“The Climate is a Common Good”

Pope Francis’s just released encyclical on climate change and the environment, as expected, issued a hard-hitting warning about the “unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem” and the need to reject the “throwaway culture,” “extreme consumerism,”  and excessive profit-seeking that has led to this life-threatening degradation.

As I noted in my last post, although the Vatican has spoken out on the environment many times before, this is the first encyclical dedicated to the issue. The key theme of this historic document is that climate change and inequality are inextricably linked. In the pope’s words, “we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

In the encyclical, Pope Francis called for the phasing out of fossil fuels, insisting that the responsibility for paying the cost of this transition belongs to the developed countries, “which are more powerful and pollute the most.” He pointed out that developing nations will probably experience “the worst impact” of climate change, and they lack the resources to “adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.”

While the groundbreaking encyclical has received wide coverage in the media, it remains to be seen what its longer-term impact will be. In particular, the climate agreement negotiations in Paris at the end of this year will provide a telling indication of whether world leaders will have taken to heart the pope’s powerful declaration that “the climate is a common good.”

Underscoring the serious consequences at stake, the very next day a new study appeared cautioning that, unless we reversed our climate change trajectory soon, the planet was on course for its sixth mass species extinction. The key difference this time is that it will be the first one induced by human behavior, especially the burning of fossil fuels and the adoption of industrial-scale agriculture.

“Unless we do something radically different soon,” observed Gerardo Ceballos, an ecologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and lead author of the study, “we may end up having a big catastrophic collapse of humans, not only animals.”

Together, the religious and moral pronouncements of Pope Francis and the scientific analysis of six leading researchers provide a sobering picture of our future. Still, as the pope pointed out, “human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning.”

The Pope Speaks Out on Climate Change

Earlier this week Pope Francis convened a major conference in Rome on climate disruption. It is one of several events planned by the Vatican ahead of his much-anticipated encyclical on global warming and the environment. The conference included speeches by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and leaders of the pontifical academies, along with panels on the relevant scientific, moral, and economic issues.

The Vatican did not pull its punches In the run up to the conference or at the conference itself, signaling its determination to move the conversation to a new level of urgency.

Last month Cardinal Peter Turkson, who helped write the first draft of the encyclical, declared that global inequality and the destruction of the environment “are the greatest threats we face as a human family today.” “A changing of human hearts in which the good of the human person, and not the pursuit of profit, is the key value,” he insisted, would be required to meet these threats.

Striking a similarly resolute tone, the Vatican issued a statement at the close of the conference on Tuesday, emphasizing that “human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity.” Pointing out that the climate summit in Paris later this year “may be the last effective opportunity to negotiate arrangements that keep human-induced warming below 2-degrees C,” it called for a rapid transition “to a world powered by renewable and other low-carbon energy and the sustainable management of ecosystems.”

The Pope’s encyclical on climate change will not be the first time that the Church has addressed this issue. But it is the first time that it will be the subject of an encyclical, which carries great authoritative weight for Roman Catholics.

The Vatican’s sustained engagement with the threat of global warming underscores the fact that science and technology can only take the discussion so far. They can explain the causes and consequences of climate destabilization and pose technical solutions. But it is values, especially a commitment to the generations that come after us, that will provide the motivation to implement the solutions, which are likely to be expensive and politically fraught.

Building a sustainable world, in short, is as much a cultural and ethical project as it is a scientific and engineering endeavor. It is a task that requires imagination, compassion, collaboration, and creativity, a willingness to live our lives differently. In Pope Francis’s words, “We need to care for the earth so that it may continue, as God willed, to be a source of life for the entire human family.”