Pope calls for urgent climate action

Releasing his long-awaited encyclical on “care for our common home”, Pope Francis said on Thursday that the world needs to transform its economics, politics and the way people live in order to tackle climate change and environmental degradation. 

Francis likened the earth to a sister, “With whom we share life.” It sustained life and gave humanity the basis for its growth. But in return humans have abused the relationship, he said. “We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”

Quoting at length from the Bible, the Argentinian said humans had forgotten that “that we ourselves are dust of the earth”. The economic system that existed today accelerated the separation of humanity from nature — with the subsequent destruction of natural systems being a direct result.  

“Our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”

This abuse of the planet was partially down to Christians misinterpreting the religion’s key readings. He said believers “must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures”.

His strongest criticism was for the “throwaway culture of today” and for the rich, who ran corporations that exploited natural resources for profit.

The encyclical Laudato Si runs to nearly 200 pages and covers everything from climate change to biodiversity loss and the dangers of over consumption. It is the first one entirely dedicated by a pope to environmental issues. In each section it critiques the current economic reality, while offering solutions. It was leaked ealier this week to the Italian press.

It will be sent to churches and bishops throughout the 1.2-billion member Catholic community. Francis included a handwritten note asking priests to pray with their congregations for action on climate change and environmental degradation.

Lesser of two evils

His most powerful request was for fossil fuels “to be progressively replaced without delay”. But while the technology to develop renewable energy was still growing and adapting, he said it was acceptable for developers to choose “the lesser of two evils” — natural gas.

He also warned that those profiting from damaging the environment could not be trusted to look after it. 

“Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximising profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations?”

The encyclical is being seen by climate change activists as a critical move ahead of the November climate change talks in Paris at COP21. A global agreement to lower carbon emissions is supposed to be signed at the meeting, although it is expected to be weak and not ambitious enough to keep global temperature increases below 2°C. 

Francis was however stinging in his questioning of the international political responses to climate change. “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.”

Christiana Figueres, the UN’s climate chief, said the encyclical underscored the moral imperative for urgent action on climate change. 

“This clarion call should guide the world towards a strong and durable universal climate agreement in Paris at the end of this year. Coupled with the economic imperative, the moral imperative leaves no doubt that we must act on climate change now.”

‘I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope’

Cutting to the heart of the most contentious issue in the ongoing climate change negotiations, Francis placed the blame for much of the current warming on rich nations. This deadlock has stood through two decades of negotiations, with the developing world demanding that historical polluters pay for climate adaptation and damage. That money has not been forthcoming. 

“The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming.”

His comments are being keenly received in nations that exploit their coal reserves, and also have strong Catholic populations. Francis is due to visit the United States in September and address Congress — where Republican presidential nominees such as Jeb Bush have to balance their religion with their pro-coal views. 

Speaking about the encyclical on Wednesday, Bush said, “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope.”

Nicholas Stern, an economist and author of the influential Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, said; “Moral leadership on climate change from the Pope is particularly important because of the failure of many heads of state and government around the world to show political leadership.”

If action is not taken to tackle climate change, the Pope warned of dire consequences; “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.”

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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