What does Pope Francis jumping into the climate change debate mean?

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Pope Francis is being lauded as one of the coolest and most sensible Popes in history. In his sprawling new encyclical, Laudato Si’, he criticises environmental policies, modern consumerism, rising inequality and even the social media. While this has left those who doubt climate change in a state of shock, the oil and industrial lobbies in confusion, and filled environmentalists with a new found hope, Pope’s stand on environment might also redefine conservatism and liberal politics of the world for the times to come.

In a sweeping environmental manifesto aimed at spurring concrete action, Pope Francis recently called for a bold cultural revolution to correct what he described as a “structurally perverse” economic system where the rich exploit the poor, turning Earth into an “immense pile of filth.”

Francis framed climate change as an urgent moral issue in his eagerly anticipated encyclical, blaming global warming on an unfair, fossil fuel-based industrial model that harms the poor most. Citing Scripture, his predecessors and bishops from around the world, the pope urged people of every faith and even no faith to undergo an awakening to save God’s creation for future generations.

The document released Thursday was a stinging indictment of big business and climate doubters alike, meant to encourage courageous changes at U.N. climate negotiations later this year, in domestic politics and in everyday life.

“It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress,” he writes. “Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress.”

With a poet’s lyricism

With a poet’s lyricism, a former chemist’s precision and a pontiff’s moral thunder, Pope Francis recast humanity’s relationship with nature in stark ethical terms, hoping to spur a warming, filthy world to clean up its act “before it’s too late.”

In issuing “Laudato Si,” his much-anticipated encyclical on climate change, the pope recently took an extraordinary approach to an environmental issue often framed in the dry language of science.

Francis’ teaching document is a melodic yet radical indictment, depicting a materialistic and wasteful society that is hurting the planet and its poorest people. He challenges the world to stop pollution, to recycle and carpool and to do without air conditioning and makes it a moral imperative.

“The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty,” he writes. The pope’s “marching orders for advocacy,” as the head of the US conference of bishops calls it, comes as the world nears make-or-break time for international climate change negotiations that start late this year in Paris.

A seminal moment, according to environmentalists

“This is a seminal moment in world history because the pope now is the leading global voice on climate change,” said prominent Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, who has written both on the church and environmentalism. “The pope brings extraordinary clout connecting Christianity and humanism to the protection of natural resources.”

Francis said he hoped his paper would lead both ordinary people in their daily lives and decision-makers at the Paris UN. climate meetings to a wholesale change of mind and heart, urging all to listen to “both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has made the issue of climate change his top priority since taking the reins of the world body 8and a half years ago, thanked the pope “for taking such a strong stand on the need for urgent global action.” In some ways, the pope’s encyclical and its prayers serve as an invocation to the climate talks.

Environmental scientists said the first-ever encyclical, or teaching document, on the environment could have a dramatic effect on the climate debate, lending the moral authority of the immensely popular Francis to an issue that has long been cast in purely political, economic or scientific terms.

“This clarion call should guide the world toward a strong and durable universal climate agreement in Paris at the end of this year,” said Christiana Figueres, the U.N.’s top climate official. “Coupled with the economic imperative, the moral imperative leaves no doubt that we must act on climate change now.”

Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist, said the encyclical is a “game-changer in making people think about this. It’s not politics anymore,” he said, adding that science is often difficult to understand but that people respond to arguments framed by morality and ethics.

Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment provides a massive mobilising boost for efforts to reach a UN deal on climate change this year, green campaigners said, as they hailed the 184-page document, “Laudato Si” as a milestone. For many Catholics, they predicted, it could transform climate from a remote environmental problem into a pressing moral issue demanding action. Its impact could be far-reaching in the effort to conclude a UN accord on curbing greenhouse-gases, due less than six months from now.

“The Pope’s message can only help strengthen the momentum toward an agreement in Paris,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), a US thinktank. “(He) is injecting a powerful moral voice into a debate usually mired in science, politics and economics. He speaks to our collective conscience, and while he’s unlikely to win over many skeptics, he’s educating countless others about the stakes and the urgency.”

Andrew Steer, head of another US thinktank, the World Resources Institute (WRI), pointed to the spiritual authority and mobilising clout of the Catholic church. “It will speak not only to the 5,000 Catholic bishops nor only to the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, but to all people of goodwill who are open to the moral context of climate change,” he said.

Energy lobby was quick to criticize

The energy lobby was quick to criticize the encyclical’s anti-fossil fuel message. “The simple reality is that energy is the essential building block of the modern world,” said Thomas Pyle of the Institute of Energy Research, a conservative free-market group. “The application of affordable energy makes everything we do food production, manufacturing, health care, transportation, heating and air conditioning better.”

The long-awaited encyclical named climate change as “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us,” it warned.

It pounded out the message of inequality, saying poor countries that have least to blame for rising seas, worsening drought and flood will feel its impacts worst, and needed the help of rich economies. Apportioning responsibility for tackling climate change is one of the thorniest and most complex issues in the troubled UN talks, according to PTI.

Rich countries admit they bear historical blame for emitting most of the greenhouse gases behind today’s warming. But they argue tomorrow’s warming will come from emerging giants like China and India, which are voraciously burning oil, gas and coal. These countries retort they are still fighting to rise out of poverty and, for now, still need cheap fossil fuels.

Scientific data released Thursday backed up Francis’ concerns. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released figures showing that last month was the hottest May around the globe in 136 years of global records. NOAA calculated that the first five months of 2015 made up by far the hottest year on record, with very real effects: some 2,200 people have died in India’s heat wave.

With the Pope taking a humanist stand, climate change will not remain an environmental issue alone. It will now become a moral issue for many faithful Catholics across the globe too. It is one of those rare historic moments when religion and science united to fight for a common cause.

Image Credit : Shutterstock


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