Climate change is a faith issue because it deals with God's creation and with poverty, said Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa.
The cardinal, president of Caritas Internationalis, was in Durban, South Africa, for the U.N.-sponsored international conference on climate change Nov. 28-Dec. 9; he discussed the conference Dec. 13 with journalists at the Vatican.
Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of 165 national Catholic charities, provides emergency relief and development aid around the globe. But it also teaches Catholics about the church's social doctrines, advocating and educating people about issues of justice and peace, he said.
At a time when so many people in the world are starving, it was important for Caritas to be in Durban "because one of the causes of starvation is climate change and, especially, irresponsible attitudes toward creation," Cardinal Rodriguez said.
For the Catholic Church, he said, climate change is not only a matter of "thermometers or scientific analysis, we are talking about human beings and the sufferings of human beings."
Catholics need to know that climate change is real and it is a problem that must be faced, the cardinal said. The way people treat the environment must change quickly, "not after all the consequences and tragedies that will come," he said.
"It is a faith issue because, from the very beginning of the Bible, you see how creation was entrusted to human beings" for their administration, not for their exploitation, he said.
While the Durban conference did not lead to a strong, legally binding commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within a specific time frame, it did lead to international promises to continue working toward that goal.
With the international economy in a shambles, Cardinal Rodriguez said the Caritas team didn't expect "magic" from Durban, but the conference was a sign of growing public sensitivity to the need for real change.
"Of course, the problems are big. For us, one of the commitments will be to continue educating" Catholics and other people of good will about their responsibility toward creation and toward others living on the planet.
The Honduran cardinal said globalization "is not a bad word," but if people see it only as a process of expanding markets and finance, it will not help the human community.
"It is necessary to globalize solidarity," he said.
Cardinal Rodriguez is a member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which in late October published a note on the causes of and possible solutions to the global economic crisis; the note called for the establishment of a global financial authority and a new financial order marked by greater sharing and solidarity with the poor.
The cardinal described the council's statement as a "good effort" that has been "discredited by the financial world because they don't want some issues touched" that could limit their ability to act as they have been.
The current global economic crisis "is not only a financial crisis, it's an ethical crisis," the cardinal said.
Part of the response must be voluntary austerity, which is a Christian principle and a virtue, he said.
"We can be free if we are more independent from consumerism," which in turn frees people to be more generous with their neighbors who have less.
CIDSE, a Belgium-based international alliance of Catholic development agencies, said the "incremental gains" of the package of measures agreed to at the Durban talks do not deliver enough to prevent dangerous climate change and its impacts on developing countries.
While the implementation of the Green Climate Fund agreed to at the talks "is an important step toward an efficient tool for climate adaptation and climate mitigation for developing countries," it will "be of no help if there is no reliable and predictable money housed within it," the statement said.
"It is the responsibility of developed countries to give guarantees on the sources" that will fill the fund, it said.
CIDSE noted that poor communities, which are "least responsible" for the world's unsustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions, will be further at risk.
A global agreement on emissions reduction will only help solve the climate crisis if it is legally binding "and it will only be fair if the emissions reductions targets are set on the basis of each country's historical contribution to current greenhouse gas levels," it said.