Sun, Nov 12, 2017 - Page 15 News List

Italian saint’s birthplace takes on climate change

By Alex Whiting  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, ASSISI, Italy

The small medieval Italian pilgrimage town of Assisi, birthplace of Francis, Catholic patron saint of ecologists, is embarking on a quiet revolution.

Mayor Stefania Proietti, an energy expert, plans to cut carbon emissions by 40 percent between now and 2030, and hopes the “city on the hill” will inspire others to change too.

Assisi draws about 6 million visitors each year, including Nobel Peace Prize winners, rock stars, popes and presidents.

Last month, the city committed to shunning investment in fossil fuels and shifting to “green” energy, alongside an international coalition of 40 Catholic organizations.

“The most important thing is [encouraging] people’s belief that adopting a new lifestyle is important. One person’s action will not have much impact [on climate change], but 7 billion actions can change the world,” Proietti said.

Hanging on her office wall is former pope John Paul II’s proclamation making Francis, a 13th century monk, the patron saint of ecologists, and nearby sits a panda statue — a gift from the WWF.

Taking care of nature “is the Assisi responsibility,” she said. “If we have a different message, then we are not [being true] to our history.”

Proietti, who is a professor of energy systems at Rome’s Guglielmo Marconi University, said she faces major challenges bringing about change in the city.

Its architectural heritage is one: solar panels cannot be put on the roofs of houses in the UNESCO world heritage site.

However, the biggest challenge is changing people’s attitudes, she said.

“Assisi’s people and administration never thought about this in the past,” said Proietti, who was elected last year.

She plans to expand the city’s heating grid, which runs off a combined natural gas-fed heat and power plant in the valley below. The energy-efficient plant produces electricity and the resulting heat is piped to people’s homes and city buildings.

She also plans to plant 1,000 trees around the valley’s industrial zone, encourage the town’s inhabitants to grow more plants in their homes and promote the use of electric cars.

“I would like an electric car, but I cannot afford one,” said Alice Scaglia, a 50 year-old Assisi artist and mother of three.

She has switched to low-energy bulbs, eats locally grown organic food and has cut back on meat.

Scaglia said she wishes she could do more.

“It is a necessary revolution, not only in Assisi, but in the world,” she said.

Near the mayor’s office, a shop sells T-shirts with hand-printed illustrations of Saint Francis’ famous canticle describing nature as Brother Sun, Mother Earth, Sister Water and Brother Wind.

The saint’s environmental bent inspired Pope Francis’ choice of a name, and the pope — who has been outspoken on the need to address climate change — has said he wants to continue Saint Francis’ legacy.

“Assisi is a small town that starts to think about these problems,” said Adriano Cioci, manager of Assisi’s UNESCO office.

“But if the large entities in the world — including the United Nations, China, the United States, India — don’t enter into this, the work of Assisi and other communes will be in vain,” he said.

Saint Francis is buried in the city’s basilica, the focus of pilgrims to the city and about 120 million people who join its services via a Webcast each year.

Its custodians — monks from the Franciscan order — are converting the basilica, the seminary and their home to low-energy lighting. Its famous frescoes painted by Giotto and the saint’s tomb are now lit with LED lighting.

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