The Church Challenges the State to Take Radical Action on Climate Change

Pope Francis’ call for an immediate transformation of the global economy to stave off environmental catastrophe and protect the poor is a game changer.

A child embraces Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square on June 14. (Photo: Giampiero Sposito/Reuters)

Jun 18, 2015· 6 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

One of the world's biggest religions has joined the global debate about climate change—on the side of the angels. After months of anticipation, Pope Francis on Thursday morning released the official text of “Laudato Si’,” or “Praise Be to You,” his encyclical on reversing climate change.

The religious leader of the world's estimated 1 billion Catholics name-checked an array of escalating climate-related problems, such as rising seas, melting polar ice, ocean acidification, the breakneck pace of species extinctions, diminishing freshwater supplies, and “a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation,” on his way to calling for a rapid end to burning fossil fuels, the primary cause of global warming.

Pope Francis, who at one time worked as a chemist in his home country of Argentina, affirmed the objective evidence that human actions, such as burning fossil fuels and destroying forests, are the leading causes of global warming.

“A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system,” Francis wrote. “Humanity is called to recognize 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.”

With climate change disproportionately harming the world's poorest people, the pope said that it is a moral imperative for the wealthiest nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. He condemned the slow progress in international negotiations over a binding climate agreement. “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels—especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas—needs to be progressively replaced without delay,” reads the text. “But the international community has still not reached adequate agreements about the responsibility for paying the costs of this energy transition.”

None of this is new information. But this time it is coming from the closest thing organized religion has to a rock star. Pope Francis has earned admiration worldwide, across faiths and among the faithless, for speaking with energizing frankness about social justice—and backing up his words with actions.

Monday's leak of a draft text of the encyclical to the Italian news outlet L'Espresso, which some reports have suggested is a sign of resistance within the church to its messages, somewhat deflated the Vatican's plans for a grand rollout. All the same, “Laudato Si’ ” is already being hailed within and outside Catholicism as a game changer that will propel global action on climate change to a new level.

"A moral leader taking this approach to the scientific facts of climate change is revolutionary," said J. Patrick Hornbeck, chair of the theology department at Fordham University, a Jesuit-affiliated Catholic university. “It's absolutely clear that the pope’s training in science, his own commitment to the value of scientific inquiry and holding up fact as a starting point” are integral to his moral call for climate action, Hornbeck said. "He’s not turning a blind eye to the situation as it truly exists."

The pope’s emphatic acceptance of the science could transform how the United States and the world discuss climate change, said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist who often speaks with fellow evangelical Christians about global warming.

“This will appeal to anyone who’s a Christian, not just Catholics,” Hayhoe said. “It’s a strong cultural and moral message that’s reminding us of what we believe and what we see every time we open the Bible.”

While it may not change the minds of those who fundamentally reject the reality of climate change and its human causes, she said, “the people who’ll be moved are the ones who already grasp that climate change is real but maybe thought it wasn’t that important yet.”

Pope Francis strongly criticized market economics in the encyclical and those who prioritize short-term profits over the long-term health and viability of life on Earth. “Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change. However, many of these symptoms indicate that such effects will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption,” he wrote.

The pope's moral stance “throws into stark relief the real reasons why people, and by people I mean the U.S. politicians, are throwing up a smoke screen around climate action,” Hayhoe said. From this point on, “if they want to continue to object, they can’t do so in the name of God.”

The encyclical also criticizes “blind faith in technological solutions” to global warming. “Science and technology are not neutral,” wrote Pope Francis. “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”

Positions like this, as well as the document's unsurprising affirmation of traditional Catholic positions against contraception and abortion, may make many liberals uneasy, even as they are encouraged by the pope's unambiguous stands on slashing carbon emissions and lessening poverty.

But “that gets to the heart of where the debate needs to be,” Hayhoe said. “Do we act by investing in technology or withdrawing from technology? Creating cleaner energy or using less energy? Investing in development or slowing it down? This is where the public debate needs to be, not on whether climate change is real.”

