- In the leadup to the 2015 Paris summit, Pope Francis issued Laudato Si, “On Care for Our Common Home,” a landmark climate and faith document that ultimately saw much of the pope’s language of human responsibility and hope enshrined in the breakthrough climate agreement.
- But this week Pope Francis issued Laudate Deum, a follow up document which condemns world leaders for eight years of climate inaction and of making hollow unfulfilled pledges as they repeatedly fail to respond effectively to the severely escalating global climate crisis.
- The pope notes in the new document that it is the world’s poorest who suffer most from the battering of record heatwaves, storms, floods, droughts, melting glaciers, and rising seas. He also asserts that it is the obligation of the world’s wealthiest nations to decisively lead humanity out of the crisis, before Earth reaches “the point of no return.”
- It seems clear from the timing of Pope Francis’ declaration that he hopes it will positively influence COP28, the climate conference to be held in early December in the United Arab Emirates, where an oil company executive will preside as chair.
Pope Francis emerged this week as a blunt critic of past United Nations climate summits, calling out world leaders for their empty rhetoric and broken promises while their nations continue relying heavily on fossil fuels, even as Earth’s climate grows more unstable and violent. He called for real and urgent action before the planet reaches “the point of no return.”
“International negotiations cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries which place their national interests above the global common good,” Francis writes in Laudate Deum, a document released by the Vatican on October 4. “Those who will suffer the consequences of what we are trying to hide will not forget this failure of conscience and responsibility.”
The pope’s unsparing assessment of repeated failures by global leaders to address the rapidly escalating climate crisis is contained in an 18-page addendum to his historic encyclical on climate change and environmental protection titled Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home which was released in June 2015, receiving worldwide attention.
That encyclical, the Catholic church’s highest teaching document, was aimed at influencing the 21st UN climate summit held in Paris in December 2015.
And it did. Laudato Si’s principles were woven throughout the preamble of the historic Paris Agreement as 190 nations agreed for the first time to work collectively to hold global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above a 1900 baseline.
The transitory success of Paris, Francis notes in Laudate Deum, has been undermined since as “the accords have been poorly implemented due to a lack of suitable mechanisms for oversight, periodic review and penalties in cases of noncompliance.”
In hindsight, one might wonder how it could’ve been otherwise. The willingness of the United States under President Barack Obama in getting China and G-20 nations to sign the Paris Agreement was predicated on the accord being voluntary. And then the U.S. under Donald Trump absented itself, and obstructed, four UN summits after Paris. All serious climate negotiations stalled.
And instead of embracing alternative energy, the world’s leaders issued platitudes at the annual summits and failed to meet their unambitious Paris goals, even as they upped global fossil fuel subsidies to $7 trillion annually, enriching the world’s oil, natural gas and coal companies as the world grew hotter and poor nations suffered.
In Laudate Deum, Francis tries to express hope regarding the possible outcome of the next UN Conference of the Parties, or COP28, perhaps seeking to pressure global policymakers to implement the climate mitigation and loss-and-damage agreements they sign, then shelve.
But he cannot ignore that the November meeting is being held in the United Arab Emirates, an OPEC country and petrostate, with an oil company executive presiding as chair. The pope notes that the UAE is embracing renewable energy, but that it remains a “great exporter of fossil fuels…with the aim of further increasing their production.”
“To say there is nothing to hope for [from COP28] would be suicidal,” the pope writes, “for it would mean exposing all humanity, especially the poorest, to the worst impacts of climate change.”
Daniel Horan, in a commentary on Laudate Deum in The Catholic National Reporter, noted: “Like the oracles of other prophets, the pope’s message is one sure to upset the powerful, wealthy and comfortable. In our contemporary context, those who benefit most from the circumstances that are contributing to the climate crisis are those who live in the Global North, especially in North America.”
“Consequences for people’s lives”
In his decade as leader of the world’s largest religious faith — there are an estimated 1.3 billion Catholics — Pope Francis has rarely shied away from controversy or upsetting those in power, whether in business, government or his own Vatican hierarchy. While his soaring popularity has waned in recent years under intense criticism from conservative factions inside the church, he appears eager to reclaim a high-profile climate leadership role regardless of pushback.
In that vein, he takes on climate deniers, even among his congregants. After using pages to authoritatively cite current climate change science, and enumerate worsening human impacts, including soaring temperatures, drought, floods, glacier melt and sea-level rise, he writes:
“It is not possible to conceal the correlation of these global climate phenomena and the accelerated increase in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly since the mid-20th century… I feel obliged to make their clarifications, which may appear obvious, because of certain dismissive and scarcely reasonable opinions that I encounter, even within the Catholic Church.”
More than 25% of Laudate Deum, which means “Praise God” in Latin, is devoted to judging the politics of UN climate summits, their minor successes; their major failures. But Francis anchors the entire document in the moral and spiritual underpinnings from which he derives his unique authority. His love of God’s creation — the biodiversity that animates the Amazon rainforest, the world’s oceans, wild areas everywhere — is matched by his boundless empathy for the poor.
“How can we forget that Africa, home to more than half of the world’s poorest people, is responsible for a minimal portion of historic [carbon] emissions?”
He also draws attention to his namesake, St. Francis, and that saint’s deep connection to nature. The pope proclaims environmental degradation as tantamount to sin, because “attacks on nature have consequences for people’s lives.” And while he marvels at the potential for technological interventions, he notes: “Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely…”
In this new declaration, coming ahead of the COP28 summit, Pope Francis steps outside the controversies now occupying most Catholic leaders — priestly celibacy, gay marriage, ordained women. As a world leader, he urges people of all faiths to act now amid an existential threat to life on Earth.
“We need lucidity and honesty in order to recognize in time that our power and the progress we are producing,” the pope writes, “are turning against us.”
Banner image: Pope Francis. Image by Martin Schulz, former EP president (2012-2017) on Visualhunt.
Justin Catanoso is a regular Mongabay contributor and a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. He is preparing an analysis of Laudate Deum from interviews with international policymakers, theologians, and faith leaders on the front lines of climate action.
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