Pope Francis calls on the Catholic tradition of care for creation and stewardship of the Earth to take swift action on climate change


popePope Francis today announced his long-awaited encyclical on the environment after weeks of speculation from pundits, and even the leak of an early draft by a reporter that caused a bit of Vatican intrigue. Vatican yanks credentials of reporter behind encyclical leak.

It really did not matter what the Pope had to teach Catholics in his encyclical on the environment to the mighty Wurlitzer of the right-wing noise machine, because they had already pre-emptively dismissed him as a Marxist, and settled on the talking point that Il Papa Francesca should just “Shut the hell up!Conservative Media vs. The Pope: The Worst Reactions To Pope Francis’ Climate Change Encyclical.

Tea-Publicans in Congress have been using the talking point that “I’m not a scientist” (but I did stay at a Holiday Inn last night) to explain their “skepticism” of science — skepticism in direct proportion to the size of the political contributions that they receive from the Carbon Monopoly. They have sold their souls for thirty pieces of silver.

The New York Times reports, Pope Francis, in Sweeping Encyclical, Calls for Swift Action on Climate Change:

Pope Francis on Thursday called for a radical transformation of politics, economics and individual lifestyles to confront environmental degradation and climate change, as his much-awaited papal encyclical blended a biting critique of consumerism and irresponsible development with a plea for swift and unified global action.

The vision that Francis outlined in the 184-page encyclical Laudato si’ (24 May 2015) is sweeping in ambition and scope: He described a relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment, for which he blamed apathy, the reckless pursuit of profits, excessive faith in technology and political shortsightedness. The most vulnerable victims are the world’s poorest people, he declared, who are being dislocated and disregarded.

The first pope from the developing world, Francis, an Argentine, used the encyclical — titled “Laudato Si’,” or “Praise Be to You” — to highlight the crisis posed by climate change. He placed most of the blame on fossil fuels and human activity while warning of an “unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequence for all of us” if swift action is not taken. Developed, industrialized countries were mostly responsible, he said, and were obligated to help poorer nations confront the crisis.

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods,” he wrote. “It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

The Vatican released the encyclical at noon on Thursday, following a heavily attended news conference and amid widespread global interest. Vatican officials were infuriated after an Italian magazine on Monday posted a leaked draft of the encyclical online — one that almost exactly matched the final document. The breach led to speculation that opponents of Francis inside the Vatican wanted to embarrass him by undermining the planned rollout.

But on Thursday, religious figures, environmentalists, scientists, elected officials and corporate executives around the world were awaiting the official release of the encyclical, with many of them scheduling later news conferences or preparing statements to discuss it. Media interest was enormous, partly because of Francis’ global popularity, but also because this was the first time that a pope had written an encyclical about environmental damage — and because of the intriguing coalition he is proposing between faith and science.

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Francis has made clear that he hopes the encyclical will influence energy and economic policy and stir a global movement. He calls on ordinary people to pressure politicians for change. Bishops and priests around the world are expected to lead discussions on the encyclical in services on Sunday. But Francis is also reaching for a wider audience when in the first pages of the document he asks “to address every person living on this planet.”

Even before the release, Francis’ unflinching stance against environmental destruction, and his demand for global action, had already thrilled many scientists. In recent weeks, advocates of policies to combat climate change have expressed hope that Francis could lend a “moral dimension” to the debate, because winning scientific arguments was different from moving people to action.

“Within the scientific community, there is almost a code of honor that you will never transgress the red line between pure analysis and moral issues,” said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder and chairman of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a leading European climate scientist. “But we are now in a situation where we have to think about the consequences of our insight for society.”

Yet Francis has also been sharply criticized by those who question or deny the established science of human-caused climate change and also by some conservative Roman Catholics, who have interpreted the document as an attack on capitalism and as unwanted political meddling at a moment when climate change is high on the global agenda.

Governments are now crafting domestic climate change plans before December’s United Nations summit meeting on climate change in Paris. The goal of the meeting is to achieve the first sweeping global accord in which every nation on earth would commit to enacting new policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Many governments have yet to present plans, including major emitters like Brazil, which also has a large Catholic population. The encyclical is seen as an unsubtle nudge for action, even as it provides support for leaders faced with tough choices in countries with large numbers of Catholics.

“It gives a lot of cover to political and economic leaders in those countries, as they make decisions on climate change policy,” said Timothy Wirth, vice chairman of the United Nations Foundation.

Catholic theologians say the overarching theme of the encyclical is “integral ecology,” which links care for the environment with a notion already well developed in Catholic teaching — that economic development, to be morally good and just, must take into account the need of human beings for things such as freedom, education and meaningful work.

“The basic idea is, in order to love God, you have to love your fellow human beings, and you have to love and care for the rest of creation,” said Vincent Miller, who holds a chair in Catholic theology and culture at the University of Dayton, a Catholic college in Ohio. “It gives Francis a very traditional basis to argue for the inclusion of environmental concern at the center of Christian faith.”

He added: “Critics will say the church can’t teach policy, the church can’t teach politics. And Francis is saying, ‘No, these things are at the core of the church’s teaching.’”

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Francis begins the encyclical with a hymn written by St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century friar who is the patron saint of animals and the environment. Francis cites the Bible’s book of Genesis to underpin his theological argument, though in a passage certain to rankle some Christians, he chastises those who cite Genesis as evidence that man has “dominion” over earth and therefore an unlimited right to its resources. Some believers have used this biblical understanding of “dominion” to justify practices such as mountaintop mining or fishing with gill nets.

