Stressing Moral Climate Change Cause, Pope Francis Steps Squarely Into Politics

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By Eric J. Lyman

June 18 — Pope Francis's much-anticipated encyclical on climate change and the environment unequivocally puts the Catholic Church in the camp of those advocating a strong response to rising temperatures.

The ambitious 183-page document, released simultaneously in nine languages June 18, casts the debate over climate change and environmental protection in a moral light, calling for humans to better protect what Francis called “our common house” and highlighting the issue as a key part of the effort to lift the world's least fortunate citizens out of poverty.

It is too early to know the impacts the document will have. Popes have issues more than 300 encyclicals in the past three centuries. But Francis is leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics and his words are considered to be especially influential in parts of the developing world with large Catholic populations.

Within the church, bishops around the world received the document a few days ahead of its formal release to give them time to study it and to prepare their dioceses.

But the church is far from unified on this topic and many conservative Catholics—particularly in the U.S.—have been outspoken in their opposition. Vatican officials told Bloomberg BNA that clergy with opposing views would be allowed to voice their opposition.

In the United Nations climate negotiations process, delegates, UN officials and environmentalists have all expressed hope that Francis's stand on the issue would cast new light on the topic and have an impact on public opinion as negotiations enter the homestretch in trying to hammer out the world's first global climate change agreement by the end of the year.

The encyclical on climate change and the environment was praised by figures ranging from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who called it “monumental,” to U.S. President Barack Obama, who said in a statement: “As Pope Francis so eloquently stated this morning, we have a profound responsibility to protect our children, and our children's children, from the damaging impacts of climate change.”

Detailed Analysis 

Heading up to the release of the encyclical, Vatican officials warned not to expect a detailed analysis of the climate change debate but rather the pontiff's reflections on the moral responsibility of people to act as effective custodians of the environment.

But the document included plenty of detail, particularly in Chapter 5, “Lines of Approach & Action,” reflecting the pontiff's views on solutions to the climate crisis.

“We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels—especially coal, but also oil, and, to a lesser degree, gas—needs to be progressively replaced without delay,” the pope wrote.

He stopped short of calling for an immediate phaseout, saying it is “legitimate to choose between the lesser of two evils” until renewable energy sources are more viable.

Support for Carbon Tax 

Francis also expressed support for a carbon tax, referring to the “obligation of those who cause pollution to assume its costs,” but he opposed the use of carbon credits and offsets, which he said, “can lead to a new form of speculation, which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide.”

Referring to negotiations to reduce climate change, Francis said large, developed countries like the U.S. should do more: “Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most,” wrote Francis, an Argentine, who is the first pope from the developing world and repeatedly noted the inordinate harm to the world's poor from a changing climate.

In another section, he added that “enforceable international agreements are urgently needed, since local authorities are not always capable of effective intervention.”

Consumerism, Solar Power 

The pontiff supported the development of new technologies but warned against relying on them too much in efforts to reach a solution to the climate crisis. He said rising levels of greenhouse gases were a problem of too much consumerism, and he highlighted solar energy as the renewable energy source with the greatest potential.

“Everything in the encyclical is in line with the latest science,” said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who was on a special panel appointed by the Vatican for the rollout of the encyclical.

Environmental lobby groups were almost universally supportive of the document, which many said could help jump-start the negotiations process ahead of the Nov. 30–Dec. 11 climate summit in Paris, where the world's first global agreement to fight climate change could be signed.

“We hope that politicians and decision-makers will take the strong messages of the encyclical on board and that the outcomes of these international meetings will put the common interest first and be able to make the difference,” said Bernd Nilles, secretary general of CIDSE, a Catholic climate advocacy group.

In his statement, Obama said he was “committed to taking bold actions at home and abroad to cut carbon pollution,” and added: “As we prepare for global climate negotiations in Paris this December, it is my hope that all world leaders—and all God's children—will reflect on Pope Francis's call to come together to care for our common home.”

But in the U.S., some Republicans who have questioned the role of humans in climate change expressed concern about the encyclical.

“I disagree with the pope’s philosophy on global warming,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement. “I am concerned that his encyclical will be used by global warming alarmists to advocate for policies that will equate to the largest, most regressive tax increase in our nation’s history. It’s the poor that spend the largest portion of their expendable income to heat their homes, and they will be the ones to carry the heaviest burden of such onerous policies.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Eric J. Lyman in Rome at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com

Pope Francis's encyclical on climate change and the environment is available at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.