VATICAN CITY: Arguably the most popular figure on the planet takes an ocean of admirers to task over ecological plunder in a long-awaited climate encyclical released Thursday.
Pope Francis makes his case for combating global warming by employing a mix of lyrical phrasing, plain speak and tough love.
He gives the environmental community everything it hoped for: a swift dismissal of global warming deniers, along with an embrace of science showing how the planet is suffering and humans are largely at fault.
The trained chemist says he is convinced based on “the best scientific research available today” that global warming, rising seas and the likely fallout of extreme weather events are happening.
He sees fish-depleted seas, barren coral reefs and “thousands of plant and animal species” disappearing every year because of man’s profligacy. “We have no right,” Francis says.
His more than 180-page encyclical — a teaching letter circulated throughout the Catholic Church — includes poetry: “Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God … There is mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.” There is also brutal observation: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”
The core of his message, however, is a toughly worded warning about human behavior that the pontiff says is bringing Earth to ecological despair.
Francis places blame not just with global warming deniers — the “powerful opposition” — but with many faithful who are either indifferent, resigned or foolishly await technology to solve everything.
Only the world’s poor escape papal wrath. He singles them out as the “excluded,” an “after-thought” in international political and economic discussions. They are the least culpable for creating the problem, yet suffer most from the consequences: “When all is said and done, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile.”
His strongest criticism hits the developed world’s “throwaway culture” of consumerism, a digital landscape of Internet connections where relationships come and go “at whim” and people live isolated and out of touch with the pain and suffering of others. It leaves so many displaced from “learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously.”
Addressing human social degradation is inextricably linked with saving the planet, Francis says. “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age,” he says. “But we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”
He is unafraid to touch the third-rail of economic growth, arguing that developed countries need to “accept decreased growth” because the world’s resources are not limitless. That view puts him at odds with politicians around the world who oppose tough measures to combat global warming as economy-jolting job killers.
It is raw and radical thinking that led even U.S. bishops to caution at a news conference Thursday that it will require time to “unpack” the encyclical and take it all in.
But Francis sees time as the enemy. “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,” he says.
His strategy appears to be to get out in front of the international climate negotiations in Paris in December. More than 190 countries will meet to agree on limiting greenhouse gases to prevent global warming from increasing 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above global temperatures at the time widespread fossil-fuel burning began in the late 1800s.
The pope warns that these types of talks have too often failed in the past. “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been,” he said. “We believers cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome.”
By wading forcefully into the battle Thursday, Francis may help achieve that result.