Biden meets pope as Francis urges ‘radical’ action on climate change

Catholic US president talks to pontiff amid calls for ambitious G20 and Cop26 accords

Joe Biden and Pope Francis held talks in the Vatican on Friday in a poignant meeting for the second Catholic US president, as both men strain against conservative critics to set green agendas ahead of the landmark climate summit Cop26.

The meeting came as the leaders of the world's biggest economies came together in Rome to find common ground on fair vaccine distribution and action to combat climate change at a G20 gathering just before the start of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.

Pope Francis said the world “cannot allow” an uninhabitable planet to be passed down to our grandchildren and exhorted leaders to rise to the challenge of addressing climate change, in a public appeal ahead of the summits.

“These crises present us with the need to take decisions, radical decisions that are not always easy. At the same time, moments of difficulty like these also present opportunities. Opportunities that we must not waste,” he said in a message recorded for BBC radio.


“The political decision-makers who will meet at Cop26 in Glasgow are urgently summoned to provide effective responses to the present ecological crisis, and in this way to offer concrete hope to future generations,” the pope said.

“And it is worth repeating: each of us, whoever and wherever we may be, can play our own part in changing our collective response to the unprecedented threat of climate change, and the degradation of our common home.”

Abortion stance

The leader of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics met the US president and first lady Jill Biden for over an hour, exchanging views on international affairs including the common commitment to care for the planet "in the context of the upcoming G20 summit in Rome", a Vatican statement read.

Mr Biden, a regular Mass-goer who identifies as an Irish Catholic has met Pope Francis before, but not as US president. The encounter came at a politically resonant moment following criticism from US bishops of Mr Biden’s stance on abortion, with hardliners even calling for the Democrat to be denied communion.

The US president praised the pontiff for his "leadership in fighting the climate crisis, as well as his advocacy to ensure the pandemic ends for everyone through vaccine sharing and an equitable global economic recovery", according to a White House statement.

At home, Mr Biden’s ambitions for a $3.5 trillion investment package to drive a transition to clean energy and improve social conditions ran into opposition from centrist holdouts within his own party and had to be pared down in size to garner the required support.

Vaccine donations

On the eve of his departure for Europe, the president insisted that though the headline investment figure had halved in size to $1.75 trillion (€1.5 trillion) and no longer contained proposals for guaranteed paid sick leave for workers, it was still “historic” and “the most significant investment in climate ever”.

Negotiations at the G20 are focused on speeding up vaccine donations to poorer countries as a gulf in equitable distribution has left richer countries with an excess of supply while most healthcare workers in Africa have yet to be inoculated.

Talks are ongoing to try to secure a pledge to phase out coal that would allow the 20 biggest economies to build momentum for Cop26 by showing their commitment to action, but the attendance of the Chinese and Russian leaders Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin by video link rather than in person has stoked doubts about whether ambitious goals would be set.

The G20 leaders are also to discuss the next steps towards finalising an OECD agreement to reform the international system for taxing multinationals and set a minimum 15 per cent rate that has seen Ireland abandon its flagship 12.5 per cent policy.

The European Union will bring forward proposals to set the taxation reform down in EU law by the end of 2021, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said ahead of the summit.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times