New Climate Inflection Point in our Axial Age – by The Rev. Dr. John Pawlikowski

In my contribution to American Diversity Report at the beginning of 2023, I argued that we are living in an axial era where fundamental structures of human society are undergoing profound change. As we enter 2024, I would maintain with others such as former Senator John Kerry, now the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Issues, that the final communique from the recent COP 28 conference in Dubai may represent an axial moment.

Special Envoy Kerry believes the Dubai decision to commit to a movement to eliminate the reliance on fossil fuels by the global community (as well as methane gas) signals a  fundamental shift in the way we provide power for the human community. Such a wholesale shift in the generation of necessary power throughout the world, if successful, would represent a fundamental reordering of our life together as a global community. It would insure the sustainability of our planet and firmly implant the right to a the right to a healthy environment for all living creatures proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2023.    

But it is important to underline the “if” aspect of this potential axial change. Will we as a global society have the courage to undertake the lifestyle and economic changes that such an axial turn requires? Neither John Kerry nor myself are sure that will be the case.             

We clearly saw the uncertainty of the global community in Dubai. A strong effort to prevent any mention of a commitment to a whole scale reconstruction of our means of energy production was nearly blocked by the OPEC nations.  For a time it appeared that they might be successful in blocking any mention of a movement away from a global reliance  on fossil fuels. As John Kerry rightly said, had this occurred it would likely have taken the steam out of the effort to transform our energy system. It would have marked in a way a turn to the inevitability of planetary destruction.

As with most axial periods in human history, we cannot automatically assume that the eventual outcome will be positive. It may well take a decade to determine that the process of eliminating fossil fuels continues unabated until we reach the goal of a global green energy planetary condition. It must also become evident that the commitment to green energy as our primary energy source has become firmly embedded in our policy of transmission as well as in human consciousness. Anything less will indicate a largely failed axial turn.  

Not all participants in the global discussion about climate change are ready to accept Presidential Envoy John Kerry’s claim that COP 28’s final declaration has begun an axial turn towards green energy on a global scale. One such critic of the Kerry perspective is Irish-born Catholic priest Father Shay Cullen who has ministered in the Philippines for many years. The Philippines have been profoundly affected by climate change. He serves as Director of the Preda Foundationin that country.  Fr. Cullen, a longtime social activist, released an evaluation of the post-COP 28 scene titled “How Fossil Fuel Elites Promote Global Warming” in the Preda  Foundation’s Newsletter on December 30, 2023.

In Fr. Cullen’s perspective, the stability of planet earth is in the hands of a small group of rich entrepreneurs and their political supporters who were able to modify the language in the final version of the COP 28 Declaration. The draft of the proposed Declaration was altered by OPEC nations and their supporters from “phasing out fossil fuels” to “transition away from fossil fuels” which Fr. Cullen regards as a much weaker statement with less urgency.

While some advances have been made in a number of countries, including the Philippines, Fr. Cullen believes corporate interests in the energy industry will continue to inhibit the process of conversion to a green climate economy.

I am somewhat more hopeful than Fr. Cullen in my evaluation of COP 28 in which I participated virtually. No previous COP had committed the two hundred countries that are signatories to the 2023 Declaration to fossil fuel transition. Whether the 2023 Declaration will achieve John Kerry’s prediction remains an open question. 

COP 28 reached important commitments in the areas of finance, gender issues, significant release of methane gas, and the impact of global pollution on humanity’s health condition. But those advancers, while important, remain secondary to the process of eliminating fossil fuels. What is required is the transition from fossil fuels if COP 28 is to mark an authentic axial turn in global consciousness. The political will to do so is necessary and it will need to undertake the organization of global citizenry envisioned by Pope Francis. Global citizenry will need to lead the charge towards a green economy. At the close of the Millennium Peace Summit in 2000 a group of United Nations technocrats insisted that their efforts would remain “plans” unless public citizenry creates the political will for implementation of such plans.

This remains as true today for the COP 28 Declaration. Religious communities and other NGOs must mount the necessary political will. If they fail in this responsibility, Fr. Cullen’s pessimism will be proven correct. COP 28 will remain only a “plan”  that failed to establish an axial turn.

John Pawlikowski

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