Pope Francis has released his long awaited encyclical, or teaching document, on climate justice and the environment, and it flies in the face of everything climate deniers stand for.
The encyclical is officially called “Laudato Si (Be Praised), On the Care of Our Common Home,” and it makes a compelling case for humanity’s moral responsibility to “protect our common home” by tackling the root causes of two of the greatest interlinked global crises of our time: climate change and poverty.
“[T]he earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor,” Pope Francis writes. Echoing his earlier critique of capitalism and inequality, the Pope links the pollution and waste degrading our environment directly to our “throwaway culture” that, unlike nature, does not seek to reuse and recycle every resource as a valuable constituent of the circle of life.
“We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations,” the Pope writes. He faults this mode of consumption for creating global warming, and concludes: “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”
The Pope unequivocally embraces the science showing mankind is responsible for global warming:
“A number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.”
He specifically calls for policies to change the way we power human society:
“There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy.”
It is the poor who suffer most from the impacts of climate change and humanity's failure to act, the Pope argues.
“Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.”
No role for fossil fuels in solving global poverty
Unlike Peabody Energy, which has touted coal as a solution to global energy poverty, the Pope sees no place for fossil fuels in helping to raise the standard of living around the world in a sustainable manner:
“We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels — especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas — needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”
While the ultimate goal of climate action, according to the Pope, must be to increase prosperity and justice for all of Earth’s inhabitants, he does not ignore political realities in developing countries even while he calls on developed countries to shoulder a proportion of the burden equal to their culpability in creating the climate crisis in the first place:
For poor countries, the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people. At the same time, they need to acknowledge the scandalous level of consumption in some privileged sectors of their population and to combat corruption more effectively. They are likewise bound to develop less polluting forms of energy production, but to do so they require the help of countries which have experienced great growth at the cost of the ongoing pollution of the planet.
Only collective action by all of the countries of the world can adequately address the climate crisis, the Pope says:
Enforceable international agreements are urgently needed, since local authorities are not always capable of effective intervention. Relations between states must be respectful of each other’s sovereignty, but must also lay down mutually agreed means of averting regional disasters which would eventually affect everyone. Global regulatory norms are needed to impose obligations and prevent unacceptable actions, for example, when powerful companies dump contaminated waste or offshore polluting industries in other countries.
These assertions form the basis of the Pope’s call for mankind to take collective action in defense of our shared planet.
So it’s little wonder climate deniers lined up to try and discredit the Pope ahead of the release of the encyclical. But Pope Francis appears to speak directly to the issue of climate denial in calling for “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.”
“The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges. Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity.”
Environmentalists welcomed the Pope’s call for “universal solidarity” in climate action.
“The pope’s message applies to all of us, regardless of our faith,” Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “He is imploring people of good will everywhere to honor our moral obligation to protect future generations from the dangers of further climate chaos by embracing our ethical duty to act.”
Mike Brune, Sierra Club executive director, released a statement saying, “The vision laid out in these teachings serves as inspiration to everyone across the world who seeks a more just, compassionate, and healthy future.”
The Pope's encyclical comes at a critical juncture for the global response to climate change. Momentum is building for a meaningful agreement to halt global warming, to be negotiated this December at UNFCCC talks in Paris. The Pope’s decision to weigh in and call for a healthy and more equitable clean energy economy is widely expected to help build on that momentum.
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