“This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church,” Francis wrote. The Bible teaches human beings to “till and keep” the garden of the world, he said: “‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, plowing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.”

His most stinging rebuke is a broad economic and political critique of profit-seeking and the undue influence of technology on society. He praised the progress achieved by economic growth and technology, singling out achievements in medicine, science and engineering. But, he added, “Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.”

Central to Francis’ theme is the linkage between the poor and the fragility of the planet. He rejects the belief that technology and “current economics” will solve environmental problems or “that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth.” He cites finance as having a distorting influence on politics and calls for government action, international regulation and a spiritual and cultural awakening to “recover depth in life.”

Amid the broad themes, Francis also touches on a wide range of specific topics, from urban planning (calling for better neighborhoods for the poor) and agricultural economics (warning against the reach of huge agribusinesses that push family farmers off their land) to conservation and biodiversity (with calls to protect the Amazon and Congo basins), and even offers up small passages of media and architecture criticism.

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Encyclicals are letters to clergy members and laity of the church that are considered authoritative papal teaching documents. Catholics are expected to try to sincerely embrace the teaching and moral judgments within. But while broad moral principles are widely considered to be binding, more specific assertions can be categorized as “prudential judgments” — a phrase some critics have invoked to reject Francis’ positions on hot-button issues like climate change or economic inequality.

Above all, Francis has framed the encyclical as a call to action, imbuing environmental protection with a theological and spiritual foundation. He praises the younger generations for being ready for change and said “enforceable international agreements are urgently needed.” He cited Benedict in saying that advanced societies “must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles, while reducing their energy consumption and improving its efficiency.”

“All is not lost,” he wrote. “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.”

So what about the science? Think Progress had three climate scientists review the encyclical. What Did Actual Scientists Think Of The Pope’s Climate Encyclical?:

Pope Francis’ encyclical — titled “Laudato Si,” or “Praised Be” — does primarily focus on the moral reasons for acting on human-caused climate change. Those reasons, however, are based on the science of climate change, which the document discusses in surprising detail.

So, the obvious question is: has the church “gotten it wrong” on science again?

ThinkProgress asked three climate scientists to weigh in on three specific passages in the encyclical that get wonky about the science of climate change, and got varied answers. However, all three said Francis (who himself has a technician’s degree in chemistry) was correct that humans are causing potentially catastrophic climate change via greenhouse gas emissions.

“Based on what I have seen of the science in the encyclical, most climate experts would find little to disagree with,” said Anthony Broccoli, a professor of environmental sciences at Rutgers University.

In passages 23, 24, and 25 of the encyclical, Francis discusses the science of climate change at length. “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system,” it reads. “[A] number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space.”

Those statements were accurate, except for one small thing, according to Deborah Huntzinger, an assistant professor of climate sciences at Northern Arizona University. Huntzinger said the only technical “error” she noticed in the passages was the pope’s explanation that greenhouse gases cause global warming by “prevent[ing] the heat of the solar rays reflected from the Earth to be dispersed in space.”

Technically, Huntzinger said, the way greenhouse gases warm the planet is a bit more complicated. Yes, she said, incoming solar radiation is reflected by the atmosphere, but the rest is absorbed by Earth’s surface. And as the Earth absorbs that solar radiation, it also warms. That warmed surface then emits and radiates more thermal energy, and the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere absorb it.

“So technically, greenhouse gases are not preventing solar rays reflected from the Earth to be dispersed in space, they are absorbing and re-emitting longwave radiation emitted from Earth’s surface,” she said. “The result is that the surface of the Earth and lower atmosphere are warmer than they would be if no GHGs were present.”

So it may be safe to say the pope’s explanation of the greenhouse effect was not as robust as some scientists may have liked. In all though, Huntzinger said, “the pope captures the science quite well.”

Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, agreed that the encyclical had strong scientific language. A portion of passage 24 reads as follows:

Warming has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet’s biodiversity. The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain.

“Everything he’s stated [above] accurately reflects what the science has to say,” Mann said in an email.

However, Mann noted his own problem with the scientific language. “If anything, Pope Francis is overly conservative [with respect to] the science in the encyclical,” he said.

According to Mann, a few things were understated. For example, the document stated warming was due to carbon emissions “released mainly as a result of human activity.”

“All of the increase in the carbon dioxide is due to fossil fuel burning and other human activities,” he said.

In all, though, all the climate scientists ThinkProgress consulted with said Pope Francis had done well at evaluating the state of climate science today, even though he’s not a scientist. However, according to Rutgers’ Anthony Broccoli, that shouldn’t be a surprise.

“Pope Francis doesn’t have to be a scientist to arrive at these conclusions,” he said. “All he would have to do is consult the extensive reports on climate change that have been written by the world’s climate scientists in a process organized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These reports have been written to inform policymakers and stakeholders about the state of the science and they are a reliable source of information.”

It will be interesting to see how many American Catholic Bishops, too many of whom have aligned themselves with the political right singularly focused on opposition to contraception and abortion, while ignoring Church doctrine on social justice and administering to the needs of the poor, will make “Laudato Si’” and the Catholic tradition of care for creation and stewardship of the Earth part of their sermons in coming weeks.