Review: Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change and Sustainability

Pope Francis made his first U.S. appearance last week. Media coverage was wide and crowds gathered by the flocks in Washington DC, New York, and Philadelphia. Upon greeting President Obama at the White House Lawn Ceremony, Pope Francis commended President Obama on his proposal to reduce air pollution and stated, “…that climate change is a problem that can no longer be left to future generations.” In his speech before Congress, Pope Francis reiterated his concern and proclaimed, “Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care,’” quoting his encyclical. As a growing global voice for environmental sustainability and the spiritual leader of over a billion people in the world, it is worth looking closely at his encyclical, Laudato Si’ (“Praise be to you”).

Pope Francis states that the goal of his encyclical for his reader is, “… to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.” Technology can be a part of the solution but a more profound change needs to come from human behavior and practices. The poor are the largest victims of the “global environmental deterioration” because they live in areas more often affected by climate change and rely on natural resources that continue to be exploited by large businesses. He stresses that there are “differentiated responsibilities” between developed and less-developed countries due to available resources, finances, and needs. The international community continues to lag in reaching agreements that adequately face climate change.

“When we speak of the ‘environment,’ what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live.” Solutions to environmental degradation, writes Pope Francis, must incorporate social influences and effects. One example of a solution is small-scale food production systems which help to provide employment, increase ecological diversity, and use a modest amount of land while producing much less waste than large-scale farms. The earth should not be regarded merely as a land to be exploited. Environmental education can help not only to inform others but also to nurture an “ethics of ecology.”

Of course, as the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis does not believe in taking active measures to combat population growth, even in places and regions that have little ability to cope with the immense stresses of their increasing numbers. While he should be commended for bringing a focus to climate change as a challenge for the masses, he misses the point on population and instead points blame to the “extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some.” While uneven distribution of wealth and resources is an issue, it does not negate the impacts of population. Why not work to equalize resources AND stabilize population – no need to put all Earth’s eggs in one basket.