Pope takes climate debate mainstream in bullish intervention

‘We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth’, Pope Francis tells flock of 1.2 billion

(Pic: Flickr/Catholic Church England and Wales)

(Pic: Flickr/Catholic Church England and Wales)

By Ed King

What to make of the most heavily trailed papal encyclical in history?

Much of his call for a moral and ethical dimension to be applied to tackling climate change has been out for a while, as have his views on the need to tackle poverty.

But it’s the timing and rhetoric of this document that stands out.

There are six months before the world is set to sign off on a global climate change deal in Paris, under the eyes of a UN body with a poor track record of delivering.

An enforceable international agreement is “urgently needed” to avert “regional disasters” he says.

Many government leaders are on record backing the UN process, but few if any have the global reach of the Pope. It’s easy to ignore Ban Ki Moon – less so the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion.

The document is laced with references to humans and a global society. Environmental degradation is not simply a problem or a statistic – it’s a sin.

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Thus a pact to limit warming to what are accepted as safe levels is a not simply about economics or business.

Rather he stresses, it’s about leaving future generations a planet worth living on.

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth,” he says.

New technologies and the market can offer solutions – but don’t hold the key to everything.

Instead it’s time to look at the “scandalous levels of consumption in some privileged sectors”, Francis argues, a tipping of his skull cap to the developed world.

On fossil fuels he’s more balanced than some reports suggest.

Coal needs to be “replaced without delay”, but until there’s greater progress on renewables, it is “legitimate” to consider cleaner fuels like gas he suggests.

Intervening in the never-ending climate finance debate, he says rich countries must pick up the tab for helping poorer nations gain access to new energy supplies, especially solar.

“The costs of this would be low, compared to the risks of climate change,” he says.

There are other sections – notably where he dismisses the impact of population growth on environmental degradation – which many will disagree with.

And his rejection of the role science and technology can play in offering a fix will leave him accused of attacking those working on practical low carbon solutions – a problem Nick Butler in the FT picks up on in his blog.

But taken as a package this is a staunch defence of mainstream climate science, perhaps not a shock given the heavy influence of Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts on the text.

Theologians, scholars and climate campaigners are likely to pore over the encyclical for weeks and months to come, searching for comfort in isolated phrases or concepts.

Political ballast

But the immediate political impact could be the most significant impact of Laudato Si.

In the UK it prompted the environment secretary Liz Truss to disown her climate sceptic predecessor Owen Paterson at the dispatch box in Parliament.

Devout Catholic, climate sceptic and Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has declined to comment, perhaps drowned out by the howl of wind turbines he so detests.

In the US it has and will provoke howls of rage from leading Republicans – many of whom are Catholic – and challenge their framing of the climate debate.

And in much of the developing world, where Catholics still go to church and listen to their Bishops, this call for action will likely resonate in the coming weeks.

Whether this will permeate into the world’s top polluter China – which runs its own state version of the Catholic church – or India, where just over 2% are Christian – is doubtful.

What is clear is that this is just the start for the Vatican. It can’t and it won’t back down after this.

Now, America

The Pope flies to the US later this year to address Congress and his reception there will be fascinating, perhaps as polarising as Benjamin Netanyahu’s was in March.

The signs are he will lay down the climate gauntlet on Capitol Hill and dare the politicians to take him on.

His close advisor, the Ghanaian Cardinal Turkson, laughed off a suggestion at the encyclical press conference that he should heed the advice of Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum to stick to theology.

“It’s easy to say because the Pope is not a scientist he shouldn’t talk about science,” he said, but added he saw little “credibility” in these criticisms.

“That the Pope should not deal in science sounds a bit strange… it’s in the public domain that anyone can get into.

“The other big thing about Republicans and presidential figures saying they will not listen to the Pope is that is their freedom, their freedom of choice.”

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