UN, climate scientists eager for environment encyclical

Pope Francis' upcoming encyclical is expected to urge people and corporations to take action to help prevent climate change.

Pope Francis' upcoming encyclical is expected to urge people and corporations to take action to help prevent climate change.

May 18, 2015

UN leader Ban Ki-moon and some climate scientists are banking on Pope Francis to be a unifying moral force to get the world onboard in the fight against global warming.

Even though previous popes have spoken strongly against harming the earth and its inhabitants, one world-renowned atmospheric scientist said it is going to be Pope Francis "to save the day."

Pope Benedict XVI, who has been lauded as the "green pope" for his attention to taking care of creation, "made some amazingly helpful statements on the environment" during his eight-year pontificate, said scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan.

But Pope Francis will be "the saviour on the environment," Ramanathan told Catholic News Service, because in his opinion, this pope "has transcended Catholic religion and he's transcended Christianity.

"People of different followings, different nations admire this pope, they listen to his words so he has a global reach."

Ramanathan helped discover in the 1970s that pollutants and other gases, in addition to carbon dioxide, were contributing to the greenhouse effect.

Ban has been hoping to tap into that global reach with his invitation to the pope to address the UN General Assembly in New York Sept. 25.

He has also called on religious leaders to work with governments and science on climate change.

The UN secretary-general spoke at the Vatican April 28 at an international gathering on the moral dimensions of climate change and sustainable development. The "summit" was sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Religions for Peace.

"The reason I'm coming to the pope," Ban told reporters, is that "I need the moral support and spiritual support of religious leaders."

Ban and experts promoting a united global response to global warming believe policies, regulations, new technologies and cost incentives are not going to be enough to get industrialized nations to radically reduce their carbon footprint.

"We have to change our attitude toward each other and our attitude toward nature," said Ramanathan, who also attended the Vatican summit.

"So it has gone beyond the grasp of science and beyond the grasp of leaders of nations. It is now in the hands of religious leaders."

Ban also said change will depend on wealthy nations and communities shifting away from an economy based on overconsumption and exclusion: "To transform our economies, however, we must first transform our thinking and our values."

That's a message the Catholic Church and popes have been saying for decades.

For example, the social affairs commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for "human beings [to] change our thinking, relationships and behaviours in order to recognize the interconnectedness of all creation."

While listening to the experiences of marginalized people, "we must also be attentive to the cry of the creation that surrounds and sustains them," the commission said in its 2003 Pastoral Letter on the Christian Ecological Imperative.

As well, in a 1998 pastoral letter, Celebrate Life: Care for Creation, the Alberta bishops pointed to a number of environmental problems in the province which, they said, should call us "to re-examine our fundamental values."

They went on to say, "The issue of global climate change being pushed by rising fossil fuel consumption and deforestation goes to the heart of Alberta's economic priorities."

Economic decisions, they said, must "pass the ethical test" of whether they contribute to a sustainable society.

Pope Francis' stance, like that of previous popes, always has been a moral one. The Church doesn't propose or endorse specific policies or programs, but it lays out the Gospel vision to guide citizens and policymakers so they will respond to problems more ethically.


The pope's much-expected encyclical on the environment, in fact, will not be a white paper about capping carbon emissions, but a pastoral plea to cap greed and short-term gains at the expense of the planet and other people.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks at an April 28 Vatican summit on the moral dimensions of climate change.


UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks at an April 28 Vatican summit on the moral dimensions of climate change.

But his outspoken criticism against "an economy that kills" and "negligence and inaction" in response to climate change has critics worried the pope is straying beyond his spiritual role.

The Chicago-based Heartland Institute, which advocates free-market policies, brought a delegation to Rome to tell reporters that Pope Francis should not be "lending his moral authority to the politicized," and what they consider "unscientific," agenda of the United Nations.

Christopher Monckton, a British political adviser who was part of the delegation, told reporters that "it is not the business of the Church to stray from faith and morals" and wander into "the playground" of policy.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, who helped draw up the first draft the pope's encyclical, told reporters during the Vatican climate summit that the Church wasn't there to confirm or deny what science is saying about climate change.

"But bishops on the Pacific islands tell us" how much of the land "is now under seawater. Is that not a concern?" asked the cardinal, who is head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

As clergy, "we went to the seminary to save souls," he said.


But Turkson said it is also important "we look at the garden where these souls live" and what should be done to cultivate and pass it on to future generations.

Other members of the Heartland delegation objected to the Vatican cooperating with organizations and individuals who promote population control in ways that clearly violate Church teaching.

Turkson responded by saying "the Second Vatican Council invited us to a new way to minister to the world," as imperfect and sinful as it may be, by working with others to find common ground and serve humanity.

Rather than religion losing its soul by opening its doors to global policymakers, Ban's call for religious leaders to remind people of their "sacred duty" to care for people's dignity indicates they are looking for a soulmate in religion.