For many years the debate over climate change has raged unabated. Now that the reality of human-influenced contributions to global warming has been overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, climate change deniers have been fighting a desperate, rearguard action. One of the final nails in their coffin may have just arrived with the release of Pope Francis’s “Laudato Si” encyclical on June 18. This document calls upon humanity to take powerful actions to mitigate and try to prevent the damage that could result from climate change.
Encyclicals are more than just informal opinion pieces or internal memos; they’re considered second only to Apostolic Constitutions in terms of important documents regarding issues of faith. In fact, this is only the second encyclical thus far issued by Pope Francis. Unlike some encyclicals that are for Church members only, “Laudato Si” is addressed to ”every person living on this planet.” The pope thus believes that climate change affects everyone, not merely specific groups or certain countries.
Francis, who took his papal name from the patron saint of ecology, St. Francis of Assisi, contends that human beings are responsible for environmental degradation. He goes on to state specifically that high levels of emission of greenhouse gases, generated from the burning of fossil fuels, is the principal reason for global warming. He explains that the use of coal, oil and gas in energy generation has caused the extinction of some species, melting of the polar ice caps, reduction in the area of tropical rainforests and acid rain. Many of these harmful developments feed upon each other. For example, the shrinking of the rainforests means that there are fewer plants remaining to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, leading to even more global warming. The errors in judgment that lay behind humanity’s poor record in protecting the environment, according to the pope, include:
- Blind faith in free market economics
- A culture of relativism
- The myth of progress
- The violence inherent in the human heart
The consequences of failing to act now, according to the encyclical, include a decrease in biodiversity, disruptions to ecosystems and an increase in poverty and the number of refugees worldwide. Francis believes that the poor will be the hardest hit by climate change because many of them live in at-risk areas and they lack the resources to effectively mitigate its effects. He is a stalwart advocate for the poor, and his devotion to protecting the environment is informed by his knowledge of how the poor would fare if nature is further harmed.
There are some broad solutions that the pope calls for while avoiding detailed prescriptions. However, as The Atlantic points out, he turns a critical eye on both the macro idea (corporations and governments) and micro (individuals themselves). From this, he calls upon the developed world and rich individuals to moderate their consumption, a growing issue in places like the U.S., Germany and China. He is very critical of the immense waste of resources perpetuated by those who thoughtlessly discard vast quantities of goods and materials, which not only harms the environment but also contributes to the suffering of the poor.
It is not in his capacity as a private citizen concerned about the future that Francis issued his encyclical. He rather brings his religious worldview to the table when discussing this and related issues. Though some religious groups believe that humanity may do as it pleases with the earth, there is a contrary religious philosophy called creation-care that holds that it is humanity’s obligation to act as caretakers of the nature world. The language contained in “Laudato Si” places Francis squarely in the ranks of those who believe the earth must be cherished and taken care of. Quoting from his peer Patriarch Bartholomew of the Orthodox Church, and thereby incidentally highlighting the universality of his message, Francis says, “for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins.”
“Laudato Si” has been in preparation for more than a year, and its impending release caused quite a stir in some circles. The text of the document was even leaked to the press, which published it several days before its official release. Environmental groups and members of the scientific community laud it as an important milestone.
Energy companies have had mixed-to-positive reactions, with the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers panning the announcement and questioning its timing, and Enmax Alberta, a Canadian company, praising the pope’s remarks about renewables and green energy.
Climate change deniers, however, are singing a different tune. Conservative pundit and radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh asserted in a post on Facebook that the pope “seems to have fallen in with the communist way of doing things,” and called it a “Marxist climate rant” on his website. Rick Santorum, a fundamentalist Catholic, cautioned the pope to “leave science to the scientists,” which is more than just a little hypocritical given that Santorum has been dismissive of the overwhelming scientific consensus endorsing anthropogenic climate change. Jeb Bush remarked that religion “ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.” An oddly ironic statement since it is the Republican Party that has tirelessly injected religion into politics while vigorously politicizing the issue of climate change.
Because there are more than 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, Pope Francis has a built-in audience that any entertainer or public figure would be envious of. There are plenty of people who will be swayed by guidance from the Vicar of Christ. Francis will probably use the awareness he has brought to climate change to influence international conferences and negotiations regarding reduction of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Many of the arguments outlined in “Laudato Si” are nothing new to those with a devotion to environmental matters. But the fact that they’re now presented in a papal encyclical will lend them added weight in the minds of many. The tide has been increasingly turning against those who ignore the reality of climate change. The pope’s advocacy on behalf of its importance may usher in an era in which climate change deniers are treated with the same incredulity as those who think that the Apollo moon landings were faked or that Elvis Presley is still alive.
Maria Ramos is a freelance writer currently living in Chicago. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a minor in Communication. She blogs about the environment, technological advancements, and lifestyle health issues.