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Three members of Mercy Global Action Aotearoa were among participants at the three-day Pacific Climate Change Conference in Wellington February 21-23. Held at Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum, the event drew a large number of academics, representatives of government and business agencies, NGOs and faith-based agencies throughout New Zealand and the Pacific.

Attending on behalf of Mercy Global Action Aotearoa were Sisters of Mercy Bridget Crisp and Monika Mo’ale and Dennis Horton, a member of Te Waka Tiaki Mercy Ministries mission team.

A message from Pope Francis was read by Cardinal John Dew who also led an opening reflection, shared by two students from colleges in Wellington and comprising quotes from Laudato Si’, the pope’s encyclical letter on caring for our common home. Pope Francis expressed his thanks to conference organisers. He hoped that the meeting would “strengthen collaboration between individuals and groups committed to building this home that we share.” He sent his blessings to all present “as a pledge of wisdom and grace in the Lord.”

The conference took place just as New Zealand recovered from the effects of tropical Cyclone Gita which had devastated Tonga and damaged parts of Samoa and Fiji in recent days. Some conference speakers and participants were either prevented from travelling or arrived late as a result of the extreme weather conditions.

Speaking at the opening of the conference, Climate Change Minister James Shaw offered sympathy to the Prime Minister of Samoa and to participants from Tonga and Fiji. “Cyclone Gita is just the latest reminder of the vulnerability we face here in the South Pacific from the ravages of extreme weather events which are being fuelled by climate change and warming oceans,” said James Shaw. “The effects of climate change which were predicted 20 or 30 years ago are here now.”

Mr Shaw told the conference he would be striving to introduce a Zero Carbon Bill to Parliament by the end of the year. “This will see an Independent Climate Change Commission of experts help guide New Zealand towards a low emissions resilient economy and net zero target by 2050,” he said. “New Zealand must show leadership on climate change.”

This change can be embraced as “the opportunity to develop new jobs, cleaner and cheaper energy supplies, and a more resilient, sustainable future for our children and the generations to follow.”

His message was echoed in the days that followed by keynote speakers and in a broad range of concurrent sessions. Recurring themes were that the island nations of the South Pacific are in the front line of those having to deal with climate change, and that the voices of first-nation peoples must be heard in the discussion and debate which this phenomenon is creating.

Several speakers insisted that, for the first time in the history of creation, the planet has now reached the Anthropocene, a geological epoch in which human activity has begun to substantially alter the Earth’s surface, its atmosphere and oceans.

In an address entitled ‘Dire Predictions’, Professor Michael Mann from Pennsylvania State University insisted that climate change is an immediate threat, no longer a future one. “Climate change is happening faster, and its effects are more damaging, than the models had suggested.”

There is no magic bullet in dealing with the issue, he said. “We need to reduce our carbon footprint and move from fossil fuels to renewable resources. The only obstacle is political will. Ultimately this is an issue of intergenerational ethics.”

Members of Mercy Global Action will spend time in coming weeks to reflect on conference proceedings and to draw from them suggestions of action for Mercy people and ministries in Aotearoa, Samoa and Tonga.

By Dennis Horton

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