Pope Francis Makes Climate Action a Priority in 2015
If reports are correct, Pope Francis plans to make 2015 a monumental year for Catholic environmental activism. He will issue a lengthy encyclical on climate change and environmentalism to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and give an address to the UN general assembly.
According to Bishop Marcelo Sorondo, chanchellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Pope is hoping that his actions will directly influence next year’s crucial UN climate meeting in Paris — the last chance, many say, to reach a universal commitment to reduce emissions before catastrophic damage becomes inevitable.
The Promised Environmental Encyclical
Since 2013 there have been rumors of a papal encyclical on the environment. But now it seems that release of the encyclical is just months away. According to insiders, following a visit in March to Tacloban, the Phillippine city devastated in 2012 by typhoon Haiyan, the Pope will publish a rare encyclical on climate change and human ecology urging all Catholics to take action on moral and scientific grounds.
Encyclicals are generally used for significant issues and second in importance only to the highest ranking document now issued by popes, an Apostolic Constitution. According to Pope Pius XII, papal encyclicals are sufficiently authoritative to end theological debate on a particular question: “. . . if the Supreme Pontiffs in their acts, after due consideration, express an opinion on a hitherto controversial matter, it is clear to all that this matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot any longer be considered a question of free discussion among theologians.”
If the encyclical is actually published in the spring, it will set a tone among the world’s 5,000 bishops and 400,000 priests — a tone of caring for creation and acting for the climate.
According to Neil Thorns, head of advocacy at Cafod, “The anticipation around Pope Francis’s forthcoming encyclical is unprecedented. We have seen thousands of supporters commit to making sure their MPs know climate change is affecting the poorest communities.”
Soronado also notes that the Vatican’s academics have supported publication of an encyclical on climate and social inclusion to influence next year’s crucial decisions in Paris. “The problem of climate change has become a major social and moral problem, and mentalities can only be changed on moral and religious grounds,” he said. The Pope’s moral guidance can ensure that the natural world is developed in a sustainable and socially inclusive way.
Papal Address to the United Nations
In September, the Pope plans to address the UN general assembly in New York. According to reports, he will personally lobby political and faith leaders with the goal of getting them to commit to real action for climate change ahead of the Paris meeting in December 2015.
While we don’t know what the Pope’s argument will be to political and faith leaders, we can assume that he will push them to look beyond short-term financial gains and toward a more sustainable, long-term relationship between progress and planetary protection. In October, he told a meeting of Latin American and Asian landless peasants and other social movements:
“An economic system centered on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frentic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it. The system continues unchanged, since what dominates are the dynamics of an economy and a finance that are lacking in ethics. It is no longer man who commands, but money. Cash commands. The monopolizing of lands, deforestation, the appropriation of water, inaequate agro-toxics are some of the evils that tear man from the land of his birth. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and deforestation are already showing their devestating effects in the great cataclysms we witness.”
Pope Francis’s sentiments have been echoed by other Catholics. Earlier this month, Catholic bishops issued a call to negotiators at the UN climate talks in Lima. Their call: protect the poor by putting an end to the fossil fuel era. When faced with a moral and ethical dilemma, like climate change, the bishops wrote, it becomes even more evidence that we must all recognize the “systematic failures of this order and the need for a new financial and economic order.”
Although the Pope is incredibly popular among progressive groups, his environmental radicalism is likely to attract resistance from Vatican conservatives and in rightwing church circles.
Cardinal George Pell, a former archbishop of Sydney who has been placed in charge of the Vatican’s budget, doesn’t believe climate action is necessary. In a 2011 lecture in London, Pell said, “Animals would not notice a doubling of CO2 and obviously plants would love it. In the other direction, humans would feel no adverse effects unless CO2 concentration rose to at least 5000ppmv, or almost 13 times today’s concentration, far beyond any likely future atmospheric levels.”
Pope Francis will also face opposition by members of the conservative US evangelical movement. Calvin Beisner, spokesman for the conservative Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, has declared the US environmental movement to be “un-biblical” and a false religion. There is little evidence that the Pope’s actions will convince him otherwise.
“The Pope should back off,” he said. “The Catholic church is correct on the ethical principles but has been misled on the science. It follows that the policies the Vatican is promoting are incorrect. Our position reflects the views of millions of evangelical Christians in the US.”
The hope though is that the popular and persuasive Pope can change these views. At a time when climate action is critically necessary, Christians and religious people around the world need to understand that the science and ethics of climate change are settled. It’s time to do something for all of creation.
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