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Pope Francis set to release new encyclical on the environment

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

There is a drought of epic proportions in California. Although water shortages are not new in the sunshine state, there is not enough rainfall to fill Californian reservoirs. Farmers, residents and businesses are suffering as a result. What has gone wrong? Scientists have calculated that unsustainable water usage, particularly in agriculture, has put groundwater reserves under stress. Will the massive growth of agriculture seen over the last century in the land of plenty, in fact result in grapes of wrath for future generations? Predictions are that climate change will result in warmer temperatures and even less rainfall in California. It is not only California which is likely to be affected by changes in the climate. East Anglia for example, is a semi-arid region of England at risk of water stress. Predictions of less rainfall and higher temperatures due to climate change, may mean radical changes to British food production. In addition, sea level rises caused by ice melting in warmer polar regions are predicted to cause land in Britain to be lost to the sea. Climate change poses a challenge to all regions across the globe. Moreover, there is now an extremely high scientific confidence that human activity is causing average global temperatures to increase.

Pope Francis is set to release an encyclical on environmental issues around July this year. Historically, there has been uncertainty over whether human activity is actually causing climate change, probably why global warming has not been specifically covered in previous Papal encyclicals. It would therefore be a bold and unprecedented move for Pope Francis to specify the anthropogenic impact on climate systems in his forthcoming encyclical. In addition, more specific guidance on areas such as energy production and forestry sustainability would be a valuable addition to Catholic social teaching.

The forthcoming UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris, has the objective of achieving a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with consensus amongst all nations. The ambitious goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit global temperature increases to an average of 2℃ above pre-industrial levels. The timing of the December UN Conference is perfect for a Papal encyclical to encourage meaningful commitment and solidarity on addressing global climate change.

Previous Popes have made strong statements on the environment. In his January 1990 Message for the World Day of Peace, Pope Saint John Paul II described the ecological crisis as fundamentally a moral issue. In Caritas in Veritate §48, Pope Benedict XVI stated that humanity must respect the “intrinsic balance of creation”. The Church’s teachings are rich complements to modern environmental arguments against consumerism and environmental degradation. For Catholics, Jesus Christ promises paradise in eternal life for those who follow him. Humanity has been trying to create a paradise on earth that is only possible through a gluttonous use of non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels.

Previous Popes have already emphasised the need to reduce waste and move away from lifestyles driven by consumerism. Catholics should already be doing their best as individuals to reduce electricity usage and fuel consumption. Perhaps in his encyclical, Pope Francis might also encourage the faithful in developed nations to re-instate the days of fasting and abstinence in order to reduce meat consumption? There is also the problem of certain financial investments contributing to the exploitation and destruction of the environment. This was discussed by Pope Benedict in Caritas in Veritate, but Pope Francis may have more to say on more practical applications of how Catholics should respond in the context of financial matters.

There is hope that the most catastrophic effects of climate change can be avoided, provided that we act early to safeguard the environment for future generations. The Stern Review on Climate Change (2006) highlighted that global warming is likely to have a disproportionate impact on the poorest countries. The scientific evidence points to increasing risks of serious, irreversible impacts from climate change associated with the ‘business as usual’ path for emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Almost ten years since the Stern Review, little progress has been achieved on gaining international commitments to reduce ‘carbon emissions’.

In the creation story (Genesis 1:26-31) God gives humanity an authority over all living creatures and gives His blessing for humans to fill the earth and subdue it. Authority over creation also brings a responsibility of ensuring God’s created world will be intact until the day of resurrection and the second coming of Jesus Christ. Irrespective of whether or not human activity is causing climate change, it is a Christian duty to care for God’s ongoing work of creation. In relation to stewardship over the created world, there are major success stories of organisations which have taken the path towards a more sustainable setup. Many businesses and public sector organisations have reduced their environmental impact, by adopting environmental management systems. Such initiatives often save money and increase efficiency. Conservation measures have also been successful in protecting endangered species, such as red kites and corncrake bird populations in the UK.

One of the stumbling blocks to a completely sustainable economy, is a lack of engineering technology which would allow us to switch instantly to a 100% renewable future. Research and development therefore needs to be part of a solution, and the Pope is likely to mention the importance of this in his encyclical. New ‘clean technology’ such as coal power stations which store carbon emissions deep underground, would in theory bridge the gap between where we are now and a completely renewable future. The development of clean technology must be part of a global consensus on climate change.

Above: Artist's impression of a demonstration clean coal generator (source: thejournal.co.uk)

Overall, Pope Francis should inspire the world’s Catholics in his new encyclical, and fill us with hope that we can take the path to a sustainable future. Some changes will be relatively easy, other changes will be more difficult. The forthcoming encyclical needs to leave a legacy of hope and practical evangelical action. One of the main drivers for change is education. If the environment continues to be seen as an external ‘thing’ that is sacrificed for economic growth, there will be no meaningful change. If there is widespread education on the likelihood of climate change due to man-made activity, as well as other environmental issues such as depletion of oil reserves, then more will start to happen at the economic and political level.

Technology is already there to make meaningful change on a national or global scale. Regions such as California could benefit from implementing initiatives such as water conservation programmes and adopting water-saving technology. Let us hope that Pope Francis’s first official encyclical gives us guidance in how to bring about God’s will in the context of combating the false idols of money and consumerism. Otherwise, there is a risk that future generations will be left with cities beneath the waves, deserts where there used to be rainforests, and a planet where most of God’s created species have gone extinct.


Luke Doherty O.P.

Fr Luke Doherty is assistant priest at Holy Cross, Leicester, and Catholic Chaplain to HMP Leicester |  luke.doherty@english.op.org


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