Nature Studies: Pope Francis is bringing his holiness to the fight against climate change

His moral leadership on the environment has immense resonance around the world

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Can powerful words, can rhetoric, really make a difference to difficult political problems, where opposing positions have become entrenched? I think history tells us that the answer is, sometimes; and so I will be joining countless others in listening to every word of the two major speeches which Pope Francis will be making later this week in the United States.

The Pope is going to address a joint session of the US Congress in Washington on Thursday – the first Pontiff ever to do so – and the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York on Friday, and both these orations are likely to contain material that may upset some of his American hosts, not least those on the Republican right.

For we already know what the principal concerns of this Argentinian Jesuit with a social conscience, formerly Father Jorge Bergoglio, are: the way capitalism is leaving the poor behind, and the way the global environment is being trashed. This was made crystal clear in the remarkable papal encyclical published in June, Laudato Si, in which His Holiness’s ferocious critique of consumerist values, in particular, raised eyebrows; it almost amounted to an attack on capitalism itself.

Yet even more remarkable – if that were possible – was his radical reordering in Laudato Si of the Catholic Church’s longstanding position on the environment. For centuries, Christianity – as opposed to Buddhism, say – had seen the natural world merely as resources to be exploited, backed by scriptural authority, including the famous Biblical verse of Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over... every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

The “ethic of dominion” that resulted, brutal and insensitive towards the earth and its life, made the Church incapable of speaking with authority when the environmental crisis first arose. But in his encyclical, Pope Francis explicitly rejected it, and stated baldly that Genesis 1:28 no longer represented the Church’s position. It was an astonishing about-face. In future, the Church was to champion the stewardship of the increasingly vulnerable, increasingly polluted planet which is our only home – or, as he would see it, God’s creation.



Claiming global moral leadership on the environment, which is what in effect the Pope did three months ago, is a move of immense resonance if you lead a religion of 1.2 billion adherents; it is “soft power” at its most striking. But what may be its practical effect?

The question arises because, in one or both of his speeches, the Pontiff will certainly address the principal environmental problem facing the word: can the international community reach an agreement on halting global warming at the forthcoming UN climate change conference in Paris in December?

What you might call the mood music in advance of the conference (known in the jargon as COP21) is fairly good. For example, the two biggest carbon dioxide emitters, China and the US, are already broadly in agreement about cutting emissions, and President Obama is committed to a deal. But it is a different story in the actual pre-conference negotiations, the last session of which has just ended; they are pretty deeply bogged down.

This is because, although the overarching aim is fairly simple – to achieve cuts in global CO2 emissions which will halt the forthcoming rise in world temperatures to no more than two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level, which is regarded as the danger threshold – the actual written agreement (which will probably be called the ‘Paris protocol’) contains dozens of detailed clauses, on subjects from forestry to finance, all of which have to be agreed by 194 different nations, and all of those have different agendas and are grandstanding to different audiences back home.

It is enormously, mind-bogglingly difficult. But it isn’t impossible. What is needed is some sort of immense impetus to all the countries of the world, so that governments may relax intransigent positions and tell their negotiators to reach agreement in Paris at all costs – otherwise the chance of a deal at COP21 will vanish.

Could Pope Francis, in his self-appointed new role as global environment champion, provide such an impetus in what he says in Washington and in New York this week? Let’s fervently hope so, for it’s hard to see where else it may come from.