What Does the Pope’s Climate Encyclical Mean?

June 18, 2015
Aaron Huertas
Former contributor

Pope Francis released his much-anticipated encyclical on humans’ stewardship of our planet earlier today. While my colleagues and I spend most of our time talking about science and policy, the pope’s message has given us an opportunity to reflect on our own moral reasoning around climate and energy issues as well as the intersection of faith and science.

Update, June 23: My colleague Mike Jacobs, a senior energy analyst, added his thoughts in a separate post about Pope Francis’s plug for electric co-cops and other clean energy issues in the encyclical.

A cover image for the encyclical, which depicts St. Francis, who offered a prayer to nature ("Praised Be") for which the encyclical is named.

A cover image for the encyclical, which depicts St. Francis, who offered a prayer to nature (“Praised Be”) for which the encyclical is named. Source: The Vatican

It’s refreshing to see a world leader – in this case a head of church and state – ably and accurately reflect scientific research as he also makes a moral argument for policy action. The Pope’s message was based on robust advice from scientists and other experts. That fact hopefully won’t be lost on the many people who may wonder why a religious leader is weighing in a topic that is so closely associated with science.

While there is much perceived conflict between religion and science in public life, there simply doesn’t have to be. I’ve met enough religious scientists and religious leaders who work with scientists to know.

As Angela Anderson, the director of our climate and energy program noted last week, “I have never felt there was a disconnect between my Christian faith and my work for what scientists have told us about our planet – and neither does Pope Francis, who not only received a technical degree in chemistry, but has also benefited from a Vatican convening of scientists and social scientists to inform the forthcoming encyclical.”

At the same time, we all make moral and value judgments every day, including scientists and other academic experts. As NASA’s Gavin Schmidt has argued, it’s fitting and proper to talk about them.

In that spirit, here are a few more reactions from my colleagues I wanted to share. If you have some more thoughts on Pope Francis’s message, please share them in the comments below.

Climate change presents significant moral choices

A stark depiction of how climate-altering emission have largely originated from industrial activities in the developed world, while the consequences of climate change are expected to fall disproportionately on people in the developing world. Source: SkepticalScience.com

Rachel Cleetus, UCS’s lead economist and climate policy manager, reflected on the ways in which the consequences of climate change will disproportionately affect people around the world.

Like many people today, whether they are people of faith or not, I found myself so moved by Pope Francis’ words. His deep understanding of the science of climate change is clear and compelling. But it is his elevation of the voices of the poor and marginalized that truly sets him apart as a champion for climate equity.

“Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (The emphasis is his.)

As someone who cares deeply about climate change and as someone who grew up in a Catholic family in India — now with family on four continents — I am deeply grateful to this pope for his message to all of us to see climate change as a shared global challenge that goes to the heart of our common humanity.

As a mother, his question: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” speaks directly to what motivates my work in advocating for climate solutions.

I’m sure many of us had this feeling today that even as he was speaking to the world, Pope Francis was also speaking directly to our individual experiences and perspectives. I hope we can come together to reflect and share those thoughts.

Moral and religious perspectives can transcend partisanship

Members of Congress bow their heads in prayer. Source: BeforeItsNews.com

Robert Cowin, government affairs director for our climate and energy program, told me about how religious and moral perspectives might be able to transcend the partisanship that afflicts attitudes toward climate change in many areas of the United States.

People of faith — regardless of which faith — find a common humanity in their relationship with something greater than themselves.  It sustains them and keeps them grounded.  It permeates their value systems, fosters fellowship, and influences their perception of people and events.

Politics and religion are unavoidably linked. But how do we reconcile the Framers’ clear belief that church and state work best separately when matters of science and religion are hopelessly intertwined in public policy, and the laws that Congress makes are themselves the product of moral judgments? I think Pope Francis provided a strong example of the power of spiritual leadership in public service with his encyclical, and this example transcends partisanship.

For instance, in states like Pennsylvania, which are often politically divided on a range of social and economic issues (including climate and energy), the Pope’s leadership on climate change illuminates a way forward, something policymakers including Rick Santorum, Pat Toomey, and other conservative Catholics from the Keystone State should be interested in.

The Catholic Church and the scientific community are speaking loudly with one voice on climate, and if that voice is met with silence by Catholic leaders like Speaker John Boehner, they will have missed a unique opportunity to demonstrate the values that are common to all of us: the values that transcend party and offer us the best of church and state.

Climate change can be a heart-breaker and leaders give us the words we need to say what that means

A young woman who lives in the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, which is home to about 10,000 people. Scientists expect many places will become uninhabitable due to climate change as sea levels inundate coastlines and islands and as temperature and humidity rise, making it impossible for people to go outside unprotected for extended periods of time in some parts of the world. Image source: AfricaGreenMedia.co.za

Finally, Erika Spanger-Siegfried, a senior climate analyst who works with coastal communities, including her own, on preparing for climate change sent me an incredibly thoughtful note.

With his encyclical, Pope Francis is hoping to change the world.  For people long in the climate fight, he has already changed ours. And while this moment in history is not about us, it reaches us, shakes us, and gives us a chance to take heart. Laudato Si.

The world is full of broken hearts. They break for love and death and the loss of hope, and many hearts have broken in the face of climate change. I’ve seen them.  And not with a big crack, like at the end of romantic love, but in a crumbling sort of way, over time, into pieces and powders that will never quite go back together again, because there is no “moving on” from the future, only living into it. 

Facing climate change, it turns out, is a lot about letting go. We start grappling with climate change because the things we love most are at stake – people, places, creatures – but as time passes and we struggle to stop it, we find we have to start letting go of the idea that those things can all be saved. Our hearts break not just because of the loss, but because we feel lonely and confused in our grief: why doesn’t everyone care?  By the time the broader world began worrying about the polar bear, millions of us had let Ursus maritimus go. Heads down and hearts dusty.

We can be forgiven. With climate change, we’ve seen morality and humanity shunted aside to nurture some bottom line or another – first, as an abomination (say, mountain top removal and the blotting out of communities and ecosystems), then as a sickening trend, then as an inevitability, from which every manner of madness can flow, almost unremarked on. With climate change, it feels sometimes like there are scarcely words remaining with which to talk about what’s wrong; or that words that matter most – words about impacts on the poor, about animal extinction, about climate tipping points – are heard least.

That the Pope has found words for these things – the madness, the morality, the obligation, the urgency – and called on the world to listen and to act means so much. It’s the 11th hour, later really, and the wins we have had to date are inadequate given the scope of the problem. Today, after months of build-up, his words reached us and I finally realized what they meant, at least to me: help, reinforcements, intervention, a new day.

Nothing but a world of people caring can solve climate change.  Pope Francis has asked the world to care, and I am overcome with gratitude.