Pope Francis throws down the gauntlet for Paris climate summit

The papal encyclical challenges leaders to take action on climate change. AAP/Fabrizio Belluschi

Nobody, whether atheist or religious, can deny that the Pope’s encyclical on caring for our common home is a big deal.

Its immediate importance comes from its potential to influence world leaders and galvanise the developing world ahead of the Paris Climate Conference this year. Moreover, the encyclical positions Francis in conflict with conservative think tanks such as the Heartland Institute, future contenders for the US presidency (five Catholics are expected to challenge for the Republican nomination), and even climate deniers within the Vatican itself.

The stage is set for a battle royale, and Francis shows little sign of flinching. Instead, he has asked readers to “receive this document with an open spirit”. Now that the encyclical has been published, we are in a position to evaluate it on its own terms.

The text

An encyclical is the second highest form of papal declaration. It is a “letter” that will be sent to the 5,000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests for further dissemination and instruction within their congregation. While the encyclical makes no pretence to “infallibility”, political scientist Daniel DiLeo notes that:

Catholics will only be able to disagree with him in good conscience after serious reflection and the determination that the pope has reasoned incorrectly.

The criticism that preceded yesterday’s release suggests that this is might nevertheless be viewed as a low hurdle for climate deniers and other vested interests within the church.

The 184-page encyclical is complex and defies simple summary. My intention here is to select key areas to spark discussion and further analysis.

To every person: Francis is clear that the threat facing the environment transcends religious difference. He invokes Pope Saint John XXIII famous encyclical “Peace on Earth” to highlight that he wishes to engage “every person living on this planet” [3].

The poor: The disproportionate effect of environmental damage on the poor is underlined in almost every section. Francis notes: “Particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest” [13].

Climate science: Mainstream climate science is endorsed by noting: “most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases” released mainly by human beings [23]. While this is accurate, climatologist Michael E. Mann, argues that: “Human activity is most likely responsible not just for ‘most global warming’ but all of it, and then some, because natural factors have been acting slightly in the other direction.”

Migration: Climate change is forcing an increasing number of poor people to flee from their homes and seek refuge. “Sadly”, the encyclical notes, “there is widespread indifference to such suffering” [25].

Ecological debt: Francis asserts that a “true "ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south" [51] and that foreign debt has been used as a method of controlling poor countries [52]. Looking ahead to Paris, he also affirms the principle of common but differentiated responsibility [170].

Population: The encyclical argues that “demographic growth” is compatible with “shared development” and that to blame population growth instead of extreme consumption is avoiding the issue [50]. While Francis is correct to highlight the gluttonous rates of consumption in Western countries, questions will undoubtedly be asked about his failure to confront issues like birth control and his explicit statements on abortion [120].

Technology: In several sections, Francis derides “blind confidence in technical solutions [14].” Technological growth has not resulted in an increase in humility or a sense of our moral responsibility. He quotes Romano Guardini to argue that “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well” and adds “we stand naked and exposed … lacking the wherewithal to control it” [105].

Carbon trading: In a document that is broad and general, Francis goes out of his way to criticise carbon trading noting that it does not “allow for the radical change” required and “may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption”. Unfortunately, the document is silent on the related but separate issue of carbon taxation.

Energy: The encyclical argues that high polluting fossil fuels like coal and oil (to a lesser degree gas) need to be “progressively replaced without delay” [165]. Renewable energy is highlighted as the ideal replacement [172 and 179] but Francis also argues that it is morally legitimate to “choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions.” Nuclear energy is only mentioned in the context of caution or risk [104 and 184].

Economics: Francis has been a consistent critic of inequalities caused by capitalism. Consistent with this, the encyclical argues that we need to think of strategies for “containing growth” and even “retracing our steps before it is too late” [193]. This necessitates “redefining our notion of progress [194]” and refusing the blackmail of greenwashed phrases like “sustainable growth”.

Paris and beyond

Some Vatican officials have sought to resist reading the encyclical as a political document. Father Dario Viganò, for example, argued: “Any political or sociological reading of this is culturally poor and misleading — you have to look at it in terms of humanity and the Gospel.”

This pure stance is difficult to maintain in light of the timing of the encyclical and the Popes intention to address both houses of the US congress this September. As described already, the encyclical itself is also overtly political and laments the hollowing out of government institutions by corporate finance.

It calls for the creation of “stronger and more efficiently organised international institutions” [175] and notes that: “Unless citizens control political power – national, regional and municipal – it will not be possible to control damage to the environment” [179].

Looking ahead to the Paris Climate Conference I think it is important to echo Andrew Revkin’s reminder that “Francis remains a man, not a superman.” A similar aura of hope surrounded the newly elected president Obama ahead of the 2009 Copenhagen talks.

If we learned nothing else from that meeting, it was that no individual, regardless of their influence, can transcend the realities of deep-rooted dependences on fossil fuels, vested economic interests and divergent national goals.

As I have argued elsewhere, the papal encyclical provides the climate movement with an “unlikely ally” with whom it can prosecute its own demands for climate justice and radical social change.

These demands need to be brought to Paris and used as pressure points for Catholic heads of state like Tony Abbott to bring our national commitments into line with countries taking credible steps to avoid dangerous climate change.