Even before its release, the encyclical was being hailed by many who have spent years and even decades working toward a strong international climate treaty.

“This is the moral suasion of a man who is influential to more than 2 billion Christians all over the world” and also has the respect of people in other faiths, said Bob Deans, a spokesperson with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

So “when the pope lays down an 184-page encyclical about climate change, [that] puts the wind of public opinion behind the backs of the leaders” who will attend December's United Nations climate conference in Paris. A new international climate change treaty is supposed to be finalized at the conference. “The pope is saying, 'Yes, the leaders of the world have a moral obligation' ” to cut carbon emissions, he said.

The encyclical may also help propel the fast-growing divestment movement by underscoring its moral arguments for pulling investments out of oil, coal, and gas companies. In 2014, the University of Dayton became the first Catholic school in the U.S. to divest when its trustees voted to remove fossil fuel holdings from its $700 million endowment. The decision was driven by Catholic values of “care for creation” and “solidarity with the poor,” said Paul Benson, the university's interim provost.

Among the information that swayed the trustees' decision, “all the scientific literature indicates that the populations most vulnerable to climate change are in the parts of the world where the poorest people are concentrated,” he said.

There are 247 Catholic universities and colleges in the United States alone, collectively holding several billion dollars in endowment funds. But only one other has followed Dayton's example: In June, Georgetown University voted to remove coal investments from its endowment.

“We’re not preaching to others to do as we do but saying that we believe our action is a way to express more fully the beliefs that we hold,” Benson said. “We hope that the pope’s encyclical has the effect of prompting that kind of reflection among many other Catholic organizations.”

In the encyclical, Pope Francis also condemned consumerism and “a politics concerned with immediate results, supported by consumerist sectors of the population,” and “driven to produce short-term growth” as root causes of both climate degradation and the widening global wealth gap. “Humanity is called to recognize 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,” the encyclical states.

“Many American Catholics may find this exhortation of the pope quite challenging,” said Fordham University's Hornbeck. “There are 55 to 65 million Catholics in the U.S., and they are just as divided on many issues as all the rest of us are.”

The numbers back that up: According to a new poll from the Pew Research Center, 64 percent of Catholic Democrats believe that global warming is an urgent problem, compared with 24 percent of Catholic Republicans.

Hornbeck believes that the recent series of advance attacks on the climate change encyclical by prominent Catholic Republican politicians “speaks to how threatened they are by this pope, and the positive reaction he has gotten from many thought leaders from around the world,” as well as “what it could mean for many habits, including consumer habits, and what it could mean for the fossil fuel industry.”

Outside Catholicism, the encyclical could alter how the religious far right in the U.S. relates to the environment and climate change, said Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopalian priest in New Jersey and founder of GreenFaith, a multi-faith group focused on the environment.

In the decade since he became director of GreenFaith, Harper said, religious objections on climate change have grown more hushed, similarly to how opinions about slavery shifted 150 years ago. “There were those that justified it on the basis of their beliefs,” Harper said, but “that changed as the country’s moral compass changed.

“Now, right-leaning politicians not only could be feeling that this is not just morally the right thing to do but also have a little bit of the fear of God in them that if they don’t act, there could be electoral repercussions.”

Other religious groups are using the momentum Pope Francis has created with the climate encyclical to mobilize their own bases, said Harper. Environmental topics are expected to take center stage at this year’s International Conference on Islam in October, he said, while Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth is encouraging rabbis around the world to devote at least one sermon to the environment during the High Holy Days in September.

Among Hindus, leaders of the ecologically minded Bhumi Project are encouraging priests to speak out on environmental issues, Harper said.

“For an awfully long time, religion has been about people and their relationship with God,” Harper said, “Part of what the climate crisis and environmental crisis is forcing people to recognize is that their faith needs to be bigger. It needs to be about human well-being, but it can’t only be about that.”

Taylor Hill contributed reporting to this article.