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The Poor and the Earth Are Crying: The Pope's Encyclical on Climate Change

By: Jeff Masters and Bob Henson 1:01 PM GMT on June 18, 2015

"Earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she groans in travail."

One of the largest and oldest institutions on Earth--the Catholic Church--weighed in with these words today on the need to address the threat climate change poses to our common home. Pope Francis officially released his third papal encyclical, “Laudato Sii” (Be Praised), from the Vatican on Thursday. The 180-page encyclical is an enormous milestone in climate change awareness, and is sure to influence the critical December 2015 meeting in Paris to negotiate a new global binding treaty to limit emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

Figure 1. Pope Francis holds an olive tree at the Vatican on September 1, 2014. Image credit: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images.

Papal encyclicals are among the highest-level documents produced by the Catholic Church. Each one focuses on a topic of keen importance to the Church itself or to society at large, and this time around the Pope specifically addresses “every person who inhabits this planet.” It is the seventh encyclical of the 21st century and the first one ever devoted to an environmental issue. In it, the Pope frequently invokes the life of his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of all those who study ecology and a champion for the poor and abandoned. The emphasis is not on climate science itself: the Pope agrees that rising global temperatures are primarily due to fossil fuel use, which is consistent with the conclusions of numerous national science societies and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Pope’s main concern is with the ethical and moral facets of the problem, and our responsibility as stewards of Earth to deal with it. Here are some of the main themes put forth:
-- The book of Genesis tells us to "have dominion over the earth", which would seem to favor savage exploitation of nature by domineering and destructive humans. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible, as Genesis also tells us to "till and keep" the garden of the world.
-- What we are facing is primarily a spiritual crisis: "The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves. For human beings to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life–these are sins. For to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God." He argues strongly that we can work together to solve this spiritual crisis through right action, and urges us to "replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing."

-- Humans are mostly responsible for global warming: “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. 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. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet 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.”

-- While technology has brought tremendous progress, "our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience."

-- Technology based on fossil fuels--particularly coal, but also oil and to an extent, natural gas--must be replaced progressively and without delay: "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."
-- The rich, highly industrialized countries that have contributed the greatest emissions of greenhouse gases have the greatest responsibility to contribute to solution of the problems that they have caused. The poor countries, who have contributed little to the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, will suffer the greatest harm, since they do not have the resources to adapt.
-- "Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction." People should change their lifestyles to consume less, and use the power of their purchases to positively affect the world: "purchasing is always a moral--and not simply economic act."
-- Action is being delayed by rich special interests that profit from the current situation: "The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected. The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented."

The encylical concludes with this powerful prayer:
The poor and the earth are crying out.
O Lord, seize us with your power and light,
help us to protect all life,
to prepare for a better future,
for the coming of your Kingdom
of justice, peace, love and beauty.
Praise be to you!

How will the encyclical be received?
Given that there are more than 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, this encyclical has the potential to directly influence a large segment of the world’s population. Some 20% of the U.S. population is Catholic (the United States ranks among the five countries with the most Catholics), so the encyclical should resonate widely here. The broad popularity of Pope Francis--about 7 in 10 Americans have a favorable view of him--will add to the encyclical’s reach.
As explained in this Q&A from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science: “While encyclicals do not compel Catholics to believe and act in accordance with what is said, the expectation is that all Catholics (and it is hoped all people of good will) will use the teaching as guidance for their life style and moral commitments. For theologians, both clerical and lay, relevant encyclicals have traditionally informed their scholarship and continue to do so.”
Francis is not the first Pope to lay claim to environmental awareness. The Yale Q&A cites several precedents, including the 1972 address “A Hospitable Earth for Future Generations,” presented by Pope Paul VI at the Stockholm Conference on the Environment. In his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, climate scientist Mike Hulme asserts that “all of the world’s institutionalized faiths are strong on the duty of care for the created world. There is a reverence for life--a sacredness--that is central to nearly all religious writings, even if expressed in different ways.”
Surveys that compare attitudes on the environment across U.S. religious affiliations do show some major differences. But political affiliation may play the more crucial role, even for those within a particular sect. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found sharp divisions among Catholics on climate change, largely mirroring a broader partisan divide. The climate change cause has likely become more divisive than it otherwise would have been, in part, because its most famous proponent has been a politician, Al Gore. Even before the encyclical’s release, 2016 presidential candidate Rick Santorum (a Catholic) urged the Pope to “leave science to the scientists” and avoid “controversial scientific theories,” an illustration of how politics can trump religious affiliation when it comes to the highly polarized world of climate change. Katharine Hayhoe--who plays a major role in the U.S. discussion, as a person of faith and as a climate scientist based at Texas Tech University--weighed in on the intersection of climate, politics, and religion in recent essays for the websites Prairie Fire and The Conversation. In response to the question “Will evangelicals care (about the encyclical)?”, Hayhoe responds in the affirmative: “It’s because the theology on which we need to agree to care about climate change is so simple. Evangelical or Catholic, Episcopal or Apostolic, we all believe God created the world, even if we’re still arguing over the process by which that was accomplished.”
Today’s encyclical will add to the drumbeat building toward the crucial UN Conference of the Parties 21 meeting this December in Paris, where the successor treaty to the Kyoto protocol is expected to take shape. Between now and then, the Pope will continue bringing his message to the world at large, including the U.S. Congress in an address scheduled for September.
WU climate blogger Ricky Rood has more thoughts on the significance of this week’s encyclical.
Jeff Masters and Bob Henson

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