Post written by byand originally appeared on texasimpact.org.
Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on climate, Laudate Deum, was released October 4. Laudate Deum serves as a follow-up to his earlier encyclical, Laudato Si. The timing of the release of this encyclical suggests that the Vatican hopes to influence the outcome of the upcoming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Conference of the Parties (COP28), which will be held in Dubai, UAE, November 30-December 12, 2023. The encyclical critiques the international community for failing to act effectively on climate change in response to Laudato Si and names the urgency of implementing international climate policy with effective motivational and accountability measures in the next meeting.
The encyclical opens by establishing the landscape of the current conversation about climate change. People deny climate change by pointing out that the earth’s climate has changed in the past or by pointing out that there have been periods of extreme cold recently. What these people either neglect or fail to mention is that these periods of extreme cold are coming from the same problem as periods of extreme heat, “the global imbalance that is provoking the warming of the planet.” People must understand the difference between climate models, which cover long periods of time and are on a global scale, with weather models, which operate on a smaller time and spatial scale.
Pope Francis counters those arguments by appealing to the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. The scientific consensus of climate change, its causes and impacts, is clear. The pope writes that he begins the encyclical by delineating these facts because however obvious they may seem, some within the church deny the science behind climate change or deny the role humans play in creating the problem. The science behind the causes and impacts of climate change is incontrovertible; we cannot deny the human cause of climate change, or the unprecedented speed with which the climate has changed in the past two centuries. The scale of human suffering caused by climate change, and the fact that its most harmful impacts are borne by those least responsible for the problem, require a response by people of faith.
The heart of the problem, Pope Francis writes, is that humans have created a world where humans… (make) all other parts of creation a resource to be exploited, rather than a gift that we should cherish…
But climate change is not just a scientific problem, says Pope Francis. Underlying the scientific consensus is a more fundamental problem with the way humans view power. The heart of the problem, Pope Francis writes, is that humans have created, through technological innovation, a world where humans can consolidate their own power in a way which makes all other parts of creation a resource to be exploited, rather than a gift that we should cherish and be thankful for. He writes: “Everything that exists ceases to be a gift for which we should be thankful, esteem and cherish, and instead becomes a slave, prey to any whim of the human mind and its capacities.” This gives people of wealth and resources unimaginable power and the ability to dominate the rest of humanity and the entire world.
The antidote to this abuse of power is to recognize and affirm the interconnectedness of creation. Humans must learn that nature is not a backdrop for our human activities. Rather we are part of nature, interacting with it and depending on it at all times. Francis cautions that our human power, through technology, has grown so great that we are at risk of destroying ourselves.
One reason effective solutions to the climate crisis have proved so elusive is that the way the economy is structured serves to shield those with means to the way they are harming the environment and the poor. The idea of “meritocracy” hides the truth that some are born with more advantages than others. This is not to say that we should not value hard work, but that the idea that hard work is directly related to good outcomes is one that has allowed privileged people to consolidate their power. Pope Francis asks, “In this perverse logic, why should they care about the damage done to their common home, if they feel securely shielded by the financial resources they have earned by their abilities and effort?”
Pope Francis’s theology is informed by his roots in Latin America, the place where Liberation Theology originated. Echoing Gustavo Gutiérrez, Pope Francis calls for a new paradigm for governance and a new ethics, both of which place the needs and well-being of the many ahead of the well-being of the elite. It is inadequate to continue to govern in a way that benefits and considers the needs of only those who already hold the power. The future of the planet and of humanity itself requires that we consider the needs of the poor and the many, those without power. Our interdependence on one another and on nature and our fellow creatures means that if one group suffers, all suffer. Nowhere is that dynamic more apparent than in the problem of climate change.
The letter closes with Pope Francis enjoining the international community to make COP28 an historic conference, which leads to an accelerated, binding energy transition with new mechanisms for efficiency, monitoring, and accountability. He cautions that such a transition must not rely on technology alone, but rather a change in the hearts of those in positions of power, to work for the common good and future of children, rather than the interests of those already in power. Laudate Deum reflects a Christian theology which is deeply practical and relevant to the way we conduct ourselves in the world, the way we relate to one another as creatures, and the inclination of humans to misuse power. These themes are not new, but represent a line of thinking some Christians in the United States have resisted: that the ethical and moral truths present in the biblical text support a paradigm of care for creatures at all levels, and that that ethic of care requires us to address the climate crisis with the urgency it requires
Presbyterians for Earth Care recently hosted a webinar discussing this encyclical and the recordings and PowerPoints can be seen here.
Learn more about COP and the PC(USA) here.
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