Date June 19, 2015 – 7:09AM Tom Arup – Environment editor, The Age
Pope calls for action on climate change.
In the first papal document dedicated to the environment, Pope Francis says it’s time to act to save the planet from destruction.
In a lengthy statement on the environment addressed not just to Catholics but “every living person on this planet”, the Pope has issued an urgent call for humanity to tackle climate change and re-balance its relationship with the planet and each other.
In his first solo encyclical – an important papal letter of teaching – released on Thursday, Pope Francis decries humanity’s increasing and damaging footprint on the earth, which he likens to a sister and a mother.
“This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her,” he wrote.
Commonly expected as Pope Francis’ statement on climate change, the document is also a much wider papal reflection on the planet’s troubles and what he sees as the root causes.
While previous popes had made strong statements on environmental problems, this is the first encyclical devoted solely to the topic and it was hotly anticipated in many circles, including those beyond the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. A draft of the encyclical was leaked on Tuesday.
In the document Pope Francis points to an increasing disconnect in modern life to nature, such as the increased urbanization of people. And he goes to great lengths to argue that ecological problems can only be solved by also fixing the “ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity” and the isolation and disconnection between humans.
But it is the Pope’s comments on global warming and fossil fuels that will have the biggest political impact.
The encyclical has been released in the lead up to a major summit in Paris later year, where countries are hoping to sign a new agreement to halt climate change. It has also been used to prompt questions of conservative Catholic politicians sceptical of climate change, especially in the United States where a number of Republicans have already attacked Pope Francis’ position.
On climate change, Pope Francis says there is a very solid scientific consensus that the world is witnessing a disturbing warming of the climate system. He points to scientific studies finding most of this warming is a result of greenhouse gases released by human activity.
He says fossil fuels, especially coal, needs to be “progressively replaced without delay.” But he is sceptical of the use of “carbon credits” as an easy way out from “the radical change which present circumstance require.”
He also bemoans weak political responses to climate change and other environmental concerns, blaming “obstructionist attitudes.”
“With regard to climate change, the advances have been regrettably few,” he writes.
“Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most.”
Beyond climate change, Pope Francis’ touches on most environment issues such as water, biodiversity, waste and pollution.
At other times he writes on population (“To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues”) and genetically modified food (it has had benefits but “these issues require constant attention and a concern for their ethical implications”).
Another common theme is how environmental damage hurts the world’s poor. And the Pope also grapples with technological development, acknowledging the benefits but also saying it gives those with knowledge and money “impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world.”
It is unlikely the encyclical’s messages will escape domestic Australian politics. Many senior Australian politicians are Catholic, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott and opposition leader Bill Shorten.
Ahead of its release the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change issued a statement saying the Pope’s views would see Australian Catholics demand more from the federal government on the environment.
But the Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative think-tank that rejects humanity’s role in climate change, also released a statement from one of its associates, Father James Grant, which said it was acceptable for Catholics to disagree with the Pope’s encyclical.
In a statement the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Denis Hart, welcomed the encyclical and said he was pleased to see the papal letter critiqued the weak response to ecological and social problems.
“Pope Francis calls on people to seek new ways to understand the economy, condemns our throwaway culture and dependence on technology, and is calling on people to reassess the dignity of humanity and the integrity of creation in finding solutions to the ecological crisis,” he said.
The statement also said Australian Catholic Bishops strongly supported the Pope’s view that climate change was a global problem with serious implications, representing one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.