In a new encyclical, Pope Francis laid out an environmental manifesto of sorts, calling for the people of the world to be better stewards of natural resources and reverse climate change.
The official papal document, titled “Laudato Si, On the Care of our Common Home,” is a condemnation of the lack of attention environmental matters often receive, as well as a fairly detailed analysis of political and economic realities that stand in the way of progress in the fight against climate change.
“(The earth) now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her,” Francis writes according to an English translation of the 191-page document. “We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”
Though many are finding his message controversial, Francis writes that the Catholic Church calling for environmentally conscious living is not unprecedented.
“In 1971… Blessed Pope Paul VI referred to the ecological concern as “a tragic consequence” of unchecked human activity,” he wrote, going on to quote the words of several past popes, including the now-sainted Pope John Paul II and Francis’ immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI.
Frequently citing scripture, saints and past popes, Francis referred to earth as our common home, adding the entire human family must strive to live sustainably, as well as have a new dialogue about this environmental challenge.
“The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges. Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest,” he wrote.
He wrote Catholics and members of other faiths are often a source of active opposition to environmental efforts, adding that refusing to live responsibly is a shirking of moral duty.
“Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions,” he wrote.
Pollution and wasting energy, he wrote, are symptoms of a “throwaway culture,” even as harmful emissions cause millions of premature deaths.
“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” he wrote. “Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.”
The earth’s climate is a “common good,” he wrote, further writing that a solid scientific consensus exists on the matter of human-caused climate change.
“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,” he wrote. “(A) number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.”
In later sections of the encyclical, the pope wrote fairly specifically about potential climate change remedies, discussing the pros and cons of policies such as carbon credits, carbon taxes and renewable energy subsidies.
“Taking advantage of abundant solar energy will require the establishment of mechanisms and subsidies, which allow developing countries access to technology transfer, technical assistance and financial resources, but in a way which respects their concrete situations,” he wrote.
The cost of action, he wrote, would be low when compared to the costs of climate change. Distributed generation, the pope wrote, could be one effective model for using renewable resources in economically depressed areas.
“In some places, cooperatives are being developed to exploit renewable sources of energy which ensure local self-sufficiency and even the sale of surplus energy,” he wrote.
The pope went on to write that policies to cut carbon dioxide emissions and promote renewable energy are one way the world’s governments can act.
“There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. Worldwide there is minimal access to clean and renewable energy. There is still a need to develop adequate storage technologies,” he said.
He also called for less waste of the electric power we do produce.
“Investments have also been made in means of production and transportation which consume less energy and require fewer raw materials, as well as in methods of construction and renovating buildings which improve their energy efficiency. But these good practices are still far from widespread,” he wrote.
While there are ways world governments can help, he wrote the response so far has been far too limited and ineffective to make a meaningful difference.
“It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected,” he wrote.
The cost of doing nothing could be dire for every human, he wrote.
“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes,” he wrote.
While the pope’s document is often serious and sometimes dry and scientific, it also contains messages of hope.
“Yet all is not lost. 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,” he wrote. “If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop a different lifestyle and bring about significant changes in society.”
World leaders and political figures were quick to offer their take on the pope’s call to action.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, a convert to Catholicism, said he is hesitant to take advice on policy from the pope, adding that the pope should stay out of political realm.
“I hope I’m not like, going to get castigated for saying this in front of my priest back home but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” Bush said.
Vice President Joe Biden, also a Catholic, cited the pope’s encyclical at a White House clean energy conference.
"Encyclicals are ... only issued on what the church thinks are incredibly important initiatives," Biden said, adding, "There's a consensus growing. As I said this doesn't only have a moral component to it, it has a security component to it, as well as it has an economic component to it."
“For those unmoved by the science of climate change, we hope that Pope Francis’ encyclical demonstrates the virtue and moral imperative for action. Today’s announcement further aligns the scientific and moral case for climate action, yet the political will of many is still askew. The time to act on climate is now, and failure to do so will further damage the planet, its people, and our principles,” read a release from the U.S. House of Representatives Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition.
Environmental and energy industry trade groups are also circulating their responses today.
"The simple reality is that energy is the essential building block of the modern world," said Thomas Pyle of the Institute of Energy Research, a conservative free-market group. "The application of affordable energy makes everything we do — food production, manufacturing, health care, transportation, heating and air conditioning — better."
“The pope’s message brings moral clarity that the world’s leaders must come together to address this urgent human challenge. This message adds to the global drumbeat of support for urgent climate action. Top scientists, economists, business leaders and the pope can’t all be wrong,” said Andrew Steer, president and CEO, World Resources Institute.