The recent statement by Pope Francis calling for worldwide efforts to combat climate change has the reach and influence to increase converts to the cause by engaging a new audience and citing the moral as well as scientific and economic imperatives for action.
In his 184-page encyclical or teaching document, subtitled “On care for our common home”, the Pope maintains that the scientific evidence supporting climate change is irrefutable. Ensuring the health of the Earth is the obligation of all of its residents and a moral issue, he continues, laying the blame for the conditions on humans’ exploitation of the planet, including careless business practices.
“Businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved. Yet only when the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognised with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations, can those actions be considered ethical," the Pope said.
While some in the business sector agreed, others remained defensive. World Bank Group president Jim Yong Kim expressed support for the Pope’s position, saying that the Pope’s statement is a reminder of how climate change affects poorer countries. Extreme weather events can threaten development that took decades to execute. “As the effects of climate change worsen, we know that escaping poverty will become even more difficult,” Kim noted.
But Texas Alliance of Energy Producers president Alex Mills questioned why the Pope was commenting on an issue such as global warming. In a column on the alliance website he says that the Pope's message "clearly is anti-capitalism and anti-fossil fuels," and that it fails to provide solutions other than "changing our lifestyles".
“Could that also mean that Pope Francis would give up traveling around the world by airplane and other means of transportation that uses fossil fuels?” Mills asked in his column.
While encyclicals usually are addressed just to the faithful, the Pope said his message was for “every person living on this planet. I would like to enter a dialogue with all people about our common home."
The fact that the Pope is speaking from both a scientific and moral position and addressing an audience new to the climate-change debate – the world’s one billion-plus Roman Catholics – is significant, scientists and members of world organisations said.
“This revolutionary encyclical challenges both current ethics and economics,” Professor Ian Gough of the London School of Economics said in a Guardian article.
“Everything he’s stated about the science accurately reflects the state of the art of our scientific understanding,” says Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University in the US. “That is no surprise since he actually consulted many leading scientists and has a background in science – chemistry – himself… Pope Francis brings great moral authority to this matter. He speaks directly to the more-than-a-billion Catholics around the world, imploring them to recognise the battle to prevent dangerous climate change as the great moral cause that it is… I believe that his efforts will win over many who were in the past sceptical or indifferent about the urgency of combating human-caused climate change.”
Latin American countries may be particularly receptive to the Pope’s message. In the past, many have been reluctant to draft climate policy, saying that “developing economies should not have to cut emissions while developed economies continue to pollute,” according to a New York Times article. During the past year, though, some Latin American governments have expressed interest in climate policy, and this year Mexico became one of the first nations to submit a plan ahead of the Paris talks, The Times noted.
Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climatologist, says he is not religious, but sees the value in faith-based efforts to alter thinking on climate action. “The pope's encyclical is probably going to have a bigger impact than the Paris negotiations," he said in a USA Today article.
In December, more than 190 countries are scheduled to attend the 21st United Nations conference on climate change in Paris. Attendees hope to reach agreement on emissions that would keep further warming of the planet to fewer than 2ºC, or 3.6ºF, beyond global temperature at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to that, country representatives gather in New York City in September at the UN General Assembly to agree on a new set of sustainable development goals.
“Pope Francis’s encyclical underscores the moral imperative for urgent action on climate change to lift the planet's most vulnerable populations, protect development and spur responsible growth. This clarion call should guide the world towards a strong and durable universal climate agreement in Paris at the end of this year,” says the UN's top climate change official, UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres. “Coupled with the economic imperative, the moral imperative leaves no doubt that we must act on climate change now.”
While it remains difficult to reach people who are in denial about the science of climate change or just driven by anti-regulation ideology, the Pope’s statement could be important in educating people who are genuinely confused about climate change and influence discussions at the Paris conference, according to Mann.
“They are victims of the disinformation campaign to discredit the science of climate change that I describe in my book ‘The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars’,” says Mann. “I call them the ‘confused middle’ in the debate, and I believe that the Pope has a real opportunity to win many of them over,” he continues. “That support could be critical in terms of the momentum we will need going into the Paris climate talks later this year, if we are to see the sort of international agreement that will produce the substantial reductions in carbon emissions we need over the next decade if we are to avert dangerous climate change.”religion Pope climate change