Pope Francis: Climate Change’s New Hero?


Last Thursday (18 June), Pope Francis put climate change at the heart of the Catholic church, and issued a rallying cry for dramatic change.

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth.”

Pope Francis bemoaned the world’s weak responses to the crisis and called for humanity to take responsibility of ‘sister earth’, which “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.”

He attacked the pollution and waste of the modern world, the loss of biodiversity, and the continued use of fossil fuels. He also called for the countries that have benefited most from industrialisation to pay their debt to poorer countries.

The powerful document, which covers almost 200 pages, has made waves across the planet. But what sort of impact will the encyclical actually have, and what has been the reaction to it?

Some experts believe that Francis has now created an irreversible link between environmentalism and Catholicism. Austen Ivereigh, who wrote a biography of the pope, told The Guardian “This is his signature teaching… Francis has made it not just safe to be Catholic and green; he’s made it obligatory”.

The pope has used his encyclical to make climate change a religious and moral issue. Entitled ‘Laudato Si’, the document classifies the damage currently being caused to the planet as a fundamental sin. He explained that creation accounts in Genesis outline the vital relationship between humanity and the planet; this connection has now been ruptured according to Francis, and therefore the earth’s people have sinned. The earth’s resources are not, the pope continued, there to be exploited for profit and gain.

The messages from the encyclical were controversial in some parts of the world where acceptance of climate change as a legitimate issue is still split; for example, in Republican America. The pope’s statement will give Catholics who still reject the realities of climate change a real dilemma; these include the likes of Florida’s junior senator, Marco Rubio, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, both Catholics and both Republican presidential candidates, reported The New York Times: “Mr Bush and Mr Rubio have questioned or denied the established science of human-caused climate change, and have harshly criticised policies designed to tax or regulate the burning of fossil fuels. Both of their campaigns have courted influential and deep-pocketed donors, such as the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, who vehemently oppose such climate policies.

“But the papal encyclical could put Catholics who question that established climate science in a tough position, particularly in a year in which at least five Catholics may run for the Republican presidential nomination.”

It remains to be seen whether the encyclical can change voting patterns in America; historically the views of the papacy have failed to do so, according to experts. However the encyclical could influence the views and actions of millions of Catholics around the world; there is evidence in the past of papal statements making a real impact, for example the 1963 encyclical by Pope John XXIII which criticised nuclear weapons is believed to have significantly shifted opinions.

The papal statement is not just a message to Catholics; it is also a letter to the world. Some have argued that the pope’s message could transcend religion and galvanise the world into action. He has made a global moral plea, asking for justice to the poor and declaring the problem to be part of a common good.

Leadership is needed on the issue, and Pope Francis may have become an unlikely figure to fill that void. His call for action has led to praise and vocal support from key figures around the world. For example, UN secretary Kofi Annan, who ‘applauded’ the pope for his “strong moral and ethical leadership on climate change”, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, and German minister for the environment Barbara Hendricks. UN executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Christiana Figueres believes the pope’s call could guide the world in the right direction.

Furthermore, while the church has been derided for scientific misjudgements by experts in the past, most scientists seem to agree that the encyclical is based on sound and thorough information.

The seminal Paris Climate Change Conference is approaching later in the year and the world is on the cusp of making or breaking its future. Ahead of the summit, has the pope provided an extra glimmer of hope? It remains to be seen what the real impact will be, but the vital introduction of morality into the argument, alongside the leadership and exposure provided by the encyclical could just make a real difference in our battle against climate change.

Pick up our July/August issue (out 1 July) for a special feature: “Can We Save Our Planet This Century?” We spoke to ten experts about climate change to find out what action is needed if we are to save the globe for future generations.

Head over to LinkedIn to join our Compassionate Think Tank’s discussion on the subject.


Photo Credit: Martin Schulz from flickr