Pope Francis Invokes a Moral Framework for Climate Change Negotiations

June 21, 2015

Pope Francis invoked a new argument for collaboration between science and religion to combat human induced climate change, through the much awaited encyclical on the environment, which was released on June 18.

The encyclical was issued at a crucial juncture, six months away from the 21stConference of Parties of the UNFCCC to be held in Paris which is aimed at creating a new agreement on climate change.

The Papal Encyclicals

An encyclical is one of the most authoritative forms of papal writing. It is a formal teaching on the Catholic doctrine. While most encyclicals are aimed at bishops and priests, this particular encyclical is aimed at everyone, mostly for the general public.

The fact that the Pope had decided to issue an encyclical on the environment and climate change, was an exciting news all around the world, which gave a renewed energy to all those committed to combat climate change. This was cited as an important authoritative church teaching to reshape the international negotiations on climate change. The document is named “Laudato Si’” or “Praise Be to You”, which is a quote from the song to nature written by Saint Francis 800 years ago.

This encyclical is the 2nd letter issued by Pope Francis, the first being a completion of the encyclical titled “The Light of Faith” of Pope Benedict XVI. It indicates the significance his holiness has given towards the need to combat climate change. The namesake of the Pope, Saint Francis is also known to be the protector of the poor and the patron saint of the environment. The letter lays down a significant moral framework for the upcoming UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris.

The vision enunciated through the encyclical is not just Catholic, but global and interfaith. The encyclical received so much global attention mainly since no other pope has devoted an entire encyclical to the environment. It was noted by Pope Francis that he wanted to make a contribution towards the Paris summit on Climate Change. The authority, reverence and popularity of the Pope, and the fact that he has taken into climate change is seen as a positive influence to the key stakeholders of the global agreement.

Call for Climate Action

The letter of the Pope is substantiated through precedent; an important aspect of the authority of the Church. The Pope has cited the writings of many of his predecessors, including that of pope Leo dating back to the 19th century. Moreover the Pope invokes every human being to work together to undo the human induced climate change. His Holiness cites the statement of the Blessed pope Paul VI where climate change was referred to as “a tragic consequence” of unchecked human activity: “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation”. He also cites the 1990 World Day Peace speech of John Paul II, where he declares “the environment to be a moral priority of the Church, warning that “world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts, and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature.” The encyclical also refers to the writings of the “green pope” (Benedict XVI) thus nicknamed due to his interest in environmental issues.

Common but Differentiated Responsibilities

While the Pope has not directly dealt with the specificities of the countries and their role in pollution, he has pointed towards a general notion, and highlighted the need for the developed countries to limit their consumption of fossil fuels. He also points to the need to assist poorer countries and “support policies and programmes of sustainable development.”

The encyclical also speaks of moral responsibility and specifically lays out that “by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development”, and noted that,” One needs to admit that for climate change, there are differentiated responsibilities. The encyclical also notes that “We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalisation of indifference.”

Condemnation of Human Induced Climate Change and Failure to Protect the Environment

The encyclical is dominated by references the modern culture which Pope refers to as the “throwaway culture”. The Pope also notes, “hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources”.

The encyclical points out that the effects of climate change is real and states, “each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever.”

It also stresses that “the climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all” and indicates to the skeptics of climate change and scientific data that “a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognise 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.”

Effects of Climate Change

The encyclical is very mindful to the grave impacts of climate change. It acknowledges that

“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. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to global warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They 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 Pope notes that the lack of response and the indifference of the humans have lead to a lack of a sense of responsibility for the “fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded”. He also notes that those with more economic and political power and resources “seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms”.

Efficient Global Climate Change Policies

The Pope speaks of the need to consider global warming as a major threat to life on the planet. He further points that climate change is mainly caused by human induced activities. He urges for “policies that reduce carbon emissions, among other ways, by substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy.”

The encyclical touches upon very practical realities. It points that environmental impact assessment of any project is usually concerned only o the effects on soil, water and air, and that very few indicate towards a careful study of the impact on biodiversity. It also notes that certain species are being exploited commercially with little attention towards “studying their reproductive patterns to prevent their depletion and the consequent imbalance of the ecosystem”.

The encyclical also points out that the Conference of the UN on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) “issues a wide ranging but ineffectual outcome document”, and noted that “international negotiations cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries which place their national interests above the global common good”.

The pope stresses on the need to develop adequate storage technologies. While recognising the efforts of some countries in their progress and the investments made in “means of production and transportation which consumes less energy and require fewer raw material,” along with the efforts to come up with “methods of construction and renovating buildings which improve their energy efficiency. The encyclical also notes that these good practices are not yet sufficiently widespread”.

The encyclical refers to the inadequacy of the strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” as a means to a reduce emission. It was also notes that the priority of the poor countries must be to eliminate poverty and to promote social development. Therefore it is noted that “enforceable international agreements are urgently needed” and relations between states must be “respectful of each other’s sovereignty but must also lay down mutually agreed means of averting regional disasters which would eventually affect everyone.” The encyclical presents the fact that “Global regulatory norms are needed to impose obligations and prevent unacceptable actions”.

Other Issues

The encyclical also addresses the issues of water; loss of biodiversity caused due to the “short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production; loss of forests and woodlands entailed by the loss of species; decline of the quality of human life and breakdown of the society due to environmental degradation- the current “models of development” and the “throwaway culture”, “unruly growth of many cities, which have become unhealthy to live in; issues related to desertification; the need to have courage and responsibility to contribute towards reducing greenhouse gasses; internationalisation of environmental costs; the need to have dialogue and transparency in the decision making process; the need of religion to be in dialogue with science and many other factors that can lead towards a moral demand on the part of every human being towards contributing to the fight against human induced climate change.


Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis: on Care for our Common Home

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