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June 20, 2015
Pope Francis Delivers Encyclical on Climate Change
    by Robert Kropp

The Pope makes explicit the connection between climate action, poverty, and morality, and calls for a radical shift away from current failures and toward an “ecological conversion” instead. First in a two-part series.

“Our present in many ways unprecedented in the history of humanity,” Pope Francis states at the outset of Laudat o Si, his encyclical on climate change and the environment that was published this week. In writing the encyclical, the Pope continued, “Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.”

The title of the encyclical—which can be translated as Praise Be—is taken from
a poem composed by the Pope's namesake, Francis of Assisi. One line of the poem offers praise “through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.” Yet while the encyclical is firmly grounded in the spiritual tradition of which the Pope is representative, the concerns he raises are shared by believers and atheists alike—primarily, the crises of climate change and global wealth inequality.

At first, the encyclical seems rather conservative in its attribution of causes for global warming, as it acknowledges possible sources such as volcanic and solar activity as factors. But these are dispensed with after a brief mention, and the causes for climate change emphatically determined by science—primarily the burning of fossil fuels, increasing resource scarcity, and deforestation—are described at significant length. Moreover, while never to my knowledge a practitioner of what is termed liberation theology, Francis is from the Latin American region where it gained such notable adherents as the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero; therefore, it is not surprising that the encyclical makes explicit the disastrous impacts of climate change on the world's poorest.

“Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world,” the encyclical states. “Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.”

The culprits behind humanity's apparent inability to act decisively on climate change and global wealth inequality, the Pope states clearly, are technology and the financial system. Of the former, he wrote, “Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves.”

“Now,” the encyclical continues, “we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us.” The amnesia of those in power allowed a doctrine of unlimited growth to become an article of absolute faith, and not only the generations to come but the majority of the earth's inhabitants today will suffer for it.

As for the financial system, “The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration,” the encyclical states. “Finance overwhelms the real economy.”

So what is to be done? “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental,” the Pope wrote. “Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” Clearly, whatever efforts world governments have mounted to confront global crises have foundered badly; but it is equally clear that a global consensus is necessary in order to begin to make meaningful progress.

The Pope speaks against what he calls the “internationalization of environmental costs, which would risk imposing on countries with fewer resources burdensome commitments to reducing emissions comparable to those of the more industrialized countries.” Instead, those wealthy nations which have benefited from industrialization have what amounts to a moral responsibility to provide aid to developing nations in order to avoid a continued worsening of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

While Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) "use relatively small amounts of fossil fuels and thus contribute little to the problem of climate change," according to a 2009 UN report, rising sea levels and other effects of climate change are likely to make environmental refugees out of hundreds of millions of their citizens. Thus, developing nations want climate negotiators from the world's developed economies to commit to pledges of $100 billion for climate change mitigation by 2020. But the European Union and the US have apparently backed away from commitments of $30 billion per year in aid by 2015.

Many sustainable investors, I am sure, have taken issue with the Pope's criticism of cap and trade schemes. The strategy of buying and selling carbon credits, he wrote, fails to provide “for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.”

“Everything is connected,” the encyclical states. “Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.”

Next: The world responds to the Pope's encyclical.


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