Reflecting on a remarkable trip to the Vatican with world climate leaders

Published Date:

Popo Visit

I'm on the flight back from Rome after three remarkable days at the Vatican with world leaders on the climate crisis.


The Vatican, you say? Why would a climate change summit be hosted there?


It starts with the Pope Francis, who has called on us all to confront climate change and its unequal impact on the world’s poorest. Laudato Si was his clarion call for action in 2015. This week, he updated his call to action in a powerful speech he gave to our group of leaders. His full speech (translated into English from Italian) is provided below.


The other driver of the summit was the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences, a body of world-leading scientists that advise the Church. These bodies, initially founded by Galileo (!), are gravely concerned about climate change as an existential threat to our life on earth.


I joined Governor Newsom and his climate advisor Lauren Sanchez to represent California. OurGovernor gave a powerful address, sharing important truths and making the case for faster, broader action. He was joined by Massachusetts Governor Maura Healy, New York Governor Kathy Hochul, and dozens of other Governors and Mayors from across five continents driving forward progress in their own jurisdictions.


“From Climate Crisis to Climate Resilience” was the theme of the summit, conceived by UCSD Professor Ram Ramanathan and UMass-Boston Chancellor Marcello Orasco-Suarez. And the consensus was clear: we need climate mitigation, adaptation and societal transformation together to achieve adequate and durable resilience to climate change. We must slash carbon pollution AND restore the health of natural systems, AND protect people and nature from worsening climate impacts, AND prioritize those most vulnerable to these threats.


The high point of the summit was the signing of the Planetary Protocol for Climate Change Resilience, aligning leaders around these actions, signed by the Pope, scientists and governmental leaders including our Governor.


These international convenings provide A LOT of information in a short time, so I find it helpful to distill it all into key insights or what I call “take-aways:”


  • World-leading scientists shared the most recent data on global emissions, explaining that an “overshoot” of the 1.5 degree warming target from the Paris Accords is likely. This is gravely concerning, as impacts begin to spiral beyond this temperature rise. The key now is to slow momentum of that overshoot.
  • Our natural systems are increasingly out of balance, which exacerbates climate change—think growing wildfires across the planet, thawing of the permafrost in the poles which had locked up carbon for millions of years. Climate models generally don’t include emissions from our natural systems, which means warming is higher than many modeled estimates.
  • Any effort to create a climate resilient world will fail without taking into account the triple-crisis we face: rising temperatures, nature and ecosystem loss, and social inequality. We can’t technologize our way out of the problem (although technology can be helpful). We have to aggressively slash pollution, restore our natural systems and a semblance of ecological balance, and redress the savage inequalities that render those least responsible for this crisis to be the most vulnerable to its impacts.
  • Aligned priority is evident for holistic, nature-based solutions that address these three crises together. Great examples shared: “Sponge city” solutions deployed across China to restore natural infrastructure against flooding that also restores biodiversity and urban oases for residents. Also: decentralized “back to the future” water solutions in India, that restore traditional practices to capture and store rainfall across rural communities; and sustainable farming practices to recover soil and agricultural productivity in East Africa.
  • Targeting “super-pollutants” like methane has to be a critical focus for governments. Methane is much more potent than carbon-dioxide and has a much shorter life in the atmosphere, so reducing it will have near-term impact on global temperatures. It also has some clear sources that are technically feasible to tackle, such as leaks from oil and gas wells and leeching from landfills.
  • California matters in these discussions. Our legacy of environmental leadership, our bold climate commitments, and our world-leading progress toward these targets galvanize the rest of the world. It’s helpful to remember this, even as we navigate complex implementation, at home. I’m really energized to lift up our work on holistic, nature-based solutions as a model to others.

An “aha moment” for me was the realization that scientific, religious, and governmental leaders form a powerful triad of leadership to confront these crises. Scientists help us understand what’s happening to our planet and identify solutions. Religious leaders bring strong moral authority to mobilize more than 80 percent of humanity that hold religious faith. And governmental leaders set important rules of the road and help to fund, shape and propel this transition.


While this was not the first Vatican convening on climate change, this was the first to convene “subnational” leaders of states, regions and cities. Scientific organizers explained their realization that much of the progress we urgently need gets driven at these levels.


While the convening didn’t focus on national governments, the Biden-Harris Administration was well represented and a constructive leader in discussions. I was so proud, as a U.S. American, to hear all that our federal government is doing. From Kristina Costa and Jane Lubchenko from the White House, to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, to former EPA Administrator and White House leader Gina McCarthy all also driving the conversation.


At the end of the three days, leaders discussed how to galvanize more leadership and collaboration among this triad of leaders in regions across the world.Next steps: intensifying action in our own regions to accelerate the mitigation, adaptation and societal transformation we need. This will include upcoming regional summits in the coming months.


There is zero time to waste.


Pope's Remarks