Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, Laudate Deum (‘Praise God’) was published on 4 October, the feast of St Francis of Assisi. Drawing extensively on his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home, the new document is a stark and heartfelt call for urgent practical action on climate change and is based on the premise that ‘when human beings claim to take God’s place, they become their own worst enemies.’
Though only about one-fifth the length of Laudato si’, the exhortation’s message is even more urgent, warning that the earth ‘may be nearing the breaking point’ and that ‘climate change is one of the principal challenges facing society and the global community.’
The text reiterates key messages that have resonated throughout Pope Francis’ papacy—among them, concern for the marginalised, care for creation, human ecology and a ‘synodal’ approach to resolving global problems.
With ‘the effects … borne by the most vulnerable people,’ the issue of climate change is ‘one intimately related to the dignity of human life,’ he says.
Addressed to ‘all people of good will,’ the exhortation declares that ‘it is no longer possible to doubt the human … origin of climate change,’ citing data from sources such as the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
While noting that ‘not every concrete catastrophe’ is due to global climate change, the pope says humans bear responsibility for specific changes that have led to ‘extreme phenomena’—such as storms, heat waves and flooding—that are ‘increasingly frequent and intense’.
He points to rapid, human-driven upticks in greenhouse gas emissions, which trap radiation from the sun in the earth’s atmosphere and warm the planet. The global average temperature—a metric that tracks changes in the earth’s surface temperature against long-term averages for a given location and date—has risen over the past 50 years in particular, at a rate that could approach the recommended ceiling of 1.5 degrees Celsius in just 10 years, says the pope.
That acceleration has a profound impact, causing dangerous shifts in climate and weather, with effects ultimately felt ‘in the areas of healthcare, sources of employment, access to resources, housing [and] forced migrations,’ Pope Francis says.
He challenges ‘resistance and confusion’ regarding climate change, ‘even within the Catholic Church’, stressing that ‘the overwhelming majority of scientists specializing in the climate’ support the correlation between global climate phenomena and spikes in greenhouse gas emissions.
Pope Francis says the planet itself has become a mirror of a deeply flawed view of human life and activity. Such a ‘technocratic paradigm’ (as he describes it in Laudato si’) exalts technological and economic power as sources of reality, goodness and truth, promising unlimited potential if methodically developed.
In recent years, that paradigm has advanced still further, with a goal of ‘(increasing) human power beyond anything imaginable, before which nonhuman reality is a mere resource at its disposal,’ he says.
Yet ‘not every increase in power represents progress for humanity,’ he says, especially since (as he writes in Laudato si’) ‘we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.’
The poor pay the highest price while inflicting the least damage on the planet, Pope Francis says, citing the United Nations Environment Programme’s 2022 Emissions Gap Report, which found that per capita greenhouse gas emissions of richer countries far exceed those of poorer ones.
The question of human power itself must be re-examined, and ‘human beings must be recognized as a part of nature,’ the pope says, stressing that ‘everything is connected’ and ‘no one is saved alone.’
Lamenting the ‘weakness of international politics’ in addressing climate change, Pope Francis draws on his 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti to call for a ‘reconfigured multilateralism’—one ‘not dependent on changing political conditions or the interests of a few’ but possessing a ‘stable efficacy’ that can resolve ‘the real problems of humanity’ by placing ‘the dignity of persons’ before all.
International climate conferences held over the past several decades have had mixed results, says Pope Francis, labelling some as ‘failures’ and others, such as the UN’s 1997 COP3 (Conference of the Parties 3) in Kyoto—which sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent by 2012—as noteworthy. While the Kyoto goal was not met, the 2015 COP21 in Paris marked ‘a new beginning’, says the pope, as it aimed to hold the increase of average global temperatures to under 2 and, eventually, 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine both hindered progress in tackling global warming, says Pope Francis.
He says COP28, set to take place from 30 November to 12 December in Dubai, will either prove to be a turning point for decisive action or ‘a great disappointment’ that imperils any progress made so far.
‘Binding forms of energy transition’ that are ‘efficient, obligatory and readily monitored’ are essential, says Pope Francis, given that ‘the necessary transition towards clean energy sources such as wind and solar energy, and the abandonment of fossil fuels, is not progressing at the necessary speed.’
The pope invites Catholics and those of other faiths to recall their ‘spiritual motivations’ for addressing the climate crisis, asking ‘everyone to accompany this pilgrimage of reconciliation with the world that is our home and to help make it more beautiful, because that commitment has to do with our personal dignity and highest values.’
Humility is essential in this journey, he says, ‘for when human beings claim to take God’s place they become their own worst enemies.’
Melbourne Catholic12 September 2023
Fiona Basile16 May 2023