Pope Francis issued a long-anticipated papal letter on Thursday that warns about the risks of climate change and other environmental degradation, urges protection of the Earth and of the poor, and calls for “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.”
“If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us,” the pope states in the encyclical letter, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.
“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades,” the encyclical says.
While the document acknowledges multiple factors that can influence global climate, including volcanic activity and the solar cycle, it states that “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.”
Grounded in scientific and religious references, the encyclical also focuses on other environmental and social issues, including the depletion of natural resources, the quality of water available to the poor, and the loss of biodiversity. The document also calls for a change in attitude so that people care more for the planet and the poor and a change in consumer consumption habits.
“Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn,” the pope’s letter states.
“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth,” the encyclical continues. “The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.”
Reminder of the Link Between Climate Change and Poverty
The pope expressed particular concern about disproportionate suffering of the poor from climate change and environmental declines. “Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing, and forestry,” according to the document. The poor “have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited,” the letter states.
The pope’s words “should serve as a stark reminder to all of us of the intrinsic link between climate change and poverty,” said World Bank Group president Jim Yong Kim in a statement welcoming “the Pope’s emphasis on humanity’s moral obligation to act.” The document comes at a pivotal time leading up to the United Nations’ climate change conference in Paris this fall, Kim added.
The encyclical criticizes weak international political responses to the environmental crisis and rejects as incorrect that human “dominion” over the Earth equates to unbridled exploitation of nature. In addition, the document states that attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density but that demographic growth can be compatible with development. “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues,” the document states.
“The Real Work Starts Now”
The papal letter could have a “transformational effect on the planet,” atmospheric and climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan told Eos. “The real work starts now. This is not the time for us to relax, thinking Pope Francis is going to take care of it. No, he just opened the door, and we have to go through the door,” added Ramanathan, who is a distinguished professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego.
The pope “has brought the moral dimension and has informed the people how we have to change our behavior. So now this is the time for scientists and policy makers to take up that message and start work on real solutions to the problem,” explained Ramanathan, a council member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, who, in 2014, helped to coordinate a workshop at the Vatican entitled “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility.”
“We, as scientists, need to acknowledge that this is not just a science, technology, and policy issue,” Ramanathan added. “It is a moral, ethical problem in the sense that there is intergenerational inequity.” Noting that the planet will continue warming for the next several hundred years, he said, “We are leaving behind this horrible legacy for generations.”
Papal Words Recall Rachel Carson
“When I saw the first draft of [the encyclical] 9 months ago, I said, ‘My goodness, this is Rachel Carson speaking.’ I was hoping, just like her book changed America, I am hoping this encyclical will change America,” Ramanathan said, referring to the author of Silent Spring, a 1962 book about the risks of pesticide use that helped to make many Americans aware of environmental issues.
The encyclical does not just “put a Band-Aid” on the situation “by just saying ‘decarbonize,’” he added. “It went to the underlying causes and said we need to attack all of this, but without losing sight of the climate change problem.”
Ramanathan added that dealing with climate change requires science and technology, effective governance, and religious and faith leaders. He said he would like to see the pope and other religious figures invited to attend the Paris climate conference.
In a written statement, Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said the encyclical “is a clarion call that resonates not only with Catholics, but with all of the Earth’s peoples. Science and religion are aligned on this matter.”
However, not everyone lauded the pope’s message. “I disagree with the pope’s philosophy on global warming,” U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement. “I am concerned that his encyclical will be used by global warming alarmists to advocate for policies that will equate to the largest, most regressive tax increase in our nation’s history.” He continued, “It’s the poor that spend the largest portion of their expendable income to heat their homes, and they will be the ones to carry the heaviest burden of such onerous policies.”
—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer
Citation: Showstack, R. (2015), Pope calls for action on climate change, environmental degradation, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO031817. Published on 19 June 2015.