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With encyclical, Pope Francis elevates environmental justice

Showing his stripes: visiting a favela in Brazil in 2013. Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil, CC BY-SA

When the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose Francis as his papal name, he signaled to the world a dual commitment to sustainability and the global poor. His namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, was a man of poverty and peace who loved nature and animals, and is said to have preached his sermons to birds.

Ostentatious only in displays of humility, Francis implores Catholic priests and nuns to choose “humble” automobiles and consider foregoing the latest smartphone. Tempted to buy the fancy model? Francis suggests you “think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world.” His day-to-day vehicle is a modest Ford Focus, his wristwatch a plastic Swatch.

The pope’s attention to climate change, a likely focal point of his long-awaited encyclical on the environment due to appear June 18, highlights the plight of the poor and the moral dimensions of environmental issues. It also comes as a welcome counterbalance to the fixation on global-scale human influence on the environment that, for better and for worse, has come to define the Anthropocene – the name attached to the age of human dominance over the planet.

Can we, perhaps guided by the moral authority of the pope, align the global ethos of the Anthropocene with claims of justice for the poor?

Justice for the poor

The pope’s priorities – social justice and care for the Earth – are what we might expect from a Jesuit pope who opts for a Franciscan name.

His discerning intellect and missionary zeal – both products of the intensive, almost military style of spiritual formation characteristic of the Society of Jesus – are tempered by lighthearted simplicity and impatience with rigidity of doctrine or custom.

Francis has quickly become one of the more quotable popes. In interviews, he often exudes modesty and good humor. (He doesn’t “mind” being pope, he says, but wishes he could duck out for a pizza without being recognized.)

Francis was known for taking the subway in Argentina before becoming pope and has encouraged clergy to live modestly. nicofoxfiles/flickr, CC BY-ND

With his usual unassuming style, Francis has also shaken things up by disclaiming any right to judge the sinfulness of homosexuality, while pronouncing acts of deforestation a grave modern sin.

The media has at times distorted these disarming pronouncements: Francis has since affirmed the Catholic catechism’s teachings on marriage and homosexuality, though he believes the Church is too preoccupied with matters of sex and reproduction. And, sorry to say, it is not quite true that he proclaimed a heaven for dogs. But on the subject of environmental sins, he appears, for the most part, serious and unwavering.

Climate change is the anticipated focus of Francis’ long-awaited papal encyclical on ecology because it merges his vocal concern for the poor and marginalized with condemnation of environmental exploitation. The world’s poor, who contribute the least to climate change, are disproportionately impacted by worsening droughts, rising seas, mega storms and famine, and they are least able to evade its destructive reach.

Jesuits have a long tradition of outreach to global refugees and other forcibly displaced people. Now a new, desperate class of migrants is emerging: climate refugees, people who are forced to leave their homes because of the effects of climate change.

Global disparity and climate concern

Francis is not the first pope to take up defense of the environment.

Benedict XVI was hailed as the “Green Pope” for sustainability initiatives which included a carbon-neutral Vatican City gleaming with solar panels. John Paul II urged responsible stewardship for creation.

Pope Francis visits the Typhoon Yolanda victims in one of the areas in the Philippines earlier this year. Benhur Arcayan - Malacanang Photo Bureau

But no previous pope has issued an entire encyclical – an official papal letter – on environmental concerns, nor has any pope so closely represented the interests of the Global South as the Argentine Bergoglio does.

When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, killing over 6,000 people and leaving four million homeless, Francis used the language of the Anthropocene, lamenting that humans have “in a sense taken over nature” with devastating effects. And yet, his reluctance to judge notwithstanding, Francis remains aware that different countries are not equally culpable for climate change.

Public Religion Research Initiative

Francis’ encyclical is timely for many reasons. A recent survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the American Academy of Religion examined Americans’ concerns about climate change and the impact of religious beliefs. It found that only 23% of white Americans are very concerned about climate change, while 46% of Hispanic Americans express the same concern. White Catholics are also less likely than Hispanic Catholics to say that climate change is caused by humans, and far more Hispanic Catholics than whites report that their church leaders address climate change.

Francis, more than any previous pope, may be able to align church teaching on the environment with the actual experiences of poorer Catholics around the world. If so, environmental justice could become the centerpiece, and lasting legacy, of his papacy.

Thinking as a species?

An irony of the Anthropocene is that claims for environmental justice may actually be muted by contemporary discussions of climate change.

The Anthropocene is the name for a new epoch where humans are dominating and disrupting grand cycles of biology, chemistry and geology. Humans are acting as a geophysical force on the planet, transforming it in dramatic ways previously seen only in tectonic shifts or dinosaur-decimating asteroids.

The Anthropocene requires a shift in thinking, a dramatic scaling up of our imaginations. To appreciate our planetary impact, it is necessary to think in terms of deep geological time and re-conceive of ourselves as a species, a collective agency or force that is initiating change in the earth system itself.

A species-level perspective on humans is fruitful for envisioning global thinking and unified responses to global environmental problems.

The Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program takes this approach to what it means to be human in the Age of the Human: the “narrative of our collective humanity” and our status as single species united by common evolutionary origin can inspire a sense of “communal purpose” in responding to the environmental challenges of the Anthropocene.

But this species-eye view of humanity as a geological agent can work against the cause of climate justice. A dramatically scaled-up vision of human agency as a geological force may suggest an undifferentiated, homogenized humanity. These lenses can make it more difficult to discern very real differences between the global rich and poor, disparities made worse by climate disruption that disproportionately harms those least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.

Hopes are high that the pope’s encyclical creates momentum and will for the enactment of a United Nations climate change accord in Paris this December.

The accord, if successful, would commit every nation to tougher restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, with the goal of limiting increases in global temperatures.

Francis’ attunement to the differential claims of the poor and the disproportionate impacts of climate disruption may help ensure that the response to climate change, whatever form it takes, is not only global but truly just.

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