion-dollar propane export facility at the Port of Portland proposed by Canadian pipeline giant Pembina.
At the summit, the mayors of New York and San Francisco, among others, also announced new measures and guidelines designed to help cut emissions. The mayor of Stockholm urged international climate change negotiators to go one step further and begin discussing the outright exclusion of fossil fuels as an energy option for the future, focusing exclusively on renewables.
But after two days of universal agreement, the mayors now return to countries in which climate change action still faces pockets of stiff resistance – in the United States, for example, the country is readying for a presidential election in which few, if any, of the 16 Republican candidates advocate for strong new environmental measures.
Still, the Vatican's conference comes just a few months before the Paris Summit, a UN convention designed to achieve a universal, binding agreement on climate change. As such, a joint declaration backed by the Pope may well influence the Paris proceedings. Indeed, many of the Vatican meeting's attendants described the Paris Summit as perhaps the last real chance for serious, worldwide action on climate change.