Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change may be one of the most important documents in history

By on September 1, 2015

Laudato Si’ — an eco-encyclical letter by Pope Francis on the subject of climate change — just may be one of the most important documents in history, and bestselling author, environmental activist and president and co-founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben, writing in his review this month for the New York Review of Books (8/13/15), called the encyclical “nothing less than a sweeping, radical, and highly persuasive critique of how we inhabit this planet.”

McKibben writes, “Scientists have done a remarkable job of getting the climate message out, reaching a workable consensus on the problem in relatively short order. But national political leaders, beholden to the fossil fuel industry, have been timid at best—Barack Obama, for instance, barely mentioned the question during the 2012 election campaign. Since Francis first announced plans for an encyclical on climate change, many have eagerly awaited his words.”


In the long-awaited 184-page environmental treatise, titled Laudato Si’, or Praise Be to You, published by Vatican Press in June 2015, Pope Francis described how apathy and the reckless pursuit of profits, excessive faith in technology and political shortsightedness, along with the relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment, are to blame.

The pope hopes the encyclical will influence energy and economic policy and stir a global movement, and calls on ordinary people to press politicians for change, and to take action. McKibben sums up the pope’s writing by saying “it does indeed accomplish all the things that the extensive news coverage highlighted: insist that climate change is the fault of man; call for rapid conversion of our economies from coal, oil, and gas to renewable energy; and remind us that the first victims of the environmental crisis are the poor.”

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods,” Pope Francis wrote. “It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

Encyclicals are letters to the clergy and laity of the church that are considered authoritative. The document was sent to the world’s 5,000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests who will distribute it to their parishioners. Given the sheer number of people who identify as Catholics worldwide, the pope’s clarion call to tackle climate change could reach far more people than even the largest environmental groups, making it one of the most important modern-day documents to be distributed to a large swath of the world’s population.

Incidentally, Pope Francis has 6.9 million followers on Twitter.

Pope Francis places most of the blame on fossil fuels and human activity, while warning of an “unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequence for all of us” if corrective action is not taken swiftly. His powerful message on climate change should change the debate around the world, sparking the kind of action needed to reverse global warming.

Philippines Pope Encyclical

Environmental activists carry a banner as they march towards a Roman Catholic church to coincide with Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change Thursday, June 18, 2015 in Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

The encyclical was released some six months before a United Nations summit meeting, to be held in Paris in December, in which governments around the world will be trying to find some way in which every nation would commit to new policies to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. Many governments have yet to present plans, including major emitters like Brazil, which has a large Catholic population.

Pope Francis called for a radical transformation of politics, economics and individual lifestyles to confront environmental degradation and climate change, blending a biting critique of consumerism and irresponsible development with a plea for swift and unified global action. He also used the papal encyclical to condemn our “throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish.”

Francis, the first pope from the developing worlds, heads the world’s largest religious denomination — 1.2 billion — which includes a considerable amount of the world’s poor, who are being dislocated and disregarded. He used the encyclical to highlight the crisis posed by climate change. Developed, industrialized countries were mostly responsible, the pope says, and are obligated to help poorer nations confront the crisis. The encyclical’s central theme is the link between poverty and the planet’s fragile state.

Pope Francis: “Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true ‘ecological debt’ exists, particularly between the global north and south…”

The Pentagon recently issued a report to Congress on the effects climate change is having on security worldwide: “Global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national security interests over the foreseeable future because it will aggravate existing problems – such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions – that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries.”

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McKibben — who also wrote about the encyclical when it was first released — writes,

“The ecological problems we face are not, in their origin, technological, says Francis. Instead, ‘a certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry, to the serious detriment of the world around us.’ He is no Luddite (‘who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?’) but he insists that we have succumbed to a ‘technocratic paradigm,’ which leads us to believe that ‘every increase in power means ‘an increase of ‘progress” itself’…as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such.’ This paradigm ‘exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object.’ Men and women, he writes, have from the start ‘intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand.’

In our world, however, ‘human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational.’ With the great power that technology has afforded us, it’s become ‘easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.’ Pope Francis praises young people for being ready for change, and said “enforceable international agreements are urgently needed.” “All is not lost,” he writes. “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.”

Pope Francis visiting typhoon survivors in Tacloban, the Philippines, January 2015

Pope Francis visiting typhoon survivors in Tacloban, the Philippines, January 2015

In June, McKibben wrote “this marks the first time that a person of great authority in our global culture has fully recognized the scale and depth of our crisis, and the consequent necessary rethinking of what it means to be human.”

In his review of the encyclical, McKibben adds that Laudato Si’ “stands as one of the most influential documents of recent times…In fact, it is entirely different from what the media reports might lead one to believe. Instead of a narrow and focused contribution to the climate debate, it turns out to be nothing less than a sweeping, radical, and highly persuasive critique of how we inhabit this planet—an ecological critique, yes, but also a moral, social, economic, and spiritual commentary.”

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