The Pope’s climate message will extend his advocacy for the poor

Pope Francis and UN head Ban Ki-Moon, who met at the Vatican to discuss climate change, hope to influence this year’s crucial Paris climate talks. EPA/L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO/AAP

Last week, Pope Francis hosted a historic meeting of scientists, religious figures and policymakers to discuss the science of global warming and the danger it poses to the world’s poorest people. At meeting’s conclusion, participants signed a statement which says that climate change is “a scientific reality” and that humanity has “a moral and religious imperative” to mitigate it.

The meeting comes as Francis’s forthcoming encyclical (letter) to bishops on climate change, set to be released next month, is translated into hundreds of languages ahead of the United Nations climate conference in December.

The Pope’s strong feelings on climate change, and environmental issues in general, are already well known. For example, he has said that Earth is “frequently exploited by human greed and rapacity” and that humans have “slapped nature in the face”.

The encyclical will be sent to the world’s 5,000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests, and Francis will promote it further in September when he becomes the first Pope to address both houses of the US Congress.

In light of the 1.2 billion people who identify as Catholic, the Pope’s message on climate could reach a far greater and more diverse audience than even the world’s largest environmental organisations.

What will the encyclical say?

Consistent with the Pontifical Academy of Science, the encyclical is set to endorse the scientific consensus on climate change. It will also link climate change to capitalism (see section 52 onwards here) and describe climate action as a “grave ethical and moral responsibility”.

The encyclical will also mark a theological shift in how Catholics understand their relationship with the environment. Traditionally, the church’s teaching has been marked by a human-centeredness that caused the historian Lynn White Jr to describe Christianity as “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen”.

As pointed out by Clive Hamilton, Francis will probably take the encyclicals of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as his starting point. Benedict XVI, for example, sought to align church doctrine with environmental protection by arguing that the laws of nature represent the “grammar” that “sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use”. He also articulated a stewardship ethic by claiming that we have a responsibility to protect the environment as “God’s gift” and to “save mankind from the danger of self-destruction”.

Francis has explicitly endorsed Benedict XVI’s view on stewardship and the idea that nature has a “grammar” that we can use to judge human interventions. Furthermore, Francis has argued that we are failing to meet this standard:

[S]o often we are driven by greed and by the arrogance of dominion, possession, manipulation and exploitation; we do not preserve nature; nor do we respect it or consider it a gracious gift which we must care for and set at the service of our brothers and sisters, including future generations.

Irish theologian Donal Dorr has noted that Francis may even go further than his predecessors and interpret the concept of “human ecology” in a way that places humans within the broader natural world, rather than apart from it. Francis has already drawn close links between human exploitation and environmental exploitation, noting:

[L]ike Saint Francis of Assisi, all of us, as Christians, are called to watch over and protect the fragile world in which we live, and all its peoples.

Finally, Francis will use the encyclical as a political tool to highlight the vulnerability of the world’s poor to the impacts of climate change. Many of Francis’s pronouncements have been distinguished by a marked concern for the poor, and it is no coincidence that some of his most direct remarks on the contents of the encyclical were delivered while visiting survivors of Typhoon Hagupit (Ruby) in the Philippines.

The encyclical’s June release date suggests that Francis hopes to put maximum pressure on countries to make strong carbon-reduction and green financing commitments before the Paris climate talks in December. It will be an obvious pressure point for Catholic leaders like Tony Abbott who have so far failed to exercise moral leadership on climate change.

Unlikely alliances

The leader of the Catholic Church is certainly an unlikely ally for many secular environmentalists.

In presenting the progressive features of Francis’s politics, we should also note that he is a theological conservative who opposes abortion, same-sex marriage (although he has supported same-sex civil unions) and the ordination of women. It remains to be seen whether the Vatican will also follow the Church of England’s lead and divest its immense wealth from fossil fuels.

And yet, one of the interesting developments in environmental politics has been the resourcefulness of movements in forming single-issue alliances with traditional foes. Prominent examples include the Lock the Gate movement in Australia and the Cowboy and Indian Alliance in the United States. Similarly broad coalitions need to be formed in the buildup to the Paris conference.

Arguably the most important barrier to an ethical climate agreement is the power of immensely rich states, organisations and citizens, set against the interests of the world’s many deprived poor.

If the Pope were not a strong voice for the poor, his opponents would not be attacking him with such ferocity. Their fear is testimony to Francis’s ability to galvanise large portions of the developing world with messages shared by the global justice and environmental movements.

If Francis is able to help these groups amplify the voice of the poor and vulnerable, then the rich may well have cause to tremble.