On July 21 and 22, the Vatican hosts two conferences on human trafficking and climate change, bringing the mayors of major cities — including several in the U.S. — to Rome for the events. What do human trafficking and climate change have to do with each other? And what does Catholicism have to do with them? Let us explain.
Q: Why is the Vatican concerned with human trafficking and climate change?
A: If Pope Francis has two pet issues, they are human trafficking and climate change. Since the first year of his papacy he has spoken against human trafficking, calling it “a crime against humanity” and lamenting it as modern slavery. It’s an even bet that when the pope addresses the United Nations in late September he will hammer it as one of the crucial issues of our time. Ditto on climate change. In June, the pontiff published his encyclical — the highest teaching of the church — on climate change.
“Our home is being ruined and that hurts everyone, especially the poorest among us,” Francis said just before the publication of the encyclical.
“My appeal is, therefore, to responsibility, based on the task that God has given to man in creation: ‘to till and tend’ the ‘garden’ in which humanity has been placed.”
Q: But what do human trafficking and climate change have to do with each other?
A: According to Francis (and many scholars who agree with him), the two are intimately linked. When climate change affects rainfall, access to fresh water, crops and clean air, people are forced to relocate. Rural people move to the cities and many try to reach more developed, richer countries. The current immigration crisis in the Mediterranean is an example — thousands of migrants from Sudan, Eritrea, and other African nations where crops are failing have paid human traffickers to get them to Europe. In 2013, Pope Francis visited migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa and said the deaths of refugees who fail to reach safety are like “a thorn in my heart.”
Q: But are human trafficking and climate change religious issues? Neither is mentioned in the Bible.
A: No, not by name. But they both adversely and disproportionately impact Pope Francis’ third pet issue — the poor. Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, a Vatican official speaking of the conferences, described climate change and human trafficking as “interconnected emergencies.” He said: “Although the poor and the excluded have the least effect on climate change … they are the most exposed to the terrible threat posed by human-induced climate disruption.” Beyond that, Pope Francis and most of the world’s religious people see God as present in everything, linking everything. As Francis wrote in “Laudato Si’,” his climate-change encyclical: “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.”
Q: So why invite the mayors for a Roman holiday? What do they have to do with climate change, human trafficking or religion?
A: A lot — at least according to the Vatican. The thinking, as laid down by Sorondo, is that as climate change and human trafficking bring migrants from rural areas into cities, so cities are where the problems of climate change, human trafficking, and poverty can best be addressed.
“We intend for the mayors to commit to promoting the empowerment of the poor and of those who live in vulnerable conditions in our cities and in our urban settlements,” Sorondo said, “reducing their exposure to extreme weather events caused by radical environmental, economic, and social instabilities, which create fertile ground for forced migration and human trafficking.”
Mayors in attendance will come from cities as different as Paris and Birmingham, Ala. The mayors of San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston, Seattle, San Jose, and Portland, Ore., may all throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain this week on a break from the conferences. But that might be considered polluting the environment, so perhaps not.