What does the Pope’s encyclical mean for the climate fight?

Pope Francis’ unequivocal call to arms will reverberate globally in acting on climate change

Pic: Catholic Church England and Wales/Flickr

Pope Francis reproached negotiators at last year’s UN talks for a “lack of courage”(Flickr/ Catholic Church England and Wales)

By Camilla Toulmin

Pope Francis’ new papal encyclical on the environment “Praised Be: On the Care of Our Common Home” (Laudato Si’), due to be made officially public tomorrow, is a welcome and timely intervention on the road to Paris.

Following the leak by Italian magazine L’Espresso, which published the 192-page document in Italian earlier this week, there has been much speculation and analysis of what impact this will have.

The timing of this should not be underestimated.

It is widely recognised that 2015 is a critical year for environment and development issues. The ‘big three’ summits that will shape our future start next month with Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, the ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in New York in September and the all-important UN Climate conference in Paris in December.

In addition to this, the Pope will visit the US in September to address both Congress and the United Nations, speeches that will likely include strong views on climate change action. This will mark the first time that a pope has spoken before a special session of the UN General Assembly.

How important is it?

An encyclical is essentially a communiqué from the pope to bishops with the potential – as in this case – to reach a much wider audience and across religions.

Pope Francis’ position could not be clearer: “Faced with the global deterioration of the environment, I want to address every person who inhabits this planet.”

A papal encyclical is one of the highest forms of official teaching, used to clarify either a theological issue or address the Catholic response to issues that beset society. They are produced as often as the residing pope feels they are required. Some have issued a great many, while others only issue a few.

Pope Francis has spoken on climate change before now, but this marks his most unambiguous call to arms to date.

Protecting the poor

As an encyclical, this document will be more authoritative than Pope Francis’ papal letter on poverty in 2013, although the encyclical makes clear links between poverty and the environment, focusing on how climate change affects the poorest among us most.

This is a concept that the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is very familiar with.

Founded in 1971 by economist Barbara Ward, who forged the concept of sustainable development, IIED  welcomes stewardship of our common Earth and its people from all quarters.

While the organisation has no religious affiliation, our founder was guided by her strong Catholic faith and was indeed, the first woman to speak at the Vatican council in 1971. We recognise Pope Francis’ encyclical as a natural extension of core Catholic belief in caring for the world that we live in.

Bubble up

IIED is delighted that a global leader of his stature should engage with this issue, since it will encourage all leaders in the church to discuss these concerns with their congregation, creating a bottom-up process bubbling up to national and international levels. Because of its large number of followers, the Catholic Church is able to influence debate at all levels, in a way few other organisations could ever hope to achieve.

The messages that particularly resonate with us are the links between social justice and climate change, given our focus on least developed countries where poverty and vulnerability intersect with greatest force. IIED has long been working to support the negotiators of the least developed countries (LDCs) who represent the world’s poorest 48 countries , many of which are also the most vulnerable to climate change.

There are an estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world. While 40% of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America, Africa has seen the biggest growth in Catholic congregations in recent years.

Global message

The significance of a pope from Latin America should also be recognised. From Argentina, Pope Francis has gained a reputation as a radical reformer and social justice campaigner. He has witnessed directly the impacts wrought by capitalism and globalisation in the global south.

The encyclical’s unambiguous statement that climate change is a real and man-made phenomenon should go some way to address the views of prominent climate change deniers in the US. There must be some moral responsibility on the part of US Catholics, residing in one of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, to champion the needs of fellow Catholics in those countries hardest hit by climate change.

Pope Francis has been outspoken on the slow progress at the UN climate change talks, reproaching negotiators for having a “lack of courage” during the talks in Lima, Peru last December at COP20.

No doubt the most recent round of negotiations in Bonn will have left him similarly frustrated. Our staff and the LDCs negotiating team returned concerned over the lack of clarity on how exactly the world will reduce its emissions, work towards a 1.5C future and provide the necessary finance for developing countries to adapt to climate change.

The principle of equity is core to IIED and we, like Pope Francis believe that that climate change offers a great opportunity to change the global development paradigm, away from a fossil fuel dependent society, and towards a fairer, more sustainable growth model that reduces poverty and helps us live within the boundaries of our shared planet.

We greatly welcome Pope Francis’ clear, unequivocal message on this issue and hope it accelerates decisions which bring change to our current climate change trajectory, which will certainly lead us to a harsh, risky, conflict-prone future.

Camilla Toulmin is director of the International Institute for Environment and Development

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