Pope Francis

Pope Francis

European Union 2014 - European Parliament

Will Pope Francis’s climate message break through where others have failed?

The leader of the world's largest Christian faith might succeed in doing something that many experts have failed to achieve: communicating the urgency of global warming.

That’s one reaction Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change and the environment, Laudato Si ("Praised Be"), released today. It includes a call for "a new dialogue" on the planet's future, an accessible summary of climate science, a stinging critique of international talks that have produced ineffectual environmental agreements, and a rebuke of profit-driven economic development. The letter—184 pages long in its English version—also goes far beyond climate issues, touching on biodiversity conservation, genetically modified crops, and other issues.

The encyclical’s direct language is "something everyone can understand," said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, an atmospheric physicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the in San Diego, California, in a teleconference shortly before the encyclical was released in Rome. In contrast, he said, reports by international groups of scientists are often "so sanitized" they are hard to follow.

In his introduction, Francis makes clear he is addressing all people, not only Roman Catholics. He quotes not only the New and Old Testaments, but also a song to "Mother Earth" by his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.

Francis noted it was important to begin his argument with a look at the science. "Theological and philosophical reflections on the situation of humanity and the world can sound tiresome and abstract, unless they are grounded in a fresh analysis of our present situation, which is in many ways unprecedented in the history of humanity," he wrote. "A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. … 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."

Francis acknowledged the arguments of climate science skeptics with a parenthetical nod (too much of one, in the view of some climate scientists) that volcanoes, solar cycles, and other natural phenomena can contribute to warming. And he mentions the word "coal" only once. But his focus was on a call for people to overcome past divisions: "The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change," he wrote.

Praise and criticism for past pacts

With important climate negotiations scheduled to conclude later this year, Francis offers a detailed and critical look at international negotiations on environmental issues. Several agreements, he wrote, have been successful: the Basel Convention on hazardous wastes, the convention on international trade in endangered species, the Vienna Convention for the protection of the ozone layer, and the Montreal Protocol and amendments. The reasons that these pacts had worked, he wrote, were that they included systems of reporting, standards, and controls. On the other hand, the conservation and development agreement that world leaders produced in 2012 at Rio de Janeiro (the Rio+20 Summit) was "a wide-ranging but ineffectual outcome document," the pope concluded.

He also raised doubts about some strategies for addressing climate change, including the market-based approach that has been at the heart of many of the solutions now being negotiated. "The strategy of buying and selling 'carbon credits' can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide," he said. "This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow 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."

Francis said the financial crisis of 2008 was a lost opportunity for change. "The response to the crisis did not include rethinking the outdated criteria which continue to rule the world," he said. "It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. … Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress."

A call for alternative energy

Francis argued for "taking advantage of abundant solar energy," including subsidies, technology transfer, and technical and financial assistance to poor countries. "The costs of this would be low, compared to the risks of climate change," he wrote.

Another passage praises decentralized power-generating schemes, pointing to local renewable energy cooperatives, "which ensure local self-sufficiency and even the sale of surplus energy. … This simple example shows that, while the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference," the pope wrote.

A critique of capitalism

The pope's rhetoric turned on its head the concept that religion is at odds with science. Instead, he portrayed unrestrained capitalism as at odds with science.

"We need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals," he said. "Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention."


The encyclical is drawing a range of reactions. “Sad to say, despite Pope Francis’s best intentions, the policies he recommends to mitigate global warming would make it far more difficult to overcome poverty," said E. Calvin Beisner, founder of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, a conservative public advocacy group, in a statement distributed by the Heartland Institute, a libertarian group that has vociferously questioned mainstream climate science. “Wealth enables people to afford better environmental stewardship. Pope Francis should champion economic development as a solution both to poverty and to environmental degradation."

"Our pope is speaking very much with a pastor's voice and with a deep respect for the role of science," said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, during a press conference in Washington, D.C., today. "When I was studying theology, I was told of the importance of what is known in Latin as 'tutior.'  That means when something is of importance, always choose the safer course. Although I don't think he uses that word, the principle is throughout" the encyclical.

The pope, Kurtz said, is delivering an important message: "Technology tells us what we can do, not what we ought to do." Kurtz said he expected to be preaching on the encyclical, and hoped that other priests would be doing the same.

The encyclical did not endorse any particular new course of action, noted Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., at the news conference. "The Holy Father is asking for a critique from inside, from those who are agents of economic development," Wuerl said. "He's not saying, 'Here's how you should do it,' but, 'Here are some principles you should be reflecting on as you move into the future.' You need to weigh not only things you are able to do, but what are things you ought to do.'

Tony Annett, a former economist and speechwriter at the International Monetary Fund who was involved in organizing a workshop of scientists and religious leaders this past April at the Vatican, said he noticed that much of the early commentary on the encyclical missed some of the economic critique. "He calls out the ideology of power and the 'magic' of the market, and he really ties the problems to individual and collective selfishness, and calls for a total conversion of that approach,” said Annett, who is now is an adviser on climate and religion to both Columbia University's Earth Institute and the nonprofit group Religions for Peace. “It's a very strong message, especially for the United States, where the philosophy of individualism is so strong."

Ramanathan, who also participated in the April workshop at the Vatican, hopes the encyclical will be “a game-changer in terms of communicating to people that this is not a conspiracy of a few scientists, that climate change is real."

Advocates for human population control, meanwhile, were disappointed that the letter sidestepped the issue of the church’s opposition to birth control. Ronald Lindsay, head of the Center for Inquiry, a secularist group based in Amherst, New York, applauded the pope’s statements on climate, water issues and biodiversity.

“However, we regret that the Pope does not acknowledge that the Catholic Church has contributed to these problems by its irrational and adamant opposition to responsible family planning,” he said in a statement. “No one who thinks using a condom constitutes a grave moral evil can be taken seriously as an expert on the world’s problems.”