Nature and Biodiversity

Can the Pope shift the climate change debate?

Germana Canzi
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Pope Francis is due to issue an “Encyclical” on climate change in June or July this year, ahead of the UN climate talks in December. Will he make history? Some believe that it could influence other faiths, potentially shifting the central focus of the debate from science, technology and economics towards ethical and moral values.

Encyclicals convey authoritative teaching by the Church, which 1.2 billion Catholics around the world are meant to consider for their own lives (PDF). Popes have in the past used Encyclicals a few times to intervene in global political debates. The 1891 Rerum Novarum sought to show a middle way between rapid industrialization, uncontrolled capitalism and Marxism. Pacem in Terris of 1963 was addressed to all humankind rather than just Catholics – and was issued at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

So is this Encyclical also aimed at making history? The Pope has explicitly stated his desire to “make a contribution” ahead of the UN climate talks. A key test may be the Pope’s tour of US cities in September, which will include an address to a joint session of the US Congress on the 24th – the first ever Pope to do so. A third of the members of Congress are Catholics, including many climate sceptics. The next day, Pope Francis will address world governments gathered in New York for the UN General Assembly, which will adopt the Sustainable Development Goals. It is therefore hardly surprising that climate sceptics are openly trying to influence the Encyclical. Large numbers of climate sceptic articles have also appeared in Catholic publications.

Ripple effect?

Yet this is far from being the first time the Catholic Church has spoken about climate change and environmental issues. Pope Francis publicly stated to have chosen this name in honour of St Francis of Assisi who is patron saint for the environment and animals. Before him, other Popes have spoken about these issues. This may account for a higher level of awareness of climate change amongst US Catholics compared to other Christians.

The Catholic Church’s engagement has now been “exponentially accelerated” by the drafting of an Encyclical, according to Mariagrazia Midulla, head of climate and energy at WWF Italy in Rome. “There are also signs that the Pope’s messages on this are already spreading far and wide within the Church,” she told Road to Paris. The Pope has encouraged his flock to make April 2015 “Care for creation month” focusing on “human-made climate change which is undoing God’s gift”.

The Encyclical is expected to be around 50 pages long with a summary, and it will be published on the Vatican website in Latin with translations in several languages. Social media will fan this Encyclical out to a much wider audience compared to previous ones.

Catholics are likely to hear about these teachings for years through religious education in schools and sermons in Churches. This may also have some impact on other parts of Christianity, according to John Grim, co-chair of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, who spoke at a recent event on the Encyclical. A meeting organised this month by The Vatican, hosting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and leading economist Jeffrey Sachs for a workshop on Tuesday 28 April (PDF), specifically raised hopes the Pope’s efforts could trigger broader engagement by other world religions.

Midulla says greater than ever cooperation among faiths on climate change is becoming more visible. For the first time this year, Rome’s main synagogue and mosque symbolically joined St Paul’s Cathedral’s longer-standing tradition of switching the lights off for WWF’s yearly Earth Hour action, she said. A variety of other inter-faith climate organisations have also sprung up, such as the OurVoices campaign group.

“Religions really are converging on this issue,” said Dekila Chungyalpa, Visiting Fellow at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The Catholic Church’s initiative is also seen by many observers as critical for shifting the debate on climate change away from an exclusive focus on science, technology and economics and include broader moral and ethical considerations.

Organisations such as, interfaith groups and the Catholic climate movement itself are meanwhile asking the Church to divest from fossil fuels. But some think that the Pope’s parallel initiative to radically reform the Vatican Bank may end up taking priority in the short term.

This article is published in collaboration with Road to Paris. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Germana Canzi is a freelance writer, researcher and consultant with extensive expertise in sustainable development. 

Image: Pope Francis looks on during an audience with the diplomatic corps at the Vatican.  REUTERS/Tony Gentile 